Tuesday, May 10, 2011

THE PAWNBROKER (1964) - Sidney Lumet

Simply put, a New York City classic. Rod Steiger has always been fantastic in showier roles like On the Waterfront, In the Heat of the Night or as the gleefully amoral bandit in A Fistful of Dynamite. But the role of Harlem pawnbroker Sol Nazerman is arguably his toughest and his best, requiring him to play a shell of a man hollowed out by trauma. He's mostly given to awkward silence, mostly given up on humanity. Like the old Jewish grandfather in the next room often shouts, he is "one of the walking dead!"

You wouldn't know it from Lumet's vivacious direction. All around the void that it Sol Nazerman Lumet smartly fills the corners of the frame with bursting life, mostly in the form of the oddballs who come into his shop every day to pawn useless junk. He contrasts Sol's deathly silence with the ramblings of his over-eager Hispanic apprentice played by Jaime Sanchez (Angel from The Wild Bunch). He counterpoints it with the charismatic threats of the pawn shop's pimp proprietor, Brock Peters. He juxtaposes it with the pleas of the lonely but optimistic volunteer worker who tries to befriend him and fails (Geraldine Fitzgerald, picture above). And when Lumet's not throwing some of the finest '60s character actors Steiger's way, he's upending Sol's daily routine with perfectly timed shock cuts that give us just enough of an idea of his concentration camp past without belaboring it.

There are few films I watch these days and consider instant classics. But The Pawnbroker had wedged itself into my cortex as a five-star flick as soon as I took the disc out of the tray. It's one of Lumet's best, right up there with Dog Day, Network and The Verdict.

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