The Pawnbroker [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (22nd August 2021).
The Film

"The Pawnbroker" (1964)

Sol Nazerman (played by Rod Steiger) is an owner of a pawn shop in Harlem. Cold and stubborn, he has a number of patrons daily that try to bargain with him but he rarely if ever gives a smile or a better deal for his customers. That said, he is still idolized by young shop assistant Jesus Ortiz (played by Jaime Sánchez) and social worker Marilyn (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald) who can sense there is a small amount of light within his dark soul. But Sol was not always this way. He survived the Holocaust and has been forever haunted by the deaths of his children and his wife, affecting him mentally and emotionally all these years later.

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Edward Lewis Wallant, "The Pawnbroker as a film broke a lot of new ground for American cinema. It was the first American film to have a Holocaust survivor as the main character. It was also the first film to have topless nudity and be approved by the Production Code. But these factors didn't particularly mean it had commercial appeal. In fact it was quite the opposite with its bleak tone and dark themes of reality melding with fiction. Directed by Sidney Lumet and released the same year as his film "Fail Safe", 1964's "The Pawnbroker" was a serious one two punch for the filmmaker, whose legacy would continue in the following decades.

Steiger's performance as Sol is an absolute highlight, playing the same character in both the present time and in flashbacks, through make-up making him look older and younger than his actual age. While the novel has the character as Polish, Steiger plays the character as German adding the accent to his quiet and stoic demeanor, completely becoming the fragile and tormented character. At the start of the film is a flashback of him playing happily with his children but it quickly cuts to twenty-five years later as he is living in the suburbs of New York. Disconnected from the world and only the business on his mind, he doesn't particularly care for the people around him or the circumstances surrounding him. As long as he can do business, that's all that there is to him. But even with the disconnected nature, there are still people around him that are not completely distant from him. His young apprentice Jesus is eager to be as helpful as possible at the shop, even if he is not always on time getting there. Youthful in spirit and with a smile on his face, he is also taking care of his immigrant mother (played by Eusebia Cosme) and also his girlfriend (played by Thelma Oliver). Things are a little complicated with the relationship as she is working as a prostitute under the mob boss Rodriguez (played by Brock Peters) who uses the pawnshop as a front and has a working understanding with Sol.

Visually the film plays closer to that of a documentary, shot in stark black and white by famed cinematographer Boris Kaufman who has had film credits for both documentaries and for feature films. The caged setting of the pawnshop is a stark metaphor for the sheltered character of Sol, who is always behind a barrier - whether in the concentration camps or his distance between his patrons. With many closeups and sometimes unsettling angles, the nightmarish scenes are also a work of experimentation through editing by editor Ralph Rosenblum, inserting flashing images of Sol's past which give uncomfortable glimpses for the audience members, being clued into the traumatic past moments. The moments of Sol watching his own children die, to his wife getting raped by camp guards, there are some horrifying images to be seen in glimpses before the full scenes are shown. The uneasy tension is very well crafted through the visuals, yet one of the more upbeat elements of the film is the music, composed by the legendary Quincy Jones in his first commissioned work as a film composer, giving a jazzy yet sometimes somber feel to the music that somehow fits accordingly.

Filled with themes of family ties, trauma from war, depression, death and sacrifice, race relations, there is a lot of ground that "The Pawnbroker" covers in its two hour runtime. Some may be inconsistent, as the scenes with Marilyn and Sol don't seem to gel as well as others, and the relationship between Jesus and Sol could have been explored more in depth. Even with those points in mind, "The Pawnbroker" was still a critical hit, as well as being commercially successful, $4 million against a budget of less than $1 million. Premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival on July 2nd, 1964 and released theatrically almost a year later on April 20th, 1965 in America, Steiger received a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance and won the Silver Bear in Berlin and the BAFTA award for best foreign actor in a leading role. Even with its high praises, it was still condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for the nudity, though ironically the National Council of Churches gave the film high praise, going against their decision. There was pressure to have the production cut the film's nudity or use alternate footage, but Lumet made sure not to shoot coverage (literally) so there would be no choice but to use the sequences as they were. Through various back and forth arguments, it was given a rating by the Production Code and was considered a major win for American cinema, changing what was deemed "acceptable" for standards and progressing a wave of works that would break down the barriers of taboo content to be shown on screen. More than half century after the film was first screened, "The Pawnbroker" still stands as a high work of challenging art, and is still a shocking and depressing look at the horrors of trauma and its effects on people.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray / region 2 PAL DVD set

