The Pawnbroker

Directed by Sidney Lumet

A few years ago I was talking about movies with a few friends and we began discussing our favorite “eras” of filmmaking. Loyal reader and resident Man of Reason Dan M. mentioned that the early Sixties (I hope I’m remembering this conversation accurately) produced many of his favorite movies because this was the time when so many directors were perfectly straddling the line between the style of classical Hollywood films and European art cinema. It’s a period I was very unfamiliar with at the time (and still am), so I appreciated it only in the sense that it sounded reasonable and intelligent enough, but I had not seen enough to fully judge the merit of his argument. However, after watching The Pawnbroker, I believe I have begun to grasp what he was trying to say.

The Pawnbroker is a character study of a Holocaust survivor (Sol, played wonderfully by Rod Steiger) running a pawn shop in Harlem during the early Sixties. In many ways it is a ghost story, as the sights and sounds of New York City constantly evoke memories of the trauma of his experience as a concentration camp prisoner. These horrific images of the past are first exposed in flash cuts as he gazes upon some modern setting, but gradually linger on the screen longer until we see a fuller look at his nightmare.

For example, at one point in the film we see Sol on a subway car gazing at various commuters.

First in flashes and then in a sustained sequence, we soon see this car transposed over by a Nazi train car packed with Jewish prisoners on the way to the camps.

Sol is haunted by his past to the extent that he shuts himself off from the modern world and looks at its sufferers with contempt. What do these people have to complain about? They never experienced seeing their friends murdered by Nazi guards or their wives being forced into a joy division. This is the real genius of the film, as the viewer initially sympathizes with Sol, but then gradually realizes along with him that his relentless dehumanization of his neighbors and their troubles makes him no better than the Nazi ghosts from which he cannot escape. In this way, the film takes a mature view of the Holocaust and the lingering pain of its survivors, but also delivers a larger message about the harm transferring our pain can have on the people trying to get close to us.

I think Dan’s argument (and I am sure he will correct me in the comments if I am wrong) could be summed up by saying that the early Sixties were the first time when Hollywood began to treats its audience like adults. The Pawnbroker is a perfect example of this, as we take a dramatic story that certainly could have found a place in a movie made fifteen years earlier, but adds sophisticated looks at poverty, sex, drug addiction, and crime that would have never been dealt with in such a frank way at that time. It also features a morally confused protagonist anti-hero, which would become more and more prevalent until becoming commonplace in the Seventies. This respect for the audience may be Sidney Lumet’s greatest asset, as anyone familiar with masterpieces such as Dog Day Afternoon and Network would attest to. While the old saying that nobody has gone broke underestimating the intelligence is certainly true, artists like Lumet or, to choose a more contemporary artist,* Christopher Nolan are always there to remind us that success smiles upon those who dare to treat their audience with respect, as well.

*Do not interpret this as a dismissal of Lumet’s modern work. The man directed the solid Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007 and, while he does not appear to have a film in the pipeline, he is still alive and, presumably, kicking at the age of 86.

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We have only four days left! The last entries will include a romantic reader request, a glance at hate crimes (maybe), an epic and personal look at WWII, and a massively overdue look at a box office titan. We also have a special bonus collaboration between reader favorite Meeks and myself. As always, thanks for reading.