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With: Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sánchez, Thelma Oliver, Marketa Kimbrell, Baruch Lumet, Juano Hernández, Linda Geiser, Nancy R. Pollock, Raymond St. Jacques
Written by: Morton S. Fine, David Friedkin, based on a novel by Edward Lewis Wallant
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 116
Date: 04/20/1965

The Pawnbroker (1964)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Money Without Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker was a prize movie in its time, designed to win accolades from critics and awards organizations, or "Oscar bait," as it's known today. Most of the awards -- and the film's only Oscar nomination -- went to Rod Steiger for his showy, agonized performance.

Certainly the movie has some things going for it, including the stark, full-blooded cinematography by the legendary Boris Kaufman, who had shot Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), as well as the feverish jazz score by Quincy Jones. But the movie is so grim, depressing, and pretentious that it's difficult to watch, even with these treats to help out.

Steiger plays Sol Nazerman -- is his name meant to evoke the word "Nazi"? -- a Holocaust survivor who runs a Harlem pawnshop. He's a survivor in body only. Otherwise, he's solemn and shut down, except when he gives the odd depressing speech about money being the only important thing. We see some slow-motion, silent flashbacks to his happier days with a wife and kids, and now he lives with some relatives (Cousins? Nieces or nephews?) in a kind of soulless suburban hell. Most of the movie takes place in the pawnshop, with a parade of empty-eyed, pleading denizens coming in with their cherished (or stolen) items, only to receive a tiny fraction of what they had hoped. But nobody ever refuses.

He has an upbeat Puerto Rican, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez), working for him, and Jesus seems to care about Sol and is interested in listening to him and learning from him, but Sol couldn't care less about Jesus. Also, inexplicably, a lonely neighborhood woman, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), persistently tries to ask him out for a lunch date, even though there's nothing remotely friendly or attractive about him. Then there's a racketeer, Rodriguez (Brock Peters), who uses the pawnshop as a laundering service, and keeps threatening Sol to sign some papers.

That's about it, except that Jesus somehow decides to rob the pawnshop and brings in three thugs to do it, and of course, this is saved for the climax, and of course something goes terribly wrong. The movie was inspired by the French New Wave films, especially those by Alain Resnais, but also incorporates religious imagery, such as when Sol punctures his hand on a paper holder.

Lumet gives this material such a stern tone that you may feel you're being punished just for being alive and watching it. It's also filled with quick, '60s-style lightning fast flashbacks, triggering a headache to go with the brow-beating. Despite all this, and despite negative reviews from Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, The Pawnbroker turned a profit; its tagline was "The Most Talked About Picture!"

Incidentally, this was one of the first Hollywood films to show female nudity under the production code; the censors apparently passed the movie due to its important subject matter. The Library of Congress added the film to its National Film Registry in 2008. Morgan Freeman was apparently an extra on the street.

Olive Films gave the film its official Blu-ray release in 2014, highlighting Kaufman's cinematography and Jones's score.

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