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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: The Pawnbroker



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#1 of 6 OFFLINE   Michael Elliott

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Posted December 13 2003 - 02:39 PM

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The Pawnbroker


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Studio: Artisan/Republic
Year: 1964
Rated: NR
Film Length: 111 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Full Frame (1.33:1)
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround
Subtitles: None
Retail Price: $14.95




The Pawnbroker was one of the first films to deal with a Holocaust survivor yet for some unknown reason the movie is pretty much forgotten by everyone. While films like The Diary of Ann Frank and Schindler’s List have their mark in screen history, this 1964 film from director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) is pretty much known for the stunning work by star Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront, The Amityville Horror) yet the film itself remains rather unknown.

The film opens up in a beautiful field full of lovely flowers. Out in the field is a young Sol Nazerman (Steiger) who is playing with his kids while his beautiful wife is fixing something to eat. Out of nowhere we see Sol’s face turn to fear and then we jump to present day 1964. We now see that Sol is the owner of a pawnshop where he has made his living the past few decades. Each day customers come in begging for him to buy their trash in return for a few bucks and over time Sol has come to hate these people not just for what they are but because they could always turn on him.

Inside the pawnshop is a young a wildly hyper man named Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) who hopes to one day own his own shop. Jesus can see that his boss is a bitter old man that has plenty of hatred running through him but at the same time he is curious because of Sol’s knowledge. Sol’s bitter life keeps getting bitter and bitter but things take a turn for the worst when Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) walks into his store. She too is curious about the bitter Sol and continues to pursue him even though he keeps getting colder to her. Eventually the past catches up with Sol who simply can’t live in the present time due to his memories of being a Holocaust survivor.

The Pawnbroker is a haunting, ugly and bitter character study yet that’s the strongest point because at no time is the main character shown as anything other than what he actually is. I’m not if that was the intent of the director but I left the movie feeling just as angry as the character Steiger plays in the film. We know the man is haunted by his past yet that’s not an excuse for the way he treats everyone who enters his store and those who try to enter his life. The entire film seems like an episode of The Twilight Zone due to the bizarre and haunting score by Quincy Jones but the best thing going for the film is the chilling performance from Steiger.

For the most part the character is a quiet man only saying whatever he needs to to get a deal done. Customers enter his store and Steiger tells them what he’ll offer and that is it. A lot of the performance is body motion and Steiger nails all of this perfectly. You can tell the hatred he has just by looking at his eyes and those wonderful facial expressions will tell you exactly what the character is speaking. It’s not only the facial expressions that Steiger captures but it’s the walk, the talk and most importantly the overall feel of this character. Towards the end of the film Steiger has some crying scenes, which aren’t very heartbreaking but instead they are terrifying because we are seeing a man breaking down in front of our eyes. It’s rather remarkable how intense Steiger gets and watching it is just as remarkable.

Another wonderful aspect is the terrific score by Quincy Jones. I’ve read a few reviews that say this score is out of place with the subject matter but I’ve got to disagree. The film is dealing with a man in present time who is living his life in the past. With this in mind the wildly uneven jazz score just gives more feeling to how confused and out of place this character is. There’s a wonderful sequence where Steiger is riding on a train only to have a flashback to when he was being taken to the concentration camp. The score makes this scene so hyper and out of control that we are able to see the character breaking down all the better. The wonderful black and white cinematography also adds a lot of depth to the character.

Jaime Sanchez also adds wonderful support as the naïve kid trying to understand a guy he hates yet has so much admiration for. Brock Peters also shines in his limited role as a somewhat pimp. The Pawnbroker has so much going for it but in the end it’s a rather bizarre character study that doesn’t try to be cute or have any happy moments. We are seeing an ugly world full of loneliness, torture and pain so director Lumet made the perfect choice to show it as such. The film also uses some rather shocking nudity, which was very uncommon for such a mainstream film. The scenes where this is used just adds to all the claustrophobia, which runs think in the film. I’m really not sure why The Pawnbroker is so forgotten but film fans would be wise to give this movie a shot at redemption.


VIDEO---The film is shown full frame (1.33:1), which is not the correct aspect ratio. From what I could gather the correct ratio should be 1.85:1 and you can tell that the sides are cut off here. I wouldn’t say too much is missing but since I haven’t seen the film before I really can’t tell how much. I mostly noticed that when characters are to the right or left of the screen the majority of the times only half their body is seen. The top and bottom looks perfectly fine from what I could tell. The actual transfer itself is a mixed bag of treats. The good news is that for the most part the B&W transfer is clean without any major dirt to be spotted. All the scenes inside the dark pawnshop look very natural with solid blacks. The only problem is that there are still some speckles, a few scratches and the opening sequence looks out of focus, although I’m not sure if it was actually shot this way. Overall I was happy with the transfer even though some more work could have helped.

AUDIO---The sound is Dolby Digital Surround and like the video this here is a mixed bag. The jazz score sounds incredible coming from the speakers but during the quiet moments there is hiss, crackles and pops all over the place. This here isn’t a problem that runs throughout the movie but it appeared that every ten minutes or so this problem would return. The dialogue is clear and easy to hear.

EXTRAS---No extras are included.

OVERALL---This is a wonderful film due to Steiger’s brilliant performance and it’s a real shame that the movie isn’t better known. Artisan really dropped the ball on this release since they didn’t bother with a widescreen transfer. I have no problem recommending the movie but the disc is another question. Perhaps you should just rent the disc to see the movie and wait to buy it when someone gives it the care it deserves.


Release Date: December 16, 2003

#2 of 6 OFFLINE   StevenFC

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Posted December 13 2003 - 10:00 PM

Well...who's going to be the first to say it??
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#3 of 6 OFFLINE   John Watson

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Posted December 13 2003 - 10:35 PM

Artisan would crop Mona Lisa's Smile?

#4 of 6 OFFLINE   Robert Crawford

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Posted December 13 2003 - 10:49 PM

Artisan, shame on you.

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#5 of 6 OFFLINE   oscar_merkx

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Posted December 14 2003 - 01:23 AM

I will rent this first
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#6 of 6 OFFLINE   Gordon McMurphy

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Posted March 25 2006 - 12:15 PM

Is this DVD OOP? Amazon only has listings for Used and New: Click here

Is the transfer open-matte or cropped from a 1.85 hard-matte?

Seeing the recent, scene-by-scene programme on Lumet on the Network DVD got me interested in this film again, but I'd like to know what the status of the DVD is before I seek it out. Stark, striking cinematography by Boris Kaufman, highly-effective editing by future Woody Allen cutter, Ralph Rosenblum and Lumet restrains Steiger to a memorable, harrowing and deeply moving performance. As much as I love Lee Marvin, there's no way in hell that he dug as deep on Cat Ballou as Steiger did on The Pawnbroker (Steiger won the BAFTA, though). If Republic owned it, then that means that Paramount now control it. Let's see Lumet-approved transfer and commentary in the near future, if that is the case.