Sidney Lumet made the masterpieces for which he’ll always be remembered in the seventies, the most director-driven period of American history. Before the trifecta of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Lumet was best known for his classic, 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men, an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s play, which earned three Academy Award nominations and set the stage for Lumet continuing to adapt great works of theatre throughout the sixties.
Lumet tackled Eugene O’Neill twice with The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as well as Ray Rigby’s The Hill and Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Lumet’s literary bent during this decade also saw him bring five novels to the screen, most well regarded among them, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe, as well as Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Wallace Markfield’s Bye Bye Braverman and The Deadly Affair by John le Carré, which is surely ripe for re-discovery now, given the award-winning contemporary popularity of le Carré on film with The Constant Gardner, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the upcoming A Most Wanted Man, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who headlined the ensemble of Lumet’s last film as a director, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead prior to his death in 2011.
Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker was the first of this cycle of literary adaptations in 1964, not altogether forgotten (Rod Steiger received an Oscar nomination for his performance), but certainly not the film that’s likely to come up in conversation if you ask a fellow cinéaste for their top five Lumet films. Most likely this is due to it being the bleakest of character studies; a sobering examination of personal disintegration, and how the ephemeral and inconceivable traumas of the past can, over time, accumulate in the mind’s eye so intensely, they distort a corrective view of the present and hold us captive there. It’s a suffocating, heavy shroud of a film, whose precious few moments of entertainment lie in the enthralling oratory of Steiger, whenever his poker-faced pawnbroker gets pissed off enough to condemn humanity in a thunderously critical and acerbic sermon.
Sol Nazerman (Steiger) is a survivor of a WWII Nazi death camp where he saw his entire family exterminated (even his surname bears the mark of his experience). Now living in Long Island with the wife of a dear friend who also met his end in the camp, he is not only plagued by survivor’s guilt, but from his deathbed, the wife’s father reminds Sol daily of the guilt he should feel about shacking up with his best friend’s woman. To get out from under that, he occasionally visits his sister’s completely suburbanised family, whom he finds he has little patience for and who in turn, seem to have done everything they can to forget what Sol endured in the war.
Even if they were interested, Sol would be unable to share. What he witnessed in Germany is unutterable, yet visions of those horrors continue to haunt his daily life as a pawnbroker in New York City. The film is set in Harlem, but the location of this story is Sol’s memories and imagination, a phantasmagoria which transforms a subway car into a train full of people being transported to the camps, powerful enough that the mere sight of a prostitute bearing herself evokes the image of his wife, just before she was raped by Nazi officers.
Walking home one night, Sol hears the barking of dogs and sees a man being knifed as he tries to scramble over a playground fence, reminding him of his friend being hounded by dogs as he tried to escape the camp by hopping the fence. Just like the stabbing, these shards of memory rhythmically stab Sol’s conscious, editor Ralph Rosenblum inserting abrasive flashes of the past in the present, growing into lucid nightmares which then consume it. The act of remembering is as violently unpleasant as the memories themselves, and over the course of the film, the way this depressive technique is used to grind the protagonist down is the closest Lumet ever came to making something comparable to the work of Lars Von Trier.
For his previous role in Hands Over the City, Rod Steiger played a demonstrative politician with a larger than life presentational aspect, corrupted by the power he wielded over the world around him. Sol is the complete opposite, an inexpressive, shriveled man cut off from anything not in his own head and cowed by the abuse of bullying authority. Like those before him with no land to call their own and only a bearded legend to believe in, he’s a Jew fulfilling his destiny, a spiritless man in a spiritual wasteland, ennobled by his own acute sense of tragedy. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who also shot On the Waterfront with Steiger) lends a stark, gritty beauty to the New York streets, ash-grey imagery evoking a forsaken landscape and people, at whom Sol broods through his spectacles like the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg passing judgement over the valley of ashes in Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, though here in this never-ending nightmare, there’s no place for American dreams.
With his customers, Sol affects the same kind of detached judgement, presiding fatalistically over their pleas for more money, knowing what little good it would do them (“You pawn something to buy something to pawn something else”). Always thinking the worst of everyone, he’s a hard man who doesn’t barter, setting a price always way under what people expect and rarely over $2. A misanthrope self-hatingly embracing his reputation as an uncompromising ‘kike’, instead of seeking revenge for what was done to him, Sol re-directs that anger back at himself and does his best to bottle it up.
Sol’s escape from emotion means other people too, so when one of his customers (Geraldine Fitzgerald) takes a romantic interest in him, he tells her in no uncertain terms to stay out of his life. Shown frequently behind bars within the cramped confines of his shop, Sol is the prisoner of feelings he needs to unload on someone, Steiger effectively expressing how difficult it is to escape that kind of rage without a sensitive ear.
Steiger is simply superb as a simmering, internalised personality prone to quick bursts of temper in extreme moments, and the way in which the camera bears steady, tender witness to those moments without accentuating the madness is credit to Lumet, who masterfully manages to show obsession without being obsessive.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on May 2, 2014