Over the past 40 years, Sidney Lumet has directed classics such as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, works that overshadow the rest of his 41-film career. The Pawnbroker is overlooked now, despite exploring some of the themes that would define Lumet's later, more recognized films.
Reviewed by Trae Stanley, Fri., March 7, 2003
THE PAWNBROKER (1964)
D: Sidney Lumet; with Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sánchez, Thelma Oliver, Marketa Kimbrell.
Over the past 40 years, Sidney Lumet has directed classics such as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, works that overshadow the rest of his 41-film career. The Pawnbroker is overlooked now, despite exploring some of the themes that would define Lumet's later, more recognized films, including New York City life and characters whose internal conflicts mirror their external ones. At the center of Lumet's films are extraordinary performances, and Rod Steiger was recognized for his in The Pawnbroker with an Academy Award nomination. The Pawnbroker is really about feelings -- specifically, Sol Nazerman's (Steiger) ability to reconnect with his own. For 25 years he has buried all of his feelings, along with the traumas endured in a WWII concentration camp. Sol confines himself to his Harlem pawnshop, run as a front for a local gangster in exchange for Sol and his extended family's lifestyle. An old friend's death, an interested social worker, and the ambitions of an employee, however, force Sol to acknowledge his humanity again. This is where Steiger delivers his method-acting goods. Steiger's style works best when acting off of the other characters, most especially in a scene in which a local prostitute shows off her body to the crumbling Sol. The prostitute transports Sol back to 1944 Germany and visions of his humiliated wife. Steiger's face wraps in pain, and the prostitute looks back, her sad face juxtaposed with his wife's, his split-second, harrowing memories interrupting our view of the naked, fragile prostitute. Visually, Lumet's use of gritty black-and-white realism to locate the story is also powerful. From the sidewalk vendors and Harlem hangouts to Lumet's presentation of a multiracial society (progressive even now), this NYC appears to be a place where all types are thrown together, where Sol's struggles are matched by those of his neighbors.