Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Pawnbroker (1964)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Pawnbroker (1964)

In director Sidney Lumet's mainstream, documentary-styled, b/w, socially-conscious psychological urban melodrama (shot on location) with a number of quick flashbacks and montages to reveal the protagonist's horrific remembered past as a concentration camp survivor; it was the first US film to show a woman nude from the waist up with bare breasts that was granted a Production Code seal because the nakedness was integral to the story, and the film was enhanced with a jazzy Quincy Jones score:

  • the opening prologue was a slow-motion, nostalgic, and idyllic mid-summer memory of a young, happy Jewish man (a university professor) with his wife, his children and older relatives in an open country meadow, when suddenly the images were jarred or interrupted by an unknown menace (the arrival of German Nazi officials in a car)
  • twenty years after the war (and after his wife's death), Nazi concentration camp sole survivor and emotionally withdrawn, embittered pawnbroker Sol Nazerman (Best Actor-nominated Rod Steiger) worked in a grimy, claustrophobic Spanish and East Harlem pawnshop (at 116th St. and Park Ave.), and supportively lived with his sister-in-law Bertha (Nancy R. Pollack) in a suburban home on Long Island, with her two squabbling teenaged children; he had a distant relationship with Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell) (another camp survivor) with whom he slept and played cards, and he supported both Tessie and her father-in-law Mendel (Baruch Lumet); Sol also suffered through a cold acquaintanceship with friendly, middle-aged spinster social welfare worker Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald)
  • Sol responded to his brash, ambitious young shop assistant Puerto Rican Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez), a reformed criminal, who was interested in a friendship and mentoring relationship with the closed-off Sol; Jesus asked about Jewish business success: "So how come you people come to business so natural" - Nazerman answered (in part): "You people? Oh, I see. Yeah. I see. I see, you, uh, you want to learn the secret of our success, is that right? All right, I teach you. First of all, you start off with a period of several thousand years, during which you have nothing to sustain you but a great bearded legend. Oh my friend, you have, uh, no land to call your own, to grow food on or to hunt. You have nothing. You're never in one place long enough to have a geography or an army or a land myth. All you have is a little brain. A little brain and a great bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that you are special, even in poverty. But this, uh, this little brain, that's the real key, you see. With this little brain, you go out and you buy a piece of cloth, and you cut that cloth in two and you go out and sell it for a penny more than you paid for it. Then you run right out and buy another piece of cloth, cut it into three pieces and sell it for three pennies profit....You just go on and on and on repeating this process over the centuries, over and over, and suddenly you make a grand discovery. You have a mercantile heritage! You are a merchant. You are known as a usurer, a man with secret resources, a witch, a pawnbroker, a sheenie, a makie and a kike!"
Sol's Answer to Question by Jesus Ortiz about Jewish Business Success
  • quick-cutting flashbacks represented two of Sol Nazerman's memory flashes: (1) after he glanced at a pregnant young female customer's glittering diamond engagement ring, he recalled outstretched hands next to barbed wire having jewelry removed from fingers by the SS Nazis, and (2) a barking dog and rumble in the slum against a black youth triggered his recollection of an attempted concentration camp escape by a Jewish prisoner struggling to climb over a wire fence before being attacked by a Nazi German shepherd
Disturbing and Associative Flashcuts Back to Concentration Camp Horrors

In the Present

In the Death Camp
  • Sol became very concerned and suffered a crisis of conscience when he learned that his silent black business partner-backer Rodriguez (Brock Peters), a local crime boss, was using the unprofitable pawnshop as an illegal front to launder money for his rackets - and brothel businesses; the fact that the pawnshop was being used to promote prostitution was a trigger to recall memories of his dead wife's rape in the concentration camp; after Sol told Rodriguez that he refused to accept money from a brothel, he was beaten into submission to comply
  • in the film's most controversial scene, a black prostitute (Thelma Oliver), Jesus' girlfriend who was employed by Rodriguez, bared her breasts for Sol in exchange for money: ("You've got to get me some money - Look!"); a fast series of clips alternated between shots of the prostitute, himself, and his brutal, intense and triggered flashbacks of Nazi guards readying themselves to sexually assault his humiliated wife Ruth (Linda Geiser) (also seen briefly topless) years before
  • because Sol interpreted sex as dark and evil, he covered the young topless woman with her raincoat, and gave her a $20 dollar bill; after learning about Jesus' and the hooker's connections to Rodriguez, Sol cruelly denounced the young boy (and any association with him) and told him: "You are nothing to me"

Robbery of Pawn Shop: Tangee with Other Thugs

Robbery Attempt with Firearm

Ortiz' Death on the Sidewalk

Sol's Reaction
  • Jesus became involved with old criminal neighborhood buddies in a plot to rob the shop; he was prompted to turn spiteful against his mentoring teacher Sol, after Sol's cruel comment, but Jesus insisted to his accomplices that no guns would be used during the robbery
  • however, in the depressing and tragic conclusion, an armed robbery was led by a neighborhood gang leader Tangee (Raymond St. Jacques) and two thugs - the theft was connected and visualized as the ominous arrival of the three German officials in the film's opening; the thugs mercilessly beat up Sol when he refused to cooperate and turn over money to them
  • during the assault, Jesus stepped in to try and save Sol when a gun was aimed at him, and he was accidentally hit by the gunshot - Jesus crawled out to the sidewalk and died in the street, after confessing: "I said no shootin'. No to hurt you"; Sol realized that Jesus had sacrificed his life for him - and attempted to scream with his mouth grimacing and wide open, but with no sound emerging
  • shockingly and cathartically, Sol's skewered and punctured his hand on a sharp metal receipt spindle in the shop used to hold pawn tickets or receipts - the self-inflicted wound was intended to force him to feel the physical pain and restore his humanity

Prologue - a Mid-Summer Memory

Black Prostitute (Thelma Oliver)

The Triggering Sol's Flashback of His Wife's Rape in Camp

Sol's Wife Ruth Nazerman (Linda Geiser) - Abused in Death Camp


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