The Pawnbroker (1964) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Pawnbroker, now 40 years old, in B&W, and very dated in technique, is probably best remembered for its daring:

  • In an era of fluff, when The Sound of Music was an Oscar winner, The Pawnbroker went after heavy issues related to survival, pain, guilt, and memories too unbearable to face. It was about a holocaust survivor running a pawn shop in Harlem, a miserable, sad man dead to the world around him. Certain events in his current life triggered a haunting by the once-buried memories of how his wife and children failed to survive the European graveyard.

  • Director Sydney Lumet shot a lot of the action in actual Harlem streets, giving the film an authenticity and grit uncharacteristic of the films of its time.

  • In an era when the Hays Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency still held on, albeit with a last grasp, to the nation's filmed morality, The Pawnbroker dared to show quite a bit of nudity. In response, it was condemned by the Legion, despite its tone of gravitas about solemn subject matter, and the absolute necessity for the nudity. (Seeing a topless prostitute stirs the pawnbroker's memories of his wife in the concentration camp, and we are watching through his P.O.V. That clearly was the best way to tell the story with maximum impact.) This official church vilification meant, of course, that I had to see the movie. What better recommendation could a 15 year old boy have than a condemnation by the Pope himself. That HAD to be hot! Well, I did get to see some breasts during a time when filmed breasts were impossible to find, and I was at an age when I wanted to see them, but I surely had to wade through a lot of depression and pain to get there. It almost made me feel too guilty to look.



I think the Pawnbroker was the second film I ever saw which showed naked breasts.

The first was an Italian comedy called Boccaccio '70, which somehow managed to make it to Rochester, New York with some nudity, probably on the strength of the noteworthy directors who collaborated on that modernized Boccaccio anthology (DeSica and Fellini, to name a couple).


  • Thelma Oliver - breasts

  • Linda Geiser -breasts

  • Two unknowns -buttocks

The Pawnbroker is not as good a film as its reputation. The characters are stereotypical, which left the film trapped somewhere in a special limbo between an aspiring art film and a pedantic TV drama. The corny background music is often horrifically inappropriate for the somber goings-on. The general quality of the story and acting are no better than the best TV dramas of the time,  except for a remarkable Oscar-nominated performance by Rod Steiger in the title role.

DVD info from Amazon

  • no features

  • no widescreen

Steiger lost the Oscar. It seems impossible to believe when evaluated by modern standards, but there was a time when a great performance about a holocaust survivor could lose to a comical portrayal in a Western genre spoof. (Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou). Yes, Virginia, that could and did happen in 1965. It's hard to imagine an Oscar today being handed to Leslie Nielsen for his work as Frank Drebin, however brilliant that might be, while Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis frown menacingly from the audience, but  ... well, these things go in cycles, and that was a time when the culture's biorhythms were very different from today's.

The Critics Vote ...

  • No major reviews online

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. It is a good film in many ways, but it is not as good as the 7.6 at IMDb would lead you to believe. Some gritty street photography, thematic solemnity, and a great performance make its supporters overlook the weak, stereotyped characterizations and almost non-existent plot (and what does exist isn't credible).

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