Andy Klein DVD review: The Pawnbroker

A scene from Sidney Lumet's classic The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger. (Courtesy of Olive Films / April 25, 2014)

Sidney Lumet's 1964 adaptation of Edward Lewis Wallant's novel debuted in Europe but took almost a year to reach American screens. Despite its many virtues, it's easy to see why American distributors plugged their ears and pretended it didn't exist.

Rod Steiger received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sol Nazerman, a Holocaust survivor whose emotions have been destroyed or at least denied. Now living in New York, he has abandoned being a professor and instead runs a pawnshop in Harlem. He displays not a hint of empathy or kindness; it takes all his mental energy just to keep at bay his memories of horror and degradation, including the rape of his wife and the death of his children. But now a series of events, both major and minor, is breaking down his internal armor.

Despite its great power — actually, probably because of its great power — it's as noncommercial a project as possible. Its controversies were not due merely to its relentless despair. Stylistically it employed a technique previously limited to the French New Wave: Sol has memories that are presented in brief flashes of less than a second. At first their effect is almost subliminal; you're not sure what you've just seen. Secondly, a prostitute bares her breasts. It is about as unerotic a moment as imaginable, but still flouted the restrictions on mainstream American film. Thirdly, it seems to reinforce ethnic stereotypes, even as it attempts to explain them sympathetically. The black characters are all either pimps, gangsters, thieves or (at best) drunks.

Nazerman himself is almost a poster boy for anti-Semitic cliches. He is condescending and coldhearted, claiming to care about nothing but money. About halfway through, however, when his Puerto Rican employee asks, “Why are you people so good with money?” he angrily explains how a history of landlessness and persecution have forced Jews into (as he sarcastically puts it) “a mercantile heritage.”

It should be obvious that this is not first-date material. It's rewarding in insight, but nearly without hope. As usual, Olive Films — a small distributor specializing in great films that have fallen between the video cracks — include no extras. But — also as usual — the company presents a crisp transfer of cinematographer Boris Kaufman's black-and-white images. Quincy Jones's score is vibrant, if sometimes inappropriately jazzy. Trivia note: Morgan Freeman apparently made his big-screen debut in “The Pawnbroker” — as (in the IMDb's words) “Man on Street” — but I couldn't spot him.

The Pawnbroker (Olive Films, Blu-ray, $29.95; DVD, $19.95)

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ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).