Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (1964)

In “The Pawnbroker,” Rod Steiger gives an incredible performance as Sol Nazerman, a man who lost his wife and children during the Holocaust and is now running a pawnshop in Harlem. Sol has shut himself off from the world emotionally as a means to escape from his horrible memories but it’s not working out too well. Day in and day out, a parade of lonely and pathetic people come to the pawnshop to get a few bucks for their meager possessions. Some are friendly, some are desperate and some unintentionally trigger the memories that haunt Sol. All are met with icy indifference and an offer of a buck or two.

One woman, Marilyn Brickfield, comes to the pawnshop not as a customer, but as a solicitor for charity. A widow, she recognizes Sol’s loneliness and tries to initiate a relationship by inviting him to lunch in the park. Sol nearly brings her to tears with his stinging rejection of her friendship. In the meantime, he has a physical relationship with Tessie. Her husband died in a concentration camp. She lives with her elderly father, an Auschwitz survivor, who hates Sol. Tessie is treated no better than Marilyn.

Sol has an apprentice named Jesus Ortiz, who wants Sol to teach him how to run the business. Jesus was running with a trio of unsavory characters before, led by Tangee. He has promised his mother that he will be “strictly legit” from now on but Tangee taunts him that he’s just a chump working for peanuts now. Jesus brags that he saw Sol put $5,000 in his safe. His hooker girlfriend doesn’t want him getting mixed up with them. She offers to help Jesus get the money together to open his own business and he tries to learn what he can from his miserable boss.

Where did that $5,000 come from? Sol has been laundering money for Rodriguez, a racketeer, and getting a cut of that. That’s just another aspect of his business until one day, Sol learns from Jesus’ girlfriend that Rodriguez owns whorehouses, and tries to cut ties with him.

After Sol tells his apprentice that money is the only thing that matter, that $5,000 in the safe is beckoning to Jesus. He lets the unsavory trio in on the idea of robbing the pawnshop, on the condition that it goes down how and when he says. After Sol completely shatters any illusions he had about their relationship, Jesus gives the go-ahead for the heist with disastrous results.

Rod Steiger was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in 1966 for this magnificent performance. He often said it was his favorite role and was very disappointed that he lost the Oscar to Lee Marvin (for the dual role of Kid Sheleen and Tim Strawn in the 1965 comedy “Cat Ballou”). “The Pawnbroker” was not released in the USA until 1965 because the subject matter was so dark, it took a while to get anyone to take a chance on it. Ironically, if it had been released in 1964, Steiger would have been up against Rex Harrison (“My Fair Lady”) at the 1965 Oscars with an even smaller chance of winning. Steiger went on to win the Best Actor Oscar just two years later for his role as Sheriff Bill Gillespie in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967).

More Recommended Viewing for Rod Steiger Fans: Private Screening with Robert Osborne

Notes on the Cast:

Geraldine Fitzgerald played Marilyn Birchfield. She earned a Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Isabella Linton in 1939’s “Wuthering Heights.” Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff married her to spite his true love, Cathy, who married Isabella’s brother. Poor Isabella! (But lucky Geraldine— she got to hang all over Laurence Olivier).

Jaime Sanchez played Jesus Ortiz in his second film role. He played Angel in “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and was also in “Carlito’s Way” (1993)

Brock Peters played Rodriguez, the crime boss using Nazerman’s pawn shop for a front to launder his dirty money. It’s a far cry from his performance as Tom Robinson just two years earlier in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Peters also had a role in 1962’s “The L-Shaped Room” starring Leslie Caron. The film’s title can be seen on a movie theater marquee in “The Pawnbroker”

Raymond St. Jacques played Tangee, the leader of the petty criminals Ortiz used to run with. 10 years after this film, St. Jacques and Brock Peters were in “Lost in the Stars.”

Baruch Lumet (director Sidney Lumet’s father) played Mendel, Tessie’s father.

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