The Pawnbroker is a 1964 American drama film directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters and Jaime Sánchez.
A Jewish pawnbroker, victim of Nazi persecution, loses all faith in his fellow man until he realises too late the tragedy of his actions.
The screenplay was an adaptation by Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin from the novel of the same name by Edward Lewis Wallant.
In Nazi Germany, Sol Nazerman, a German-Jewish university professor, is sent to a concentration camp along with his family. He witnesses his two children die and his wife raped by Nazi officers before she dies.
Twenty-five years later, Nazerman is haunted by his memories. He operates a pawnshop in an East Harlem slum while living in an anonymous Long Island housing tract with his second wife and her father, who are also Holocaust survivors. Numbed and alienated by his experiences, he has trained himself not to show emotion. He describes himself as beyond bitter, viewing the poor people around him as “scum” and “rejects.” He acts uninterested and cynical towards his desperate customers and gives them much less than their pawned goods are worth.
Nazerman is idolized by Jesus Ortiz, an ambitious young Puerto Rican who lives with his mother and works for Nazerman as his shop assistant. Ortiz’s girlfriend is a prostitute who works for Rodriguez, a racketeer who uses the pawnshop as a front. After hours, Nazerman teaches Ortiz about precious metal appraisal and money, the only thing he still values. Ortiz refers to Nazerman as his “teacher” but his attempts at friendship are rebuffed. Nazerman is also pursued by Marilyn Birchfield, a neighbourhood social worker who wants to get to know him better, but he keeps her at arm’s length. When his father-in-law dies, he offers his wife no sympathy.
Ortiz’s girlfriend tries to pawn jewellry to help fund his plan to open a shop, and she offers her body to Nazerman to make more money, but he rejects her. When she tells him she works for Rodriguez, he realizes that Rodriguez owes much of his wealth to the brothels he owns and runs. Nazerman recalls his wife’s degradation and tells Rodriguez he no longer wants to do business with him. He also tells Ortiz that Ortiz means nothing to him. Crushed by the comment, Ortiz arranges for the pawnshop to be robbed by a neighbourhood gang led by Tangee. Meanwhile, Rodriguez and a henchman visit the pawnshop, beating and threatening to kill Nazerman when he refuses to cooperate. In his suicidal despair, he tells them to kill him. Rodriguez promises him that he will die soon.
During the robbery by Tangee’s gang, Nazerman refuses to hand over his money. A member of the gang pulls a gun and, in trying to save Nazerman, Ortiz is shot. The gang flees and Ortiz drags himself out onto the street. Nazerman stumbles out of his shop and silently sobs while Ortiz dies. Ortiz’s body is taken away by ambulance and Nazerman goes back inside. He impales his hand on a receipt spike before wandering away from the shop.
- Rod Steiger – Sol Nazerman.
- Geraldine Fitzgerald – Marilyn Birchfield.
- Brock Peters – Rodriguez.
- Jaime Sánchez – Jesus Ortiz.
- Thelma Oliver – Ortiz’s girl.
- Eusebia Cosme – Mrs. Ortiz (Jesus’ mother).
- Marketa Kimbrell – Tessie.
- Baruch Lumet – Mendel.
- Juano Hernández – Mr. Smith.
- Linda Geiser – Ruth Nazerman.
- Nancy R. Pollock – Bertha.
- Raymond St. Jacques – Tangee.
- Charles Dierkop – Robinson.
The film initially was considered for production in London, in order to take advantage of financial incentives then available for filmmakers.
Directors Stanley Kubrick, Karel Reisz and Franco Zeffirelli turned down the project. Kubrick said he thought Steiger was not “all that exciting.” Reisz, whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust, said that for “deep, personal” reasons he “could not objectively associate himself with any subject which has a background of concentration camps.” Zeffirelli, then a stage director, was anxious to direct a film, but said that The Pawnbroker was “not the kind of subject [he] would wish to direct, certainly not as his first Anglo-American venture.”
Steiger became involved in the project in 1962, a year after the Wallant novel was published, and was involved in an early reworking of the film’s script. He received $50,000 for his performance, far lower than his usual rate, because he trusted Lumet, with whom he had worked on television in the series You Are There.
