Sol Nazerman is dead. . . He earns a living as a pawnbroker, walks the streets, tolerates his cloying relatives, puts up with the constant degradations hurled upon him by a bitter old man, and accepts the front money of a self-promoting egotistical gangster. Yet, 'Solly' (Rod Steiger) is dead for all intents and purposes. He's walking a fine line between the here and now and memories of the ghosts that are haunting his present. There is no future for him other than waiting for death to knock at his door.
He stumbles through the semblance of life as he knows it; numb to the machinations of a world that has gone on without him, but not for lack of trying to pull him with it. He's a 'survivor' of the Holocaust that turned Europe into a graveyard with the culmination of WWII. Nazerman had been a professor in Germany, living what for all intents and purposes, seemed to be an idyllic life; a wife and two children and grandparents to complete this circle of life. Before long, the long arm of the Nazi reached out and grabbed Jews across the length and breath of the continent, forcing them into concentration camps that abused, debased and executed its base of cheap labour and experimentation when the mood struck them.
Fast forward twenty-five years later to New York City, where Sol operates a pawnshop that caters to the downtrodden of the neighbourhood -- drug addicts, old people desperate for companionship and some friendly talk, carefree spirits who see life as a series of adventures, and pitiful souls who believed lies told to them all too late. Their paths have all taken them to the caged counter of Nazerman's Pawnshop where their comments and pleas for just a 'little more money' are brushed aside with a mind numbing clarity of conviction by Sol as he goes through the motions of a calibrated life that takes nothing for granted and manicures a precise rhyme and reason to its' being.
Enter Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) into this mixture as Sol's eager to learn assistant. He's has answered Nazerman's ad in the paper, with reassurances to his mother (Eusebia Cosme) that his life is petty crime is behind him and that he is now turning over a new leaf. He's life on adrenaline; a hot shot who now sees himself as an entrepreneur who will one day own his own shop. What he has not banked on, though, is the iceman who will teach him the trade, but allow him no admission into his world as an enigma that refuses to be solved.
The person making all of this paralytic world possible is Rodriguez (Brock Peters), who is the kingpin of an empire that includes 'whorehouses, parking lots, cleaners' and a multitude of other confections that allow him to live a life that would have normally not been of his station in life. He pulls the strings that orchestrate a great many people to his beck and call.
Into this fray appears a social worker, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who ventures an undertaking of mammoth proportions -- bringing Sol Nazerman back to the world of the living and away from his personal purgatory. Her kindness is met with rude enthusiasm by Sol, as he wields the words that are guaranteed to wound and belittle the receiver. Sol has no time for good intentions, sympathy, tact, a friendly shoulder or ears to listen to, what for him is, weaknesses not to be tolerated or entreated entrance to.
His life will change, of that there can be no doubt. But in his sliding descent he will pull many facets with him into a black abyss that will spin and spin, much as his world has done all these many years.
Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman is electrically charged. The caustic inflexibility of Sol runs in tandem with a man devoid of emotions, who begs for death to release him from an existence that has become his cross to bear. Steiger was nominated for Best Actor by Oscar in this role. Judge for yourself and see just why. . .
Reliable Brock Peters as the oiled and sleazy gangster, putting on airs and manners that lend support to the old axiom, 'a wolf in sheep's clothing,' is a joy to behold as he holds his precious minutes of screen time as an old master holds his paintbrushes. Perfection!
Jaime Sanchez, the kid with stars in his eyes, dreams on his sleeves and a joie de vivre that is infectious, radiates and mystifies. The raw enthusiasm of his talent is so very apparent here. When Sol brushes him aside, like a dog away from its' master, the hurt and anger in his eyes glows like a white hot ember.
The Pawnbroker was directed by Sidney Lumet in typical Lumet fashion -- straight forward, with a minimum of fanfare, and a great deal of intellectual mind searching into the why's and why not's of life as it is presented.
Cinematography by Boris Kaufman is exquisite and like an artist, he etches his stone with a grittiness that permeates the screen with shadows that enter and exit with expressions of life, worn and frazzled at the sleeves, but with beams of hope intoned into a well worn complexion. His masterful eye brings to mind his work in On The Waterfront, for which he won and Oscar.
Music by Quincy Jones evokes the beat of New York with tempos of blase elegance whipped into a frenzy of decisions that are checked and balanced much as the heart beats with purpose aforethought.
The Pawnbroker was one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the subject of the Holocaust in a true and unremitting fashion. Instead of simply relating that Sol has lost his family in that great wind, we are given flashbacks aplenty as scenes from his present life mirror those from years past. We are not given a sanitized version of what he as a survivor has had to endure. We are not necessarily subjected to the bloody wantonness of his loss, but the implications are all there. He's a mere shell, cursing God for each morning that he makes through another night.
The theme of this film, so aptly penned by John Donne is that 'no man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent.' Sol Nazerman, in his own twilight zone, learns too late the error of his ways and the lives that his isolationist attitude will affect with tragic results.
Take the journey down this road that is fraught with bumps in it. Walk in the shoes of a mere shell of a man as he implodes to a path of anonymity of his own choosing and design. You won't be disappointed.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.