Monday, June 22, 2020
Nate Hood's Quarantine Qapsule #77 The Pawnbroker  ★★★★½
The Pawnbroker is another of his films that threatens to lose itself in the shadow of its central performance, in this case Rod Steiger’s portrayal of Sol Nazerman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor operating a Harlem pawnshop. In stark contradiction to his usual overacting, Steiger’s Nazerman is a masterclass in repressed emotion. He acts and emotes like a block of granite; he feels neither animosity nor sympathy for his customers—desperate tenants, jonesing junkies, doe-eyed single mothers—as he undercharges them for priceless family heirlooms and obviously stolen goods. He navigates the world in a daze as memories of his old life and murdered family flicker before his eyes like lightning bolts.
But the film is more than just Steiger’s performance, it’s a savage exploration of the lingering effects of trauma (and a historically significant one, too, as it was the first American film to explore the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective). Consider a notorious sequence where a prostitute strips naked in a feeble attempt to sell herself to Nazerman. As his eyes linger over her breasts, he flashes back to images of his own dead wife’s bare breasts as she was raped in a concentration camp. It’s a horrifying use of montage that de-eroticizes the female body so effectively that the Production Code granted the film their first ever exception on their moratorium on bare breasts. The Pawnbroker is the rare film that’s Important with a capital “I” as well as Great with a capital “G.”