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Friday, January 22, 2016

The Pawnbroker

I mentioned earlier that Lee Marvin won the Oscar for 1965 for his broad comic performance in Cat Ballou. No disrespect to Marvin, but I wonder how he beat Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker, who gives a fantastic performance, the kind that Academy members usually eat up.

Steiger plays Mr. Nazerman, who is runs a pawn shop in Harlem. He is a holocaust survivor, but lost his wife and children and is now just going through the motions. He is unmoved by his customers sob stories, and regards most of them as "scum." His employee (Jaime Sanchez) is eager to learn the business, but Nazerman doesn't pay him much attention. He spurns everyone, including a neighborhood social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald).

His shop is a front for a local racketeer (Brock Peters). But when Steiger finds out that Peters' business is primarily prostitution (frankly, that's a bit naive on his part) he wants out, which is a dangerous move. Sanchez, angry that Steiger has rejected him as a surrogate son, helps a local gang plan a robbery. The tragedy that results leads to the film's most famous scene--Steiger's silent scream of agony.

The Pawnbroker was directed by Sidney Lumet (after it was turned down by Stanley Kubrick and Franco Zefferelli, and Arthur Hiller was fired), who had a way of making New York City look seamy. These mean streets are not romanticized one bit, and the black and white photography does not hide the grime. The film has many almost subliminal cuts, as Steiger flashes back to scenes in the camps, or on the train to them, when people were stacked like cattle. It was also the first film under the production code that featured female nudity, as Steiger is propositioned by a prostitute, which makes him recall watching his wife raped by Nazis.

This is a powerful film, if a bit dated. In context, one must realize it was one of the first to tackle the holocaust. In some ways, it reminded me of a much more recent film, The Visitor, which is also about a man awakened from a spiritual kind of death.

A couple of interesting casting notes: it was Morgan Freeman's film debut, and Groucho Marx was interested in playing the lead.

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