Lumet, who took over the film after Arthur Hiller was fired, initially had misgivings about Steiger being cast in the lead role. He felt that Steiger “was a rather tasteless actor—awfully talented, but completely tasteless in his choices.” Lumet preferred James Mason for the role, and the comedian Groucho Marx was among the performers who had wanted to play Nazerman. However, Steiger pleasantly surprised Lumet when he agreed with him during rehearsals on the repression of the character’s feelings. Lumet felt that ultimately Steiger “worked out fine.”
In a 1999 television interview, Rod Steiger revealed an inspiration he took from an unlikely source of art. Over a quarter of a century after artist Pablo Picasso’s 1937 Guernica, the painting inspired emotional artistic depth again when, in 1964, Steiger borrowed the silent anguish of the skyward cry of the suffering female subject, seen at the right of the canvas. The scene in the film was in the last minutes of The Pawnbroker.
Variety considered Brock Peters the first actor to portray a confirmed homosexual character in an American film.
The film was shot in New York City, mainly on location and with minimal sets, in the fall of 1963. Much of the filming took place on Park Avenue in Harlem, where the pawnbroker shop was set at 1642 Park Avenue, near the intersection of Park Ave. and 116th Street. Scenes were also filmed in Connecticut, Jericho, New York, and Lincoln Centre (with both interior and exterior shots of the Lincoln Towers apartments which were new at the time).
Post-Production and Release
The film premiered in June 1964 at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was released in the United States in April 1965.
Finding a major US distributor for the film proved difficult because of its nudity and grim subject matter. Producer Ely Landau had the same problem in England until it was booked into a London theatre where it had an enormously successful run. As a result, Landau arranged a distribution deal with the Rank Organisation, and it opened in the US.
Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack for the film, including “Soul Bossa Nova”, which was used in a scene at a nightclub. That would later be used as the main theme to the Austin Powers film series.
The film was edited by Ralph Rosenblum, and is extensively discussed in his book When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story.
Production Code Controversy
The film was controversial on initial release for depicting nude scenes in which actresses Linda Geiser and Thelma Oliver fully exposed their breasts. The scene with Oliver, who played a prostitute, was intercut with a flashback to the concentration camp, in which Nazerman is forced to see his wife (Geiser) forced into prostitution. The nudity resulted in a “C” (condemned) rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency. The Legion felt “that a condemnation is necessary in order to put a very definite halt to the effort by producers to introduce nudity into American films.” The Legion of Decency’s stance was opposed by some Catholic groups, and the National Council of Churches gave the film an award for best picture of the year.
The scenes resulted in conflict with the Motion Picture Association of America, which administered the Motion Picture Production Code. The Association initially rejected the scenes showing bare breasts and a sex scene between Sanchez and Oliver, which it described as “unacceptably sex suggestive and lustful.” Despite the rejection, Landau arranged for Allied Artists to release the film without the Production Code seal, and New York censors licensed The Pawnbroker without the cuts demanded by Code administrators. On a 6-3 vote, the Motion Picture Association of America granted the film an “exception” conditional on “reduction in the length of the scenes which the Production Code Administration found unapprovable.” The exception to the code was granted as a “special and unique case,” and was described by The New York Times at the time as “an unprecedented move that will not, however, set a precedent.” The requested reductions of nudity were minimal, and the outcome was viewed in the media as a victory for the film’s producers.
Some Jewish groups urged a boycott of the film, in the view that its presentation of a Jewish pawnbroker encouraged anti-Semitism. Black groups felt it encouraged racial stereotypes of the inner city residents as pimps, prostitutes or drug addicts.
Musical Score and Soundtrack
The film score was composed, arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones, and the soundtrack album was released on the Mercury label in 1965. Initially, Lumet planned to hire John Lewis, the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Rosenblum, the film’s editor, complained to Lumet that Lewis’ music was “too cerebral” and suggested Jones instead – a suggestion Lumet accepted.
Steiger received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor – Drama, the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 14th Berlin International Film Festival, an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and received the British Film Academy BAFTA award for best foreign actor in a leading role.
The film has become known as the first major American film that even tried to recreate the horrors of the camps of the Jewish Holocaust. A New York Times review of a 2005 documentary on Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust, Imaginary Witness, said that scenes of the camps in the film as shown in the documentary were “surprisingly mild.”
