The Pawn­broker (1961)

Sidney Lumet’s film about a Jewish pawn­broker in Harlem was adapted from Edward Wallant’s novel. It featured a remark­able array of talents: cine­ma­to­graphy by Bernard Kaufman (On The Water­front), edited by Ralph Rosen­blum (The Graduate, Catch 22) and a strong cast headed by Rod Steiger.

The prot­ag­onist, Sol Nazerman (Steiger), is a Jewish Holo­caust survivor; now running a pawnbroker’s shop in Harlem, who has anaes­thet­ised himself against any feel­ings for his fellow human beings and repressed all memories of his past. The film tells the story of his painful reawakening: first to his memories and then to the impossib­ility of remaining detached from the suffering around him. At the end of the film, he comes to a full aware­ness of his own ines­cap­able involve­ment with humanity and performs a symbolic act of atonement.

The pawnbrokerIts subject, the exper­i­ence of a Holo­caust survivor, was some­thing that not been explored in such depth and detail in main­stream Amer­ican cinema until then. The subject was regarded as too painful in the post-war period, espe­cially amongst Jewish emig­rants, and an unof­fi­cial taboo remained in place for many years. Even here, the symbolism in the film is largely Chris­tian in its motifs (Nazerman’s Puerto Rican assistant is called “Jesus” and the spike used in the final scene has obvious Calvary connota­tions). This symbolism might even be regarded as a little heavy-handed, but the film still has real power and depth.

Part of this comes from the film-making itself: Lumet creates two distinct worlds with contrasting rhythms and atmo­spheres. We have the interior of the Pawn­broker shop: a place of cages and oppressive shadows; and the ghetto outside which is vivid and fren­etic, choreo­graphed by Quincy Jones’  jazz score. Punc­tu­ating the film is the harsh rattle of subway trains that, in one memor­able sequence, conjure up for Nazerman the night­marish journey to the camps.

Innov­ative, for that time, was the use of flash­backs that flickered for only a couple of frames; a ‘sublim­inal’ tech­nique (possibly borrowed from Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Mari­enbad); that bril­liantly evokes the inva­sion of repressed memories; images that grow and take on unwilling substance in Nazerman’s mind.


In the sequences edited together for this clip, we are shown a selec­tion of the parade of char­ac­ters which Nazerman encoun­ters daily. All of them want some­thing from him: money, sympathy, friend­ship or just conver­sa­tion. All are true Aris­totelian char­ac­ters with simple goals but also with recog­nis­able and empath­etic humanity. They are skil­fully and memor­ably drawn and they are the forces at work upon the prot­ag­onist; failing at first, but even­tu­ally succeeding, in helping to bring about a change in him.

Set against them is the conflict within Nazerman himself; his increas­ingly desperate efforts to remain untouched and untouch­able. By denying them any outward show of human empathy, he is also trying to deny its exist­ence inside himself. There are few prot­ag­on­ists in contem­porary films who bear the burden of their past so heavily, or who work so hard to contain it.

© David Clough 2010

Key speechRead the speech

Nazerman explains why Jews have a gift for commerce

(Nazerman is asked by Jesus (Jaime Sanchez), his shop assistant, about Jewish busi­ness success: “So how come you people come to busi­ness so natural?”)

Nazerman: You people? Oh, I see. Yeah. I see. I see, you, uh, you want to learn the secret of our success, is that right? All right, I teach you. First of all, you start off with a period of several thou­sand years, during which you have nothing to sustain you but a great bearded legend. Oh, my friend, you have, uh, no land to call your own, to grow food on or to hunt. You have nothing. You’re never in one place long enough to have a geography or an army or a land myth. All you have is a little brain. A little brain and a great bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that you are special, even in poverty. But this, uh, this little brain, that’s the real key, you see.

With this little brain, you go out and you buy a piece of cloth, and you cut that cloth in two and you go out and sell it for a penny more than you paid for it. Then you run right out and buy another piece of cloth, cut it into three pieces and sell it for three pennies profit. But, my friend, during that time, you must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread for the table or a toy for a child, no. You must imme­di­ately run out and get your­self a still larger piece of cloth and so you repeat this process over and over.

And suddenly you discover some­thing. You have no longer any desire, any tempta­tion to dig into the Earth to grow food or to gaze at a limit­less land and call it your own, no, no. You just go on and on and on repeating this process over the centuries, over and over, and suddenly you make a grand discovery. You have a mercantile heritage! You are a merchant. You are known as a usurer, a man with secret resources, a witch, a pawn­broker, a sheenie, a mocky and a kike!

What to read next
See also the notes and case studies for “Levels of Conflict

  • I saw this film many years ago…I still remember the impres­sion it made on me!

    Thanks for giving me the oppor­tunity to see, once more, one of the best. Sol

Leave a Reply


Site Index