Film

What Changed for Our Protagonist in 'The Pawnbroker'?

The Pawnbroker remains an important work, especially as one of the first major studio films to explore the Holocaust.


The Pawnbroker

Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jamie Sanchez
Distributor: Olive
Release date: 2014-04-22

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.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image