Retro Review: The Pawnbroker (1965)

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.

43 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Pawnbroker (1965)

  1. This was a film that always stuck with me many years ago. I agree a really powerful performance – in a film that would not probably be made by Hollywood today. I can’t remember when I last saw it to be honest.
    While I fully agree on Steigers acting ability, he rarely played characters you could “warm” to and let’s face it he was no matinee idol!!

    Thanks for reminding me of a long forgotten film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have only a vague memory of “Doctor Zhivago,” which I watched on television many decades ago. Apparently, he was in “Mars Attacks!” but I don’t recall his role in that film. My familiarity with Rod Steiger rests solely on two films in my DVD library: “Duck, You Sucker!” (1971) and “The Specialist” (1994). The two films find themselves at opposite ends of the critical spectrum, but Rod Steiger stands out in both of them. I’m sure these are not his best performances by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoy watching him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. David, I confess I have never seen ‘Duck, You Sucker’. 🙂 In Doctor Zhivago, he plays the rich lover, Komarovsky, who seduces Lara. I have seen the Stallone film, ‘The Specialist, though mainly because of Sharon Stone…
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rod Steiger was always such a powerful actor, he brought a great presence to the screen. I’ve seen most of his films, but this one only once … one scene in particular (guess which one …) that still haunts me to this day was a little too much for me so I would not watch it again. Maybe, in my later years, I’m not quite so squeamish so I will try watching again. Definitely an RS retrospective is in order! (And interesting to see that Morgan Freeman’s first role was in this film. We’ve been watching his two series made recently for National Geographic, “The Story of God” and “The Story of Us.”

    Cheers!
    Susan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Susan. I can imagine the scene you refer to. Despite much worse being portrayed on screen these days, it still has immense power. Whenever I see a Steiger film on TV, I generally tape it to watch, even when I have seen it before. I don’t think The Pawnbroker has been on television in decades though.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re right, Pete. I wonder why you never hear him mentioned anymore. He was such a strong actor, a powerful presence on the screen. No matter what part he played, you believed he was that man!

    Liked by 1 person

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