It has been described as “the first stubbornly ‘Jewish’ film about the Holocaust”, and as the foundation for the miniseries Holocaust (1978) and Schindler’s List (1993).
Rod Steiger called The Pawnbroker his favourite film, “by a long shot,” in his last television interview on a 2002 episode of Dinner for Five, hosted by actor/director Jon Favreau.
Its display of nudity, despite Production Code prohibitions on the practice at the time, is also viewed as a landmark in motion pictures. The Pawnbroker was the first film featuring bare breasts to receive Production Code approval. In his 2008 study of films during that era, Pictures at a Revolution, author Mark Harris wrote that the MPAA’s action was “the first of a series of injuries to the Production Code that would prove fatal within three years.” The Code was abolished, in favour of a voluntary ratings system, in 1968.
- The film was the first produced entirely in the United States to deal with the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a survivor.
- It earned international acclaim for Steiger, launching his career as an A-list actor.
- It was among the first American films to feature a homosexual character and nudity during the Production Code, and was the first film featuring bare breasts to receive Production Code approval.
- Although it was publicly announced to be a special exception, the controversy proved to be first of similar major challenges to the Code that ultimately led to its abrogation.
- In 2008, The Pawnbroker was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
- Richard Sylbert’s set was deliberately designed to be a series of cages – wire meshes, bars, locks, alarms, etc. – to symbolise that even though Sol was no longer in a concentration camp, he was effectively still imprisoned by his memories.
- Thelma Oliver did not realise until filming began that her nude scene would be shot with a full intent of being seen (nudity was usually done over the shoulder).
- She was highly upset about this but agreed to bare her breasts, thereby creating cinema history.
- Stanley Kubrick, Karel Reisz and Franco Zeffirelli all turned down the opportunity to direct.
- Kubrick did not find it exciting, Zeffirelli was keen to break into movie directing from his stage background but felt that the material was too dark for him, and Reisz found it too close to home, having lost both his parents in the Holocaust.
- One of the rules that United Artists, which initially flirted with financing the film, insisted on was that there should be no overt depictions in the film of the Holocaust, as it was such a depressing subject.
- Ted Allan, who was the first hire to write the screenplay, found this a difficult thing to work around.
- Since the film was black and white, the blood seen is actually chocolate syrup.
Production & Filming Details
- Sidney Lumet.
- Philip Langner … producer.
- Roger H. Lewis … producer (as Roger Lewis).
- Joseph Manduke … associate producer.
- Worthington Miner … executive producer.
- Morton S. Fine … (screenplay) (as Morton Fine).
- David Friedkin … (screenplay).
- Edward Lewis Wallant … (novel).
- Quincy Jones.
- Boris Kaufman … director of photography.
- Ralph Rosenblum.
- Landau Company.
- The Pawnbroker Company (as The Pawnbroker Co. Inc.).
- Allied Artists Pictures (1964) (USA) (theatrical).
- Planet Film Distributors (1964) (UK) (theatrical).
- American International Pictures (AIP) (1965) (USA) (theatrical).
- Wivefilm (1966) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- House of Dare (1967) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1967) (India) (theatrical).
- Nora-Filmverleih (1967) (West Germany) (theatrical).
- Kontinental (1970) (Norway) (theatrical).
- Nord Video (1981) (Norway) (VHS) (Beta) (Video 2000).
- NTA Home Entertainment (1983) (USA) (VHS).
- CBS/Fox Home Video (1984) (Australia) (video).
- Republic Pictures Home Video (1985) (USA) (VHS).
- Republic Pictures Home Video (1997) (USA) (VHS).
- Artisan Home Entertainment (2003) (USA) (DVD).
- Cult Classic (2010) (Brazil) (DVD).
- Olive Films (2012) (Canada) (Blu-ray).
- Olive Films (2012) (Canada) (DVD).
- Olive Films (2012) (USA) (Blu-ray).
- Olive Films (2012) (USA) (DVD).
- Swashbuckler Films (2014) (France) (theatrical) (re-release).
- New Star (2016) (Greece) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Spectrum (West Germany) (VHS).
- Release Date: 02 July 1964 (Berlin International Film Festival, West Germany) (Premiere).
- Running time: 116 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.