Tim here. Ordinarily, I take this space to talk about animation, but with it being 1964 Month at the Film Experience, I wanted to go someplace else – not least because the state of animation in 1964 was not terribly exciting, unless you’re one of those people for whom a semicentennial tribute to Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear sounds like the absolute best conversation we could be having.
Instead, I’d like to use this bully pulpit to call attention to one of my perpetual favorite picks for Hugely Underrated American Film Masterpiece You All Need to Have Seen, Like, Yesterday: The Pawnbroker, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Rod Steiger, who received an Oscar nomination. It premiered 50 years ago this very month, in competition at the 14th Berlin International Film Festival (they festival’ed differently in those days), not premiering until the following year in the States due to its nudity and generally sour tone. A half of a century has, beyond question, blunted the impact of the movie’s most boundary-pushing elements (not least being the fact that naked women have become so blandly normalized in mainstream film, a development this very movie did a tremendous amount to encourage), and even its then-unprecedented engagement with the Holocaust, including the first scene in an American film set in a concentration camp, feels a little quaint today.
But the grime of humanity isn’t so easily wiped away, and Steiger’s devastatingly committed performance – it’s the best thing he ever did, I’d say, though I’m admittedly dubious about Steiger as often as not – is still a raging powerhouse of human torment. Lord knows The Pawnbroker isn’t any fun, but it’s moving and visceral like few films then or now would dare to be.
The scenario is simple and bleak enough: Steiger plays Sol Nagerman, a Jewish man who moved to New York after having his soul shattered in the Nazi camps during the war. Now operating a pawn shop in one of the dingiest corners of Harlem, he is full of deadened rage against all of humanity: the local Puerto Rican kid (Jaime Sánchez) and the nice gentile social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who are more or less the only people that try to reach out to him are coldly rebuffed, while he tries to remain as remote and detached as he possibly can. This ends in predictable tragedy: social dramas in the ‘60s, particularly those butting head-on with the Great Nightmare of the 20th Century that was the Holocaust, aren’t about to go around handing out happy endings.
Far more than its justified but hardly outrageous nudity, it’s the film’s unrelentingly harsh tone that makes it feel like such a nasty piece of work today, though also an honest one. In these days when the Holocaust is too easily shanghaied into serving as the backdrop for somberly sentimental tripe with awards gold on its mind, it’s no less jarring than I imagine it must have been in ’64 to encounter a movie that states with such savageness, “this was a horrible event and it did horrible things to the psyches of those who managed to survive it”. Steiger’s performance of Nagerman’s post-traumatic emptiness, and the slow flicker by which he regains his humanity and compassion for other people is even more unsparing than the script. Asking for neither sympathy nor understanding, Steiger presents a very raw portrait of emotional wounds that remains, to me, one of the great pieces of psychological realism of that entire decade of screen acting.
The film around him is hardly less realistic or severe: Lumet, I often think, might have been the single best director of New York stories that the movies ever knew, and The Pawnbroker is one of his starkest portrayals of the city. He understood the ugly, rancid holes of the slums and the downtrodden people, and was willing to depict them with a hard, harsh glare, ending in the kind of criticisms that could only be made by somebody who really knew and understood a place. Working with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, whose black and white photography verges on noir with all of the cruelty and none of the beauty, and composer Quincy Jones, providing a loud, energetic, jarring jazz-derived score, Lumet’s portrait of the city is harsh enough to lend some credence to Nagerman’s misanthropy, while alive and organic enough to implicitly show how he’s wrong. It captures the city with an immediate, documentary air, showcasing its dirt and humanity for good and for worse, and it’s a remarkable backdrop and counterpoint to the protagonist’s own mental state.
I repeat myself: it isn’t any fun. It’s a harsh story of a bleak life filmed without an ounce of romanticism. But my God, but it’s powerful, honest stuff: and though the film has always been a favorite of this critic or that, it’s never had anything like the broad audience that a classic of its stature deserves. It’s the most unfairly overlooked film of 1964, and as worthy of attention as any of the canonical masterpieces from that well-stocked year.