My heart sank mournfully on April 9 when I learned of Sidney Lumet’s death at 86. Lumet was one of the great American directors, author of more than 40 films in a career that spanned five decades.

Lumet made more great films than most directors dream of producing, most notably “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Verdict” and his masterpiece, “Network.” I’ve already reviewed two other Lumet classics — “Fail Safe” and “Prince of the City” — for this column.

Examining Lumet’s body of work, the number of quality films is startling. Though he aged into his late 80s, he never slowed down much, remaining lucidly skilled until the very end. His last film, 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead,” was a tightly-constructed, methodical thriller, demonstrating that, even at 83, Lumet still had the touch.

While a uniquely skilled director, Lumet didn’t have a stylistic or thematic signature we might see in the work of Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese. He could, and did, direct just about every type of film, from the whimsically funny (“The Wiz”) to the heartbreakingly dramatic (“Running On Empty”) back into the farcical (“Bye Bye Braverman”). Binding each film together was Lumet’s intelligent, empathetic approach to the material. While he could reinvent himself in any context, his integrity always stayed the same.

It was hard to choose a Lumet film for today’s column, but I settled on a heartbreaking, underseen gem, “The Pawnbroker” (1964). The film exemplifies Lumet’s ability to simply observe a character and explore their pain in clear, sympathetic terms. The film is small in scope, taking place in only a few locations in a bustling New York City, but intimately explores its protagonist’s psychological struggle.

The protagonist is Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), a Jewish pawnbroker who runs a pawn shop in Harlem. Nazerman is a quiet and sad, with a head of thinning gray hair and owlish spectacles. He spends his days with his nose buried religiously in his account books, keeping vigilant track of his business’s losses and gains.

Nazerman’s pawn shop attracts mostly the dregs of the local neighborhood, lonely people who bring him their valuables in desperation. Nazerman preys on their circumstances, usually only offering a few dollars for items worth much more, knowing the customer is trapped into taking what he will offer. Occasionally a customer will try to start conversation, but Nazerman simply stares into his account book, answering with curt remarks.

Nazerman trudges through life apathetically, numb to his existence, as if waiting for death. We learn slowly through flashbacks that he is a Holocaust survivor and lost his wife and children in the death camps. Nazerman has pushed these memories away and seems to trust no one, valuing people only for the money they can bring to his business. Money, he says, is the only thing he believes in anymore.

By the time “The Pawnbroker” was made, only a few Hollywood films had explored the Holocaust. The most notable example, Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg,” looked at the Holocaust through the clinical framework of a courtroom drama, pondering its moral questions with only a few glimpses at the actual atrocities.

While Kramer’s film tried to understand the Holocaust in moralistic, historical terms, Lumet explores its individual effects through the character of Nazerman. While Nazerman has tried to repress the horrors of his past, he wears the scars of a survivor like weights around his neck.

Lumet slowly illustrates the extent of his trauma, using small moments in the present as touchstones for horrific moments in Nazerman’s past. The unexpected revelation of a woman’s breasts reminds him of the sexual abuse his wife endured from the Nazis. During a trip home on a subway, he remembers his son being trampled to death on a train to a concentration camp. Even a bright summer day in his sister-in-law’s backyard reminds him of the beautiful day when he and his family were captured, their peaceful lives quickly snatched away from them. 

Nazerman has endured his own spiritual death in the past, and now sees no reason for living. He is numb to the world and all those in it. Lumet and Steiger don’t use the Holocaust to simplify the character, though — the word “Nazi” is never spoken in the film and “concentration camp” only once. The filmmakers understand him not just as the victim of a traumatic event, but as a man who must learn to feel something again, even if it is pain.

Steiger, in an Oscar-nominated performance, fully immerses himself in the character. His Nazerman is unaccommodating, blustering and difficult, working at pains to hide his personal wounds. As the character’s defenses fall though, Steiger becomes more and more disheveled, revealing Nazerman’s total anguish.

The film is quiet, spare and dark, taking place mostly in Nazerman’s cramped shop (which, with its wire screens separating the pawnbroker from his customers, looks like a prison cell) and the seedy alleys surrounding it. The city around Nazerman is active and bustling, ever looking to the future, an ironic contrast to the slumped figure of Nazerman who can’t let go of the past. Lumet creates an environment where the character feels coldly isolated, mostly of his own choice.

Lumet would grow more familiar with this type of character — the desolate loner searching for  spiritual redemption — as his career went forward (Paul Newman’s alcoholic lawyer in “The Verdict” is a similar figure). Yet Lumet would always look at each character in the same honest, sympathetic light. He never judges or condescends to Sol Nazerman; he simply observes the character as he comes to grips with his pain, with heartbreaking results.

Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237 or doneil@kentuckynewera.com.

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