Monday, April 28, 2014

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Holocaust during World War II was one of the worst chapters in the history of mankind. There were atrocities of the most heinous sort. Scores of Jewish families were wiped out by the Nazis, and tortured most brutally in the process. The genocide was so ruthless, it beggars the imagination to even think that humans were capable of such things. It is an event that still continues to haunt the entire world. Some Jews managed to survive this nightmare. Well, technically at least; for they did not die at the hands of the Nazis. But the damage done to their spirits was irrecoverable. The incident scarred them for life and they ceased to be the human beings they once were.

Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker" (1964) tells the story of one such survivor. Sol Nazerman is a middle-aged, broken man who came back alive from the terrible tragedy that shamed the world. He now runs a small pawn shop in East Harlem. He is practically a walking dead, though. A joyless, desensitized individual, a misanthrope who is only living for the basics of food and shelter. Humanity and God mean nothing to him now. A hardened cynic, he rejects any friendship or camaraderie that is attempted by those around him. Although they all fondly call him "Uncle", he rarely ever looks his patrons in the eye or engages in small talk. He has regular visitors including one particular rambler who comes looking for someone to talk to but is always rebuffed and driven away, for Nazerman wouldn't entertain anyone who doesn't have anything to pawn. Others come for compassion or fellow human warmth but they have no place in this pawn shop. 

Nazerman has a junior assistant with him, a Hispanic by the name of Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) who appears to have been involved with some hoodlums in the past but is now trying to go clean. He is very ambitious and flamboyant and wants to be a protege under Nazerman to possibly learn some tricks of the trade. Nazerman however is mostly very rude to him barring a couple of occasions when he genuinely teaches him something. 

Every once in a while Nazerman visits the wife of a friend who died in the concentration camps. He supports her financially and has physical relations with her. However, even this arrangement and a female company doesn't seem to bring Nazerman any joy, partly because the woman's bedridden, cantankerous old father Mendel (Baruch Lumet) does not approve. He attacks Nazerman verbally and asks him "Does blood ever flow through you, Sol Nazerman?" 

It is a wonder that despite such difficult behaviour, Nazerman still has people like kindly Miss Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), another lonely soul who tries to come close to him but is bluntly told to the face to stay out of his life! Then there are other problematic individuals he has to deal with, like the mobster Rodriguez (Brock Peters) who uses the pawn shop as a front to run his nefarious activities. 

Nazerman goes on through this kind of nihilistic existence on a daily basis and his motto seems to be to purge himself of any kind of emotion as a means to get over the trauma that affected him in those years. "I have escaped from the emotions", he says to Miss Birchfield as he asks her to stay out his life! Tormented by memories of helplessness and guilt, and to save himself from a lifelong depression, Nazerman has carved himself out to be a hard-hearted man, devoid of any shred of humanity, over the years, on the other side of the camps. In a scene that would make the viewer almost hate Nazerman, the old father of the widow (Marketa Kimbrell) he visits, dies and she turns to him for help asking him what she should do. A merciless Nazerman snaps back, " bury him. There's nothing else you can do. You want me to come cry with you?"

Lumet's film is a searing character sketch of a man trying hard to stay detached from society but one whose repressed humanity eventually gets the better of him. This is a man so devastated by his past that he chooses to go the other extreme and build a wall around himself; a wall of total detachment, that would protect him from softening! Such a conflicted and complex character couldn't have been portrayed more accurately and we have Rod Steiger's towering performance to thank for this. Nazerman becomes aware that it is not humanly possible to cease to be human. And hence, despite his icy cold demeanor towards almost everyone including the visitors to his shop, those flashes of his nightmarish past keep coming back to him.

In a bizarre editing technique inspired from the French New Wave, we see fraction-of-a-second flashback scenes of the horrors faced by Nazerman in the concentration camps. These flashes are disorienting for the viewer, but they perhaps emphasize Nazerman's attempts at ridding himself of these memories. They appear, but he wants them to disappear in a flash. He is trying to leave that horrid past behind. These split second frames later evolve into longer scenes, ones that are pertinent to showcase the increasing conflict of Nazerman with his own soul towards the latter half of the film, when a turn of events sees him desperately trying to save his stone exterior from eroding away to expose his softer side. Also notable about the editing is how some occurrences in the present remind Nazerman of some disturbing happenings in the past. The scenes flash back and forth rapidly, like a flip book. For instance, when a weeping, possibly heartbroken girl comes to pawn her ring and shows Nazerman the back of her hand, he is reminded of how rings were taken away from the fingers of fellow prisoners in the concentration camps.

While the film is heavily intense with gripping portions of heightened drama and some seriously crushing moments, it could've done without the highly inappropriate jazz score by Quincy Jones. Moreover, there are some awfully stagey acts by some of the supporting cast, most importantly Jaime Sánchez who sometimes irritates with his over-the-top performance and stilted delivery. But it is bits with him and his prostitute girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) that provide some of the greatest acting moments for Steiger as he holds our attention with his angry monologues with some snapping dialog and theatrics that are powerful to say the least.

Where the script falters is when they try to intersperse a heist subplot almost randomly over an outburst between Jesus and Nazerman. "The Pawnbroker" could've done without these unnecessary developments that lead to a cliched, violent denouement that you very well see coming. The film just needed to be what it intended to be; a character study of a detached man forced to face his human side owing to all the warmth and misery around him. For this aspect and for Rod Steiger's bravura act, this overlooked and forgotten Sidney Lumet classic deserves to be watched.

Score: 8/10

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