I read The Pawnbroker at the wrong time. Jewish American author Edward Lewis Wallant published the thin novel, his second after The Human Season, a year before his untimely death in 1962. I wouldn’t be hitting the scene for another few decades, and by the time I did The Pawnbroker existed only in relative obscurity. I read it in college, where I sort of zipped through the little volume in between zipping through others.
In doing so, I read Sol Nazerman’s tale largely as a tale of urban woe. Those of suburban woe — by Updike, Cheever, O’Hara, and even a few guys who weren’t named John — were in great supply back then, from Rabbit, Run to Bullet Park to Appointment in Samarra. These books had protagonists that were either downright miserable or just miserable without knowing it, perhaps indifferent to the constant comings and goings or the constant stillness of life around them, and in that feeble criteria they were all grouped together. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, about a Jewish shopkeeper in postwar New York, seemed a worthy companion to The Pawnbroker because the protagonists seemed so similar. Assistant‘s Morris worked out of Brooklyn while Sol Nazerman’s pawnshop was in Harlem, but both were simply exhausted by life.
Or so it seemed. In watching the 1964 Sidney Lumet adaptation, it became evident how much of Sol Nazerman had gone over my head. The Pawnbroker opens with a delightful scene of a family — they’re very obviously a family, even though that’s not stated outright — frolicking in a field. Daddy is chasing the kids and boosting them up off the ground, Mommy is calling and laughing from beneath the shade of a tree. Suddenly they all start and spin to look in the same direction. The scene feels like that one from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West that begins calmly and almost mundanely but ends with the violent introduction of the villainous Frank. In The Pawnbroker we cut to a backyard on Long Island before we can see what all the commotion is about, Sol fast asleep in a chaise lounge under the baking sun.
Rod Steiger, an actor I’d previously associated with his role in another Leone film Duck, You Sucker!, is instantaneously and forever Sol Nazerman in my mind instead. Initially Sol seems so one-note that anyone might have played him. He hardly speaks at all, and when he does it’s either business or straight indifference driving his words. His pawn shop in Harlem is small and dingy and people file in and out bringing him their unwanted shit all day long. Ortiz, Sol’s assistant, is a life-force compared to the silent lug behind the counter. Again, in the beginning of the film, Steiger just seems like The Guy Who Got Cast as Sol — had Ernest Borgnine been available, he might have filled the shoes just as easily in the first half-hour.
But soon it becomes clear that Steiger’s performance holds a great deal in reserve, and his silences and two-word answers seem to pain him more and more. A young pregnant woman comes in to pawn her diamond engagement ring. It’s just until she can get on her feet, she’s saying, and then she’ll — Sol cuts her off: “It’s glass.” The woman is simultaneously frozen in place and crumpled in a ball on the floor. “He…he told me it was diamond…” she stutters. Sol says nothing. He’s all business, but the simple appraisal of a ring means a heck of a lot more to the little lady bound by it.
But Sol’s more than just tired with humdrum existence. He’s more than just reserved or indifferent (although we’ll touch on indifference in a second). His character isn’t necessarily “more” than those in the aforementioned suburban dramas, isn’t necessarily “deeper” than, say, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul from The Conversation. Hackman’s Caul and Steiger’s Sol could very well have an indifference-off, competing to see who could be the coldest bastard in New York, and it might come out a tie in the end. But Sol’s indifference toward humanity is born of a severe brush with the dark side of that humanity: he survived the Holocaust, but his family — the one frolicking in the field in the beginning, turning to see Nazi soldiers approaching — did not.
I hope I might be forgiven, at a comparatively young age, for thinking Sol simply tired of people. He is tired of them, but he’s also terrified of them. As in the book, this tortured past is wrapped so subtly into Sol’s present that it’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Hell, you could watch Sol amble through The Pawnbroker with the film on mute; barring the rare outburst from the otherwise quiet man, the most affecting portions of the film would still be there. Seriously, try it — even if you haven’t seen the film, take this scene of Sol on the subway and watch it without sound:
Little is lost by isolating the visuals, although the overbearing rail-grinding sound of the train and Sol’s cries of “I can’t do anything!” do serve to heighten the tension. But the fact of the matter is that you’d miss the most tragic aspects of Sol Nazerman if you weren’t paying attention, which was definitely the case when I read Wallant’s novel. Indifference, interestingly enough, is quoted by real-life Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as “the opposite of love…the opposite of life”, which only further compounds Sol’s inability to overcome his horrific past. The Pawnbroker, both novel and film, are of far greater importance than the reputation (or lack thereof) might suggest. So read it, rent it, listen to Sol, watch him. And pay attention.