Pawnbroker, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe takes on the Blu-ray debut of one of Lumet's most challenging films...
Sidney Lumet’s career wasn’t a parade of perfection. I suppose The Wiz (1978) has some campy or nostalgic appeal, but the director’s later career was flecked with mediocrities that very few fans are interested in defending, like A Stranger Among Us (1992) and Gloria (1997). But, even without a Stanley Kubrick-like track record, Lumet earned his place in film history with a run of brilliant, subversive, character-driven dramas.
Besides being one of Lumet’s more under-seen masterpieces, The Pawnbroker might be the most socially important film he ever made – quite a statement, considering his filmography includes such boundary-busting achievements as The Group, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Deathtrap. Its most important contribution is its status as one of the first Hollywood films to acknowledge the Nazi’s attempted genocide of Europe’s Jews from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor, following only Max Nosseck’s more ‘whimsical’ Singing in the Dark (1956). Lumet and editor Ralph Rosenblum juxtapose the (then) modern day struggles and prejudices of a pawnshop owner/operator named Sol Nazerman, played by Rod Steiger (who scored an Oscar nomination), with his harrowing memories of concentration camp trauma – a technique that may have been inspired by Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary Night and Fog and one that would inform the structure of Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982). But what places Lumet and Rosenblum’s work so far ahead of its time, beyond even the acknowledgement of the Holocaust, is their successful approximation of subjective memory. The time-spanning correlation sputters to life via subliminal cuts that represent Sol’s attempts at repressing painful recollections.
Burdened by memories of Lumet’s ‘70s/early ‘80s output – most of which was either shot in an energetic, cinéma vérité fashion ( Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) or embraced the limitations of the director’s stage play roots ( Murder on the Orient Express, Deathtrap) – I was initially caught off-guard by The Pawnbroker’s diligent, Noir-meets-Neorealist style (during one graphic high-point, a camera is affixed to a running lawnmower as it rolls slowly and menacingly though the shop). Once acclimated to cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s nightmarish, evocative black & white photography, I noticed how beautifully it blended with Rosenblum’s avant-garde editing. This bleak imagery is a far more insistent piece of the film’s texture than that of the director’s later work, which hid its visual sophistication behind more lenient motifs. The lack of colour also offers Lumet and Kaufman (a Polish-born, Soviet native who fought against the Nazi’s for France) the opportunity to contrast ‘60s New York with Nazi Germany. Quite often, the two environments are almost indiscernibly grim, but the heavy shadows of Harlem are sometimes contrasted against sun-baked visions of the concentration camp, causing blinding flashes during the strobe of subliminal editing.
The Holocaust iconography is further complicated by the cultural obstacles of New York’s melting pot. Bereft of his family and burdened by cynicism, Sol has traded one ghetto for another (in her book, Indelible Shadows: Film and The Holocaust, author Annette Insdorf compares several aspects of Sol’s New York life to that of the Nazi’s that tormented him). He impassively watches the saddest dregs of society as they hopelessly try to pawn their belongings. In this regard, Steiger’s performances is truly remarkable. Sol is a whirlwind of emotions, but most of them hidden behind a wall of brooding misanthropy that, when broken, lets the actor punch his viewer sin the gut with raw, overwhelming sorrow. His impassive stance is first challenged when he is confronted with the fact that the pawnshop’s owner, Rodriguez, is using it as a front for his prostitution ring (Brock Peters, a black man that arguably depicts the character as a homosexual, fueling accusations that the film encouraged negative stereotypes). Meanwhile, he ignores the significance of his relationship with Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez), his young Puerto Rican assistant. When Lumet cuts away from Sol’s point of view to explore Jesus’ personal life it breaks the film’s structural perfection and slows momentum, but it is also a vital to establishing the characters’ surrogate father/son connection, as well as the tragedy that is Sol’s failure to realize the importance of that relationship.
Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin’s script (based on Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel) is somewhat preoccupied with irony and overly expositional speeches, which are particularly redundant, given the montage visuals, but is otherwise remarkable for its mature treatment of the incendiary subject matter. Besides exploring material most early ‘60s audiences would’ve probably preferred to ignore, The Pawnbroker is stunningly frank about sex and violence. Lumet incorporates blunt language, surprisingly brutal and occasionally even bloody sequences (most of the gruesome stuff is left to our imaginations), and briefly depicts two sexual liaisons – Sol’s lifeless affair with his friend and fellow survivor’s wife and Jesus’ tender relations with his prostitute girlfriend (Thelma Oliver). The scene that got the director in trouble with the MPAA’s Production Code, however, is the one where the prostitute (who is never given a proper name in the film) tries to seduce Sol into giving her money, which she intends to use to help Jesus escape his problems with local gangsters. She removes her top, exposing her bare breasts and repeatedly asks Sol to ‘look,’ insisting that ‘it doesn’t cost anything just to look.’ Images of her nude torso flash cut between images of Sol’s wife (Linda Geiser), also topless, as he is physically forced to watch a Nazi officer rape her (though the consummation is implied off-screen). The film’s producers decided to release it without approval and were eventually granted an exception by the MPAA, making it the first film to feature nudity and the Production Code’s seal. The case set a new precedent and the Code was abandoned for a rating system only four years later.
Despite renewed interest in recent years that includes preservation in the United States National Film Registry as a ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ work of art, The Pawnbroker was apparently released on DVD from Republic Pictures, but this release has long been out-of-print and featured a cropped, 1.33:1 transfer. Fortunately, Olive Films’ new 1080p, 1.85:1 black & white Blu-ray doesn’t simply rest on the laurels of being the only home video option available. The film was fully restored and re-mastered; not only for this release, but also as part of an honorable screening at the TCM Film Festival this year. The restoration has not completely eradicated a number of minor print damage artefacts (small scratches, white flecks, water spots), but is consistently cleaner than expected from a relatively unseen, fifty-year-old feature. Grain structure appears natural and consistent without major clumping issues, though it is amplified during slow motion sequences (which also exhibit expected shuttering effects). Fine details and textures are generally crisp without appear over-sharpened. The darker images could’ve proved problematic, especially shots of the dingy pawnshop interior, but the super high contrast elements, even the deepest blacks and brightest whites, are tightly separated. The more subtle gradations are as clean as possible based on the material without any notable compression effects. The image is a bit tight on the sides, but not enough for me to suspect it wasn’t a part of Lumet and Kaufman’s design.
The film’s original mono soundtrack has also been restored and is presented here in lossless, DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. The soundscape is simple, likely recorded via a single boom mic that captures the basic dialogue and incidental effects. The original sound designers made little effort to arrange the vocals and effects in layers and don’t implement a lot of noise reduction, so some scenes are muddled with differing volume levels and minor hiss. Still, clarity is maintained and a number of scenes with more stylized sound mixes (the scene where the rumble of a subway drive blends into a similar sounding train ride to Auschwitz, for example) are rather impressive. Many of Lumet’s films forgo musical altogether, but, for The Pawnbroker, he took a relatively big chance by contrasting Sol’s repression with composer/producer Quincy Jones’ jazzy score, which represents the best of the modern culture he’s trying to avoid. This was Jones’ first go at a Hollywood film score (it was the first appearance of ‘Soul Bossa Nova,’ one of his most famous compositions), paving the way for other seminal projects, like In the Heat of the Night (which also starred Steiger) and, eventually, work as a film and television producer. The score sounds rich and surprisingly deep for a single channel mix, including relatively tight instrumental separation and little high-end distortion. Other music invades Sol’s headspace – some of it from his niece’s radio, some of it from costumers playing pawned instruments. This stuff matches the softer, tinnier qualities of the other ambient noises.
Like most Olive releases, this one includes no supplemental features.
The Pawnbroker is an incredible dramatic experience built around a shattering performance from Rod Steiger, a mature, complex screenplay, gorgeous black & white photography, and a compelling editing technique that was years ahead of its time. Despite a lack of extras, Olive Films’ Blu-ray is worthy of celebration for its beautiful, natural transfer and clean original mono soundtrack. I hope more film lovers get the chance to see this very special film at its very best since its initial release.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 22nd April 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sánchez, Thelma Oliver
Length: 116 minutes