The Pawnbroker 1964
A Sidney Lumet Film
A Few Observations by Philip Powers
The Pawnbroker (1964) is an astonishing film! An amazing achievement on all counts: low-budget filmmaking at its best.
Rod Steiger, who is often associated with blustery, overwrought or hammy performances, gives a performance as Sol Nazerman that is possibly the most restrained of his career. In fact, it’s so restrained it initially appears one-dimensional. Once director Lumet and Steiger start peeling back the layers of his character it becomes clear that this is the way he has of interacting with, and treating, people. This shows who Sol is now. Who he used to be and what his experience of life was like two decades ago is a world away from where he is now. Through the use of very brief flashback sequences the viewer learns that he is a survivor of Hitler’s concentration camps. The experience has all but destroyed his ability to relate to people – any people – including, or even especially, his family.
Sol is a hollow-core of a human being, unable to find energy for any emotion other than anger. Contained within the emotion of anger is disdain and contempt. He has this in abundance and unleashes it upon almost everyone he comes across.
If a three-dimensional man is made up of thought, movement and a range of emotions, then at the beginning of The Pawnbroker, Sol consists of not much more than a human being who is able to walk and talk and express his seething anger through acts of unkindness. He’s the definition of a one-dimensional man, cut off from others as much as he is cut off from knowing himself.
To appreciate Steiger’s performance one has to see where it takes him over the course of the film. As events unfold, the wall that he has erected to shield himself, starts to crumble. It’s a piece at a time at first, and then it collapses more and more quickly by the denouement. It’s incremental, finally ending in a landslide which has him stabbing a metal spike through his hand.
There is such an irony in the fact that various things outside of his insulated world do manage to get under his skin. Little things fracture his wall. A wire fence is one object which makes him think of the concentration camps. At first it’s done in the style of a subliminal edit which shows an image from a different place and time. As his barrier between himself and others is breached more and more, the images of the concentration camps become longer and longer until we see a complete scene featuring Sol in a concentration camp.
I imagine it wouldn’t have been a widely known disorder in the years post-1945, but the trauma that the Jews experienced, and British and American soldiers in German and Japanese prison camps – and likely prisoners interned in British and American prisons – every survivor of a concentration camp or prison would experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Jews, probably, worse than anyone else. Sol Nazerman’s behaviour is clearly that of someone who is so traumatised that it interferes with every aspect of living in the present. There is a point where, depending on the extent of the trauma, in a human being’s experience everything but the most basic functions shutdown.
A human being is like a device that needs electric power to function. It’s plugged into the power-point and although there’s just a light on the plug to show that it is getting current, it still doesn’t work properly, if at all. We press the on-switch of the vacuum or the radio or the tv or the computer or the printer and we know it has power but it can’t – it won’t – work. It’s unable to start.
There is a state – a point of being, of existence – that is the same for a person. Deprived of current, everything, every battery, eventually, shuts the device down. When the film begins Rod Steiger is in what the world of computers, calls SAFE Mode. If you ask too much of it, it will CRASH. It can do basic functions. It can even attempt a basic self-diagnostic. That is Sol Nazerman – a man so severely distressed that even managing the pawn shop is a daily achievement.
The only way Sol can deal with life is to shut himself behind metal wire and steel bars in his shop, sadly replicating the imprisonment that took away his will to live. Just as he lived during his incarceration in Germany, he still lives in a prison – it’s just a much smaller cage and he’s the only inmate (except for his assistant). Every day, except the weekend, he follows the same routine, barricading himself from the world. Most of his interactions are very short. Someone offers something for sale and he responds by telling them the amount he’s willing to pay for it. He doesn’t negotiate. He doesn’t haggle.
Three things occur in the film to upset this delicate balance that he has learned to live with, that disturb the equilibrium which he has found, which enables him to do the basic things in life.
1. A woman, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who is trying to raise money for her charity, walks in off the street.
2. A hoodlum, Rodriguez (Brock Peters) who launders money through the pawn shop becomes more and more insistent.
3. An employee, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) – seemingly decent – betrays him, conspiring with his criminal associates to rob the store.
The hoodlum and the robbery destabilise him, building on the little things that are interrupting the usual pattern of his life. The most poignant of the actions of others which bring trouble into his life is, the woman, Marilyn . She is kind and sweet, despite trying to solicit donations for her local welfare work. Sol refuses to have lunch with her, and then when he does, he treats her poorly. She saw from her first exchange with him that he was as much in need of welfare as anyone else which her work brings her into contact. His need is not outwardly discernible like the majority of people she comes across, such as food or accommodation. She has compassion for him and sees a man who is resisting any engagement with the world. To infer that she’s asking him out on a date when she suggests they have lunch together is to misunderstand why the film casts Marilyn as a welfare worker and why Sol locks himself inside a cage every working day of his life.
The more Sol’s life collapses, the closer he comes to needing someone. In the most affecting – and excruciating – scene in the film, Sol goes to her apartment, looking for comfort. He’s made the tiniest first step towards acknowledging his emotional repression, but when he’s there, he’s unable to receive her empathy, to take her hand or accept any meaningful level of comfort from her. The moment where she offers to touch his person with a hand that is warm, accepting and has blood running through its veins, is heartbreaking. Human contact through touch is one the most basic needs of any being from the moment it is born into this world. Instead of accepting the gentle touch of a genuine human being, he inflicts more pain on himself.
As if the mental and emotional pain isn’t enough to make him understand why his world is falling apart, he drives a metal spike through his hand. When someone is desperate to survive, sometimes intense physical pain is the only thing that can be a comfort to them in that moment or that period. It may sound like hogwash, but the reason people, particularly young adults, self-mutilate, is because they perceive they need to be punished for something they may or may not have done. There is no coincidence that the most famous example of a piece of metal or iron piercing someone’s hand is the image of Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross, as his hands are nailed to the wood.
What Sol can’t do in The Pawnbroker is forgive anyone who has ever wronged him; or forgive himself. Survivors of cataclysmic events often hate themselves for having been spared when their loved ones have died. The guilt of enduring whilst others have had their lives torn from them is more than some people can bear.
This extraordinary film does – in 1964 – a brilliant job of revealing the point in a human life where a battery runs out of life or a life runs out of energy.