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The Pawnbroker (Blu-ray Review)

PawnbrokerLegendary director Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker is a landmark in American filmmaking.  This was the first Holocaust/World War II film to tell it from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor.  And its an unrelenting and ruthless film for the times in terms of the suggestive events in the flashbacks.  Its also the first mainstream film to have nudity approved by the Production Code.  The Production Code was something that was in place before we had a ratings system.  A pair of breasts is what is on display, but due to the manner in which its used it was given the OK.  The film also features the role that landed actor Rod Steiger on the A-list and launched him into stardom.  Olive Films has taken this landmark film and restored it and will be releasing it to the lovely Blu-ray format.

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Film 

The old, quiet and introverted Sol Nazerman operates a pawn shop in the heart of Harlem.  He’s a man lacking any sort of compassion or emotion toward anyone and anything.  His life has come to this, as his past is a dark and dispirited one.  You see, Sol used to be a university professor back in Germany.  Unfortunately he was Jewish man during the rise of Adolf Hitler.  He and his family were snatched up and put in a concentration camp by the Nazis where he witnessed the death of his sons and the rape of his wife by Nazi soldiers.  Now, cold and distant, he lives with haunting flashbacks every day.  And now he’s come into trouble when he finds out his pawn shop is only a front by the owner for a prostitution ring and he refuses to support it.

Rod Steiger owns this movie.  In fact, I think he’s better here than his Oscar winning performance in In The Heat Of The Night.  If you’re familiar with him and some of his performances, he’s almost unrecognizable here.  His look is one thing, but his voice, accent and inflection totally help one to sink right into character.  The rest of the cast here is pretty solid, but Steiger absolutely blows the rest of them out of the water.  It’s not his fault or that he’s intentionally upstaging anyone here, its that he is just that damn good in the film.  Its a fully realized character as you get to see what a completely different man he was in flashbacks as to who he is now.  You also get to see the sort of process with which he became the man he is as the pawn shop operator.  Oh, and blink and you’ll miss it, but Morgan Freeman shows up in this movie.  And it looks to be his first film role, albeit he goes uncredited.

What sticks out to me most with this film is the absolutely gorgeous cinematography one display here.  It comes from Polish director of photography Boris Kaufman.  You may have seen his work on such films as On The Waterfront and 12 Angry Men.  The Pawnbroker is incredibly inspired by the French New Wave.  There’s many fantastic moments that I’m sure were a collaboration between Lumet and Kaufman.  The slow motion, beautiful happiness that turns grim in the opening will rope you in immediately.  Another decision is these quick, few frame length, shots akin back to the concentration camps that intercut with moments that remind Sol of his past.  It’s a great demonstration of making the audience aware of what daily life is like for this survivor.  Sometimes these cuts link into a full flashback, but at other times not.  Speaking of that nudity, the way its used here is intended to taint the titillation of it and drown you in a depression and disturbing flashback.  I have to credit the photography in this film with being one of its biggest stars and what ultimately makes this film incredibly effective.  It also manages to keep it relevant, not dated and timeless.

This film works on a level that Holocaust related subject matter doesn’t really do too much any more.  Films that came later would lavish in  showing you the “brutal honesty” of the concentration camps and shock you with the cruel nature of the Nazi soldiers.  There’s nothing extremely graphic or shocking onscreen regarding The Pawnbroker.  It may have qualified back in 1964, but by today’s standards its rather tame.  Or is it?  I personally found the subject matter and the way its presented to be incredibly disturbing in its more suggestive nature.  By not showing, but rather hinting at or leading you only so far, your mind is left to wander.  This likely can cause you to create a pretty drastic scenario in your own mind and the fact that you have to think it all out keeps it stuck at the forefront of your brain.  To me, this can be just as effective, if not more, than just showing some brutality onscreen.  I’d hate to use the word “poetic” about how its constructed when it comes to this sort of content, but I think you get what I mean by referring to that.

All the Harlem storylines wonderously weave in and out with Sol’s past coming to haunt him.  He’s purposely put himself where he feels in the lowest of the lows and can hide from the world.  The man has people who care that surround him, but he spends his time beating himself up over survivor’s guilt.  He’s got a woman who fancies dating him, an employee who looks up to him and sees him as a mentor, and he’s also got his wife’s sister’s family with a niece and a nephew.  But none of this matters, just a countdown to the day he finally passes on from this Earth.  Sol is even ashamed or disheartened by any bit of his past as we find when someone calls him “professor”.  We discover his ways through many suspenseful scenes where Sol just stands his ground against a lot of possibly dangerous characters giving pressuring him.

Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was a landmark film in American cinema.  And within a just a few moments of watching it, you can immediately tell it stands the test of time.  Its storytelling methods and such feel very ahead of its time and feels very fresh and distinct compared to a lot of American films of its time period.  Rod Steiger gives one of his career best performances, in a role he just sinks into and builds a remarkable depth through script and acting.  For a lesson on character, history and just plain filmmaking, The Pawnbroker should be seen by all.  Its a marvelous film.

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Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1:85.1

Clarity/Detail:  This is quite an impressive transfer.  Detail is very high and the image is pretty sharp.  There’s a fine, lovely, layer of grain present.  From sweat beads on skin to the fabric of clothing, things are very clean and lifelike.  Even the strands up loose hairs on Steiger’s comb-over show up clear as day.  I honestly kept thinking back to when I reviewed Nebraska and feeling like this picture quality is not very far off from that.  It almost could pass for a more modern film than it is.

Depth: A nice range of depth is on full display as we have many close ups and distinctly framed shots.  There’s a scene on an apartment balcony that shows a great 3 dimensional distance between characters in the foreground and the background.  Another great example comes on a subway car when the door opens and you get a real sense of distance.

Black Levels:  At times the film gets really dark and does hide some detail.  In the pawn shop, some angles end up losing detail.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: N/A

Noise/Artifacts: This print has a light layer of grain and some minor specs present at times.

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Audio 

Audio Format(s): English 1.0 DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: N/A

Dynamics: This is a nicely restored track that is clean and crisp.  There is a distinct distance in loudness relevant to distance.  Also effects, score and dialogue is all notably at separate volumes from one another.

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is pretty perfect.  Even when it gets loud (which some of these older mono tracks have issues with) it remains relative distortion-free.

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Extras 

Bummer, I actually wanted some extras on this one.  None present.

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Summary 

I think The Pawnbroker and the restoration work done on this release are strong enough to warrant a recommendation on this one.  Film lovers and creators would do good by having this one in the collection to study and learn from.  Its a film that is elevated to another level by way of its performer and storytelling behind the camera.  It holds up perfectly by many of today’s standards and its photography is enough to keep this thing going for even the biggest of vintage cinema detractors.  And if you’re a Sidney Lumet fan, you pretty much already had this one bought once it was announce.  Olive Films has really done a great job with this transfer, which you can tell they really seemed to care about.  Pick it up!

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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