You don’t hear much about Rod Steiger these days. Since his death in 2002, his contribution to cinema appears to be largely overlooked by film fans. Yet this was the man who appeared in ‘On The Waterfront’, ‘Al Capone’, ‘In The Heat Of The Night, ‘The Longest Day’, and ‘Doctor Zhivago’. He portrayed historical characters too, famously Napoleon, in ‘Waterloo’, and Mussolini, in ‘The Last Days Of Mussolini’.
I always found his performances to be powerful, even noticing him stand out in supporting roles. But one of his star roles stood out for me, and I can still recall scenes from that film, decades after I first watched it. In 1965, ‘The Pawnbroker’ was released in the UK. I was too young to see it on my own at the time, and had to wait quite a few years to be able to watch it at a cinema re-run. Directed with his usual flair by Sidney Lumet, the cast also included Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Morgan Freeman, in his first screen role.
Steiger plays Sol Nazerman, a Jewish pawnbroker in the run-down district of East Harlem, New York. He is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, where he lost both his children, and his wife. Those wartime experiences have made him bitter, and full of hate. He can hardly stand to be around people, and thinks all of his customers are social rejects. When we see him dealing with the people who come into his shop to pawn things, we are left in no doubt about his distaste for them, and see the cynical and harsh way he deals with them too.
But Nazerman is a troubled man. He is tortured by flashbacks of life in the camps. The rape of his wife, the death of his children. These flashbacks are show to the viewer too, one of the first times I can remember events of The Holocaust being shown in a story, rather than a documentary. Naturally, they are distressing to watch, but then that is the point. The pawnbroker cannot move on in life, despite his relative wealth giving him a decent home in the suburbs, and having a young assistant who respects him, and wants to learn his trade. He also rejects the romantic advances of a local social worker (Fitzgerald) as Sol cannot warm to anyone, suffering with what we would probably call PTSD these days.
Local gangs plague him too. When he discovers that the local crime lord, Rodriguez, makes most of his income from prostitution, Sol refuses to continue to allow him to use the shop as a front for his criminal activities. Events take a nasty turn, as Rodriguez determines to take his revenge.
This film works very well in Black and White. Steiger delivers a mesmerising performance that is simply overwheming, and even the cast members with small roles all fit in like the pieces of a perfect jigsaw. Lumet’s direction is spot-on, never overplaying a scene, and taking us into the troubled mind of Nazerman with perfection. The flashback scenes are inserted with great skill too. This is not an easy film to watch. It is gritty, always realistic, and it deals with a difficult subject with no holds barred. But it is one you will never forget.