Saturday, August 16, 2014

"The Pawnbroker" with Rod Steiger (1965)

Very few actors ever hone their craft to the knife’s edge the way Rod Steiger did. Bogart, DeNiro, even Denzel Washington are all recognizable as themselves in most films. Steiger was on a par with Frederic March, another actor with that chameleon like quality which enabled the viewer to suddenly go, “Hey, isn’t that (insert name here)?” half way through a film, and still not be sure it was until the final credits rolled. Walter Huston had that same magic. He was tall, about 6’2”, yet he is always remembered as the wizened little miner in “Treasure of the Sierra Madres.” A giant of an actor, he just played it small.

Rod Steiger’s credits include the corrupt union boss in “On the Waterfront”, the Police Chief in “In the Heat of the Night” (it took him a year to stop chewing gum after that film), the disgruntled juror forced to face his own prejudice in “Twelve Angry Men” and a score of other roles. But more than any other role, his performance in “The Pawnbroker” was possibly his most searing as he portrays a man who has lost his wife and children to the the Nazi’s, along with the ability to love or even feel.

His assistant in the shop wants to learn to be a businessman, just like his boss. He even asks the Pawnbroker to teach him how to be a Jew- to make money- to share his secrets. The Pawnbrokers scathing reply is in the clip below.

There is always a steady succession of people who are down on their luck who come to the shop to pawn the most trivial of their possessions in order to survive. The Pawnbroker dispassionately serves their needs, all the while cursing his own past and the misery of the world about him. He has a partnership with the local crime boss, who used the pawnshop to “launder” the profits he makes from dealing drugs and pimping prostitutes. The Pawnbroker seems indifferent to the misey which supplies the money he lives upon.

Constantly plagued by memories of the concentration camp, he inhabits a world filled with flashbacks to the most horrifying moments of his wartime ordeal. One of those memories involves being forced to look into the building where the female prisoners are forced to work as sex slaves. One of the women he sees is his own wife. When one of the local working girls comes to him with something to pawn she offers him sex in addition to the trade as a way of getting more money.

The Pawnbroker finds himself in a moral dilemma; haunted by the memory of his wife’s ordeal and at the same time facilitating the misery of others in his present day world. He goes to see the crime boss, stating that he did not know where the money came from. The boss just laughs at him and asks him the same question Jews the world over posed to the German people at the end of the war. “How could you not have known?”

In the meantime his assistant has taken the Pawnbroker at his word that money is all that matters if you want to get ahead in the world. You must have it at any cost. So, he decides to help some local hoods rob the pawnshop, where the Pawnbroker keeps some of the laundered money from the crime boss. There is to be no killing. That’s the plan.

But in the end there is always killing. Nobody gets out alive, even if they sometimes are still walking and breathing. This is an intense and moving drama about the human condition and the lines we draw to identify ourselves; and others; as good or evil. And, sometimes we find that they are both just different sides of the same coin.

With a great script from a great book, directed by Sidney Pollack and filmed in a gritty New York City, this film makes good use of the soundtrack by Quincy Jones as it navigates the question of morality which we all must face at one time or another; “Am I a good person; or a bad one?”

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