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The HD transfer by MGM was supplied to the BFI by Park Circus and looks quite good, though not perfect. The black and white cinematography is crisp with dark blacks and a fair grey scale, with a good amount of detail being showcased and framed properly. Some damage marks can still be found in the transfer but it is fairly minimal, being only noticeable in certain sequences. Film grain is always visible and there are no traces of digital sharpening. Overall quite a good transfer to be found here.

The film's runtime is 115:31.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track is presented uncompressed on the Blu-ray. Dialogue, music, and effects are well balanced and clear throughout, with no particular issues such as hiss or pops to be found. A great, solid track here.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font.

Extras

This is a dual format set with the film and extras on the Blu-ray in HD and repeated in SD PAL on the DVD.

DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

Audio commentary with Maura Spiegel and Annette Insdorf

In this newly recorded commentary track, professors Maura Spiegel, author of Sidney Lumet: A Life and Annette Insdorf, author of Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, together discuss the production. They talk about the Holocaust theme, its stylistic influences, the metaphors, the background of Steiger's portrayal of the character, the score by Quincy Jones, and much more for the entire duration. An excellent listen.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

Guardian Interview: Rod Steiger (1992) (112:34)
Following a screening of "The Pawnbroker" on August 23rd, 1992, Steiger discusses in length about his career with moderator film critic Tom Hutchinson, as well as taking questions from the audience. Discussed are about his work on "On the Waterfront", working with and being in awe of David Lean, the difficult scenes in "The Pawnbroker", his worst experiences as an actor, his inspirations, his regrets and much more. This interview is presented as audio only, playing as an alternate audio track over the film. Once the interview ends, the audio reverts to the film's audio track.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

"Now and Then: Quincy Jones" 1968 interview (21:12)
Actor Bernard Braden filmed more than 330 interviews between September 1967 and June 1968 for a planned TV series entitled "Now and Then". Unfortunately the project was abandoned before any episodes were edited. The interviews themselves thankfully have been preserved and this one featuring Jones from April 26th, 1968 is presented here in an uncut form, complete with slates and reel changes. Discussed are Jones' work composing for film and its differences, his work in London, the changes that jazz and big band music are going through and more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

Gallery (5:09)
An automated silent slideshow featuring promotional stills and behind the scenes stills,
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

"Ten Bob in Winter" 1963 short (12:08)
"Ten Bob in Winter" is a BFI Experimental Film written, directed by, and starring Jamaican born Lloyd Reckord, who broke ground as a director and actor with his work from the first interracial kiss on television to the controversial gay kiss scene in the previously banned short "Dream A40" (1970). This short looks at race relations in the streets of London which may not have much in common with "The Pawnbroker", though the pawn shop being focused on is the clear connection here.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

Trailer (2:16)
The original US MGM trailer is presented here, filled with quotes praising the film. Though note the trailer includes a major spoiler for the ending. It comes from a standard definition source so the picture is a little on the blurry side.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

DISC TWO (DVD)
The DVD repeats the above content in standard definition.

Booklet
A 32 page booklet is included with the first pressing. First is an essay by film historian Jim Hemphill on the film and its themes. Martha Spiegel returns here for a written biography entitled "Sidney Lumet: His Own Man". There is also "The Jazz Prehistory of Quincy Jones" by Dr. Nicolas Pillai, looking at the musician's career. There are also film credits, special features information, transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills.

A clip from the film is embedded below, courtesy of the BFI.


The film was previously released on Blu-ray by Olive Films in the United States, with no extras. The BFI trumps it completely with the extensive extras.

Overall

"The Pawnbroker" is a difficult watch with its themes of wartime horror and the trauma it placed on one individual. Steiger's performance and Lumet's direction are both excellent and this BFI Blu-ray is an excellent edition with the presentation as well as the extensive extras. Highly Recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: B+ Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A-

 


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