Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Pawnborker

This week's Projected Image in Film movies look at the Holocaust in various ways. Among those movies is The Pawnbroker, at 11:45 PM.

Rod Steiger plays the title character, a pawnborker named Sol Nazerman who owns a pawn shop in Spanish Harlem, but lives out in the suburbs with his American sister-in-law and her family. In theory, it should be a reasonably comfortable life, except for the fact that Sol survived the Holocaust, and has terrible flashbacks about it. That shouldn't be a surprise, considering that we learn in the flashbacks that Sol had a wife and children who didn't survive the Holocaust.

Life at the pawn shop isn't that much better. He's got a young man working for him, a Puerto Rican named Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) who really seems to be sincerely trying to find an honest way to live, but has apparently had a load of bad influences in his life. The pawn shop doesn't make much money on its own, as we see from some of the patrons who come in trying to pawn essentially worthless stuff. So to supplement his income, and partly because he doesn't hvae much choice, Sol is also a front for the area vice lord Rodriguez (Brock Peters) to launder money.

Sol has responded to all of this by shutting himself off emotionally from the rest of the world. His in-laws want to take him to Europe, but he doesn't seem to care either way; Jesus at the pawn shop seems to be well meaning in asking him what it's like to be a Jew, to which Sol gives him an answer that Jesus obviously wasn't expecting; and the social worker Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) tries to pry into his personal life in ways he clearly doesn't want. Sol also has a lady friend Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell) with a dying father, but even this can't make Sol open up emotionally.

Matters are about to hit a head in two ways. First, Sol learns the full truth about how Rodriguez is making is money, and that truth horrifies Sol to the point that he doesn't want to launder the money any longer. Good luck with that; Rodriguez isn't going to let him stop. And Sol is too cold to Jesus one too many times, so Jesus finally says to hell with Sol's pawn shop and gets some of his Puerto Rican friends together to try ot stick up the joint.

But the plot events going around Sol Nazerman are really just in service of what is ultimately a character study of one Holocaust survivor. The plot, what with the flashbacks and the various compartmentalized parts of Sol's life, is difficult to follow at times. It's up to Rod Steiger to deliver an effective portrayal of Sol in order for the film to succeed, and Steiger does this, taking very difficult material and turning Sol into somebody we at least have some interest in, if not liking; after all, Sol isn't a man who would be easy to like. The rest of the cast is good in support of Steiger, with Brock Peters being particularly unsettling as the domineering crime boss and the in-laws being sufficiently irritating. The cinematography makes Spanish Harlem look like a place nobody would want to live or do business if they didn't have to, and that's to the film's benefit. Quincy Jones' score adds to the unsettling nature of the film, especially because one of the pieces was reused in a completely different context. There's also one jarring continuity error at the end of the film, but by that time the film has already delivered its emotional impact.

The Pawnbroker is a difficult movie to watch at times, but it's one that's well worth seeing.

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