Blog Directory CineVerse: Pawn in the cruel game of life

Pawn in the cruel game of life

Friday, June 3, 2016

For 1964, “The Pawnbroker” was a considerable gamble; here’s a picture that tackled the tinderbox topic of the Holocaust and its effects on survivors, tried to chip away at the censorship standards of the time by presenting nudity and interracial relationships, was considerably downbeat and pessimistic in its tone throughout (hurting its commercial viability), and featured a brash, discordant jazz score by a young Quincy Jones. Despite these factors, the film found an audience – as well as critical respect – and continues to be talked about, discussed and analyzed for its brave filmmaking merits all these years later. CineVerse took a closer look at this 50-plus-year-old film and came up with these conclusions:

• It was one of the first Hollywood feature films to tackle the topic of the Holocaust and its effects on survivors.
• It was one of the first American films to show nudity, which helped lead to the demise of the Production Code and decades-long censorship; by the end of the 1960s, the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system replaced the antiquated Hays Code – this film helped break down those barriers. “The Pawnbroker” was the first movie to feature bare breasts and receive approval from the Production Code.
• The movie employs rapid flashback cuts and nearly subliminal editing to depict the impact of emotion and memory on the human psyche; this technique was inspired by the French new wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s. “The effect is of a nagging memory crashing bit by bit into the conscious present,” wrote reviewer Glenn Erickson. This use of associative flashbacks, overused in the years since “The Pawnbroker,” was considered a groundbreaking editing approach at the time for a Hollywood movie.
o Other movies that employ pseudo-subliminal images and editing include: The Exorcist; Cruising; Fight Club; The Ring; Black Swan.
• The picture garnered pushback from several groups, including some Jewish organizations that called for a boycott of the movie because they felt the title character promoted anti-Semitism stereotypes; the Legion of Decency, which denounced the movie for its nudity; and many African-Americans for the film’s depiction of black drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and other stereotypical characters.
• The downbeat and depressing subject matter and the crime-ridden, dark urban setting made the film difficult to market and attract an audience.
• Although Rod Steiger was nominated for an Oscar 10 years earlier, this was the film that put him on the map as a top shelf actor.
• There is a hint of a gay relationship between the thugs who tried to rob the pawnbroker’s shop, and we see an interracial relationship between Jesus and the African-American prostitute, which would have rocked the boat in 1964.
• We also hear ethnic slurs, like the “K” word for Jews, which was still considered taboo and a Hollywood film at this time.

• Survivor guilt – which was a serious emotional challenge for those who lived through the concentration camps and the Holocaust. Consider that Sol has chosen to resume his life in a shady form of business – pawnbroker – located in a seedy part of town, as if this is an expression of self-loathing, self-punishment, and penance for the guilt he feels.
• The extent to which a person will go to shield himself from a cruel world and hide to escape emotional pain. It’s possible that Sol intentionally injures himself at the end to either punish himself for being a survivor, punish himself for previously denying his emotions, or to prove to himself that he is capable of feeling, even if that feeling is pain.
• A man’s descent into the emotional abyss and the gradual breakdown of his psyche. Reviewer David Blakeslee suggested: “Nazerman’s cold-hearted disdain functions as an emotional armor that he uses to block out painful recollections of traumas that he endured, and that killed the wife and children he loved. Through extremely short (one second or less) flashback cuts, visualizations of long-suppressed memories, we see the cracks emerging in that protective shield as it buckles under the mounting pressures of adversarial run-ins with his sad-sack customers, brawling neighborhood crooks and the prying gaze of a concerned social worker who intuitively recognizes the suffering that Sol is barely able to manage. Nazerman’s gradual breakdown is captured so evocatively, thanks to the inspired combination of Lumet’s incisive direction, Steiger’s masterful command of an intense emotional palette, top notch cinematography by Boris Kaufman (Oscar winner for On the Waterfront) and the brilliant editing of Ralph Rosenblum.”
• The prison of memory –Sol chooses to work behind bars in a grimy pawnbroker store within the inner-city, visually suggesting that he remains in a prison, much like the concentration camp he survived.

• There are several earlier Hollywood films that at least broached the subject of the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors, including, in chronological order:
o The Stranger
o The Search
o The Juggler
o Singing in the Dark
o The Diary of Anne Frank
o Judgment at Nuremberg
• Films following The Pawnbroker that dealt with the Holocaust included:
o The Shop on Main Street
o Au Revoir les Enfants
o Army of Shadows
o Sophie’s Choice
o Schindler’s List
o Life is Beautiful
o The Pianist
• Hiroshima mon Amour and Night and Fog in its use of flashbacks and innovative editing

• 12 Angry Men
• Dog Day Afternoon
• Serpico
• The Verdict
• Network
• Murder on the Orient Express
• Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
• Fail Safe

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