Genre Grandeur – The Pawnbroker (1964) – BluePrint: Review

For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Oscar Nominated/Winning Films. here’s a review of The Pawnbroker (1964) by David of BluePrint: Review

Next month’s genre has been chosen by Tyler of The Geek Card Check and we will be reviewing our favorite Sports Themed Films.

Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Apr by sending them to

Try to think out of the box!

Let’s see what David thought of this movie:


Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Morton S. Fine, David Friedkin
Based on a Novel by: Edward Lewis Wallant
Starring: Rod Steiger, Jaime Sánchez, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Marketa Kimbrell
Country: US
Running Time: 115 min
Year: 1964
BBFC Certificate: 15

Sidney Lumet’s 1964 adaptation of Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Pawnbroker was one of the first American films to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, or at least the psychological trauma it left on countless people. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) had tackled the Holocaust previously but not looked at how it affected the survivors.

Lumet had been approached with the project when it was first doing the rounds but turned it down, largely due to his belief that they couldn’t successfully recreate Spanish Harlem in the UK as planned (taking advantage of British financial incentives). Several other big-name directors and producers turned it down too, including Stanley Kubrick, Franco Zeffirelli and Michael Balcon. Eventually though, the production sensibly moved to New York and Lumet accepted a late offer to direct after Arthur Hiller, the planned director, was fired.

Surprisingly, given the tough subject matter, The Pawnbroker ended up being Lumet’s first financially successful film (Twelve Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind and Long Day’s Journey Into Night may be well regarded now but they didn’t attract large audiences on release). The film isn’t as well-remembered as some of the director’s numerous classics but the BFI have chosen to give it a new lease of life by releasing The Pawnbroker on Blu-ray with their usual respectful treatment. I got my hands on a copy to see how it held up.

The film sees Rod Steiger play Sol Nazerman, an Auschwitz survivor now living in New York and working as a pawnbroker for local pimp Rodriguez (Brock Peters), who uses the shop as a money-laundering operation.

Sol is a shell of a man, still haunted by the memories of his past. His family were all taken from him during the Holocaust and he won’t let anyone in to help him come to terms with the fact they died and he survived. Even his relationship with his current wife (Marketa Kimbrell) offers little solace, not helped by the fact she was previously married to a friend lost in the camps.

In the pawnshop, the customers, who are often lonely and desperate, reach out to Sol for their own support but he shows them little sympathy. His assistant, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez), idolises Sol though. Dreaming of opening his own pawnshop one day, to help find success away from the criminal underworld he was once part of, Jesus begs Sol to teach him the secrets of his financial success. Sol begins to offer a few tips but soon gets lost in his usual misery. Jesus remains persistent but is tempted to fall back on his old ways once Sol grows ever more distant and uncaring.

The Pawnbroker is unusual and fascinating in presenting a rare spin on the Holocaust film. For one, it’s rare to be set in America, long after the event. It’s also unique in having such an unlikable protagonist at the core of a film exploring the tragic devastation left by the Holocaust. On top of all of this, it boasts an unusual partially jazz-inflected soundtrack by Quincy Jones. It’s a bold and daring approach that certainly packs a punch, though perhaps too much of one.

The film is relentlessly bleak, offering little hope for any of its characters, let alone Sol. Most interactions between him and others revolve around money. It’s a very cold and cynical film due to this. Any attempts at warmer connections (most notably from Geraldine Fitzgerald as the lonely Marilyn) are usually shunned or extinguished by Sol. As such, the film proves to be a difficult watch. Granted, no film exploring the Holocaust is going to be a barrel of laughs, but there are usually at least some traces of humanity or hope to cling on to. Not here.

Lumet does a damned good job exploring the subject of survivor guilt though. He was a director with a background as an actor as well as in theatre but, unlike similar directors, he was also a great technician and craftsman. He was a master at using cinematic techniques to tell his stories and The Pawnbroker is no different. Its stark, low-key black and white photography and use of claustrophobic, cage-filled sets that clash with the chaos of the outside world, reflect Sol’s internal imprisonment. The bold use of harshly intercut flashbacks, to show Saul’s ever-invading memories of the Holocaust, is very powerful too. This style of editing had not been used in American cinema prior to this, though it had been seen in Alain Resnais’ acclaimed Hiroshima Mon Amour and some other European titles.

Lumet overdoes the symbolism in places perhaps, * SPOILERS * with a character named Jesus whose fate is unsurprising and the stigmatic nature of Saul’s self-inflicted wounds at the end. * SPOILERS * However, overall it’s effectively kept under the surface.

Lumet was wary of Steiger taking the lead role originally (the actor was brought on board before the director), thinking he’d play it too ‘big’. However, once they met and discussed the project, Lumet found Steiger shared a similar idea of how the character should be portrayed and was more than willing to tone things down. In the end, he did just that, offering a quietly intense and uncompromising performance. There are a couple of moments that threaten to show the often larger-than-life actor doing a bit of grandstanding, but Steiger resists from taking things too far.

Quincy Jones deserves another mention too, for his highly effective score. His music jumps between jazz and classical idioms in a strikingly unusual fashion. The contrasting styles reflect the clash between the modern life of New York and Sol’s entrapment in his tragic past. The score practically explodes with energy when the film breaks outside of the pawnshop, enhancing how overwhelmed Sol feels outside of his shut-away existence.

Overall, The Pawnbroker is a little too punishing for its own good but it’s an undeniably powerful drama and one that effectively showcases the great talents of Lumet, Steiger and several other members of the production team.

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