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A signpost near torment
When I was in college, an English professor that I enjoyed chatting with about movies recommended I pick up the book Making Movies by Sidney Lumet. He said, “It’s a great read if you’re a film buff; you don’t gotta make ‘em.” He was a great English teacher. I’ve kept the book since, revisiting chapters from time to time when a movie reminds me of a passage. A few years later, in 2007, my friend Ryan and I went to the theater to see a thriller with one of our favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, starring alongside Ethan Hawke. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; a fantastic movie. We loved it. I was surprised to see the director's credit flash at the end: “Sidney Lumet.” ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I should pay closer attention to directors.’ Sadly, this would be the last film Lumet would make, as he passed a few years later in 2011
Lumet’s legacy looms large over film history. He started as a stage actor, working with some of the greats (The Actors Studio in NYC comes to mind), and eventually moved into the director’s chair. Throughout his career, Lumet directed more than 50 films, including some of the most influential American movies ever made: 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976), to name a few.
The Pawnbroker is about a Holocaust survivor struggling to rebuild his life twenty years after World War II. Sol Nazerman (played by a brilliant Rod Steiger), the owner and operator of the shop, is a Jewish man who lost his family to the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Now living in East Harlem, Sol is haunted by memories of the concentration camps. He is unable to move on. The film shows us these memories via startling flashback sequences.
Lumet’s style in this film (as in many of his movies) feels incredibly modern. Fast pacing, snappy editing, hand-held cameras, and on-location shooting make this film feel more similar to a Jason Bourne film than My Fair Lady, which won the Oscar for Best Picture the same year.
The Pawnbroker is also a great reminder that sometimes we forget a movie is made up of a series of photographs, which can be stunning in their own right. Lumet embraces the medium and soaks the story in the imagery of New York City, creating a blueprint for television procedurals to come and a time capsule to a different era of history. Stunning examples:
This film is a historical signpost in Jewish cinema. The Pawnbroker was one of the first movies to tackle the subject of the Holocaust in a meaningful and nuanced way: it helped bring the atrocities of the war to the forefront of popular consciousness. The film's powerful performances, and its realistic, unflinching depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust, made it a lightning bolt of neo-realism in a year awash with comedy and musical releases such as Father Goose (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), Zorba the Greek (1964), and Dr. Strangelove (Guess).
What I find so fascinating about The Pawnbroker is that, despite being one of the earliest mainstream American film depictions of the Holocaust, it takes a very aggressively introspective look at the Jewish main character’s responsibilities as a citizen. Like Dae writes regarding Munich (2008), Jewish identity is in crisis in the movie. It would be easy to empathize with a film, especially in 1964, that shows us the pain and failures of Sol Nazerman, given what he’s dealt with. This is a film that reverently acknowledges unendurable hardship while subtextually making the argument: endure.
Written by Morton S. Fine, David Friedkin, and Edward Lewis Wallant; Directed by Sidney Lumet
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