What Changed for Our Protagonist in ‘The Pawnbroker’?

[6 May 2014]

By Brad Cook

The Pawnbroker may not be as well-remembered as many of director Sidney Lumet’s other films, including Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Network, and other classics, but it’s a film worth revisiting, especially as time marches on and the horror of the Holocaust slowly recedes into history.

This black-and-white movie opens on an idyllic scene somewhere in Europe. A family enjoys themselves as a mother gathers water from a stream, elders relax, and children frolic. A father approaches to gather the kids in his arms. The scene plays in slow motion without dialogue against a wistful score full of strings and a flute, and then an unseen menace causes the father to stop in his tracks.

Fast forward to the present day, a New York City suburb in the early ‘60s. That father, Sol Nazerman, now lives with his sister and her family; we can only assume that his family was lost all those years ago. He owns a pawnshop in Harlem, and every day he sees a parade of locals desperate to pawn a couple of their prized belongings for a few dollars. The store operates as a front for a racketeer named Rodriguez, and Nazerman employs a young man, Jesus, who always lives on the perilous border between a life of crime and the straight-and-narrow.

One day, a woman named Marilyn enters the store seeking sponsorship for the people she helps in her job as a social worker. Nazerman treats her as he treats everyone else, with cold indifference, but he gives her a couple dollars and sends her on her way. His world view is summed up later when he tells Jesus, “I do not believe in God, or art, or science, or newspapers, or politics, or philosophy.” When his young employee asks what he believes in, Nazerman flatly replies, “Money.”

However, when an important date appears on the shop calendar and he forbids Jesus to change it, we see what led this man to practically become a walking corpse. Through a series of flashbacks interspersed with Nazerman’s current life, we learn that he and his family were taken to a Nazi concentration camp, where everyone died except him.

While this date is clearly an anniversary he has endured before, this is its 25th occurrence, and this time it’s accompanied by memories he long sought to suppress. Soon he is nearly driven to the brink of a breakdown, and Rodriguez pushes him even closer to the edge by demanding he sign some papers. (It’s never clear what they’re for, but Nazerman obviously does not want to sign them.)

Rodriguez employs the help of Jesus to apply leverage on Nazerman, who inches closer to Marilyn by arranging a lunchtime date with her, only to push her away with the declaration: “Please, stay out of my life.” He returns to her again some days later, after wandering the city in a state of despair, but once more he rejects her advances.

Returning to the pawnshop, though, Nazerman has an epiphany while confronting the last of his Holocaust memories. He emerges onto the city streets a changed man, and he reopens his store with a new outlook, no longer nickel-and-diming his customers but giving them more than they asked for their belongings and cutting his prices for items they want. However, it’s not clear why that particular memory has sparked his change of heart.

Jesus, seeking to apply Nazerman’s earlier lesson that everything is about money, is appalled by this and tries to override his boss’s decisions. Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s deadline for having the papers signed arrives, and he and a couple of heavies pay Nazerman a visit. Jesus intervenes, with tragic consequences, and the story concludes with a muddled sense of exactly how Nazerman changed: Is the lesson that Nazerman could not adopt a brighter outlook without another tragedy occurring in his life? And how did his confrontation of his memories change him, other than by simply remembering what happened to his family 25 years ago?

It’s a weak ending to a strong story, but perhaps it’s best to view the film in the context of its time, when filmmakers such as Lumet were influenced by the French New Wave. The movies of Godard, Truffaut, and others did not always emphasize happy endings, and often their protagonists were troubled iconoclasts who did not always change by the time the closing credits rolled. Oftentimes, as in life, there is no neat-and-tidy resolution, but in this case, since a change is shown, I would have liked to see a stronger case made for why it happens.

Amazingly, The Pawnbroker was released in 1965, 20 years after the end of World War II, but it was one of the first studio films to deal with the reality of the concentration camps. And even then, those scenes will feel sanitized to those who have seen Schindler’s List and other more recent Holocaust films before viewing this one. However, one must realize that this was because the Production Code was in effect at the time, and the kind of raw images we see today were simply not allowed then.

In fact, the movie’s brief use of nudity, which is not at all titillating, was considered scandalous at the time but the Motion Picture Association of America granted an exception when the producers lobbied for one. That’s the kind of restrictive environment Lumet and his peers found themselves in during the early ‘60s, but they were just several years away from the Production Code being tossed away in favor of the ratings system we have today.

Unfortunately, none of this interesting historical context can be learned from this Blu-ray, since it’s a bare bones release sans extras. I realize that small companies like Olive Films don’t have much money to spend on their releases, but it would have been nice to have something on this disc, even just a commentary track from a film scholar.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181278-the-pawnbroker/