A lonely old man just wants to talk; a racist junky comes in to pawn his broken radio; a gang of street thugs attempt to fence a stolen lawnmower; a pregnant girl learns that her precious diamond ring is only made of glass. These are the types of customers who frequent the local pawnshop run by Rod Steiger in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964).
It's a tough film. Not just because every single character is essentially broken (or on their way), but also because of the strange atmosphere that Lumet designs (the jaunty jazz score doesn't help either -- a product of its time). Lumet was a great television director and his cinematographic sense had not yet fully developed by 1964. The truth is, he often reverted to this abstract, stagey style of psychodramatics even after he had fully evolved as a great technician by the mid '70s.
Serpico (1973) is another streetwise Lumet film that seems real because of the grimy atmosphere that permeates almost every frame, but it does not feel artificial like The Pawnbroker does. The only thing that doesn't seem manufactured for effect in The Pawnbroker is Steiger. It's one of those legendary performances that stands on its own.
The Pawnbroker was one of the first films to show the interior life of a concentration camp (albeit sparsely). Steiger's character flashes back to his dehumanizing past frequently throughout the film. He watches as his wife is stripped and about to be raped by Nazis. This is inter-weaved with a young African-American prostitute (the girlfriend of his eager Latino assistant) in the present who stands topless before him.
The nudity also ensured that the film stood zero chance of a wide release. Over the years it's gained a cult following for the sheer strength of Steiger's performance. His Nazerman states that he does not believe in "God, art, science, newspapers, philosophy" but that all life is about money. He's given up on the human race who he angrily refers to as "scum, rejects".
His soul is lost before the film begins, and it's equally lost (perhaps even more) after the final gut-wrenching moments that close out this desolate picture. If anything, the film is a rather obvious warning of what can become of us if we choose to close off our feelings. On the other hand, based on what Nazerman had been through (including the death of his children), it's no wonder he bothered to go on living at all.
I wish I could say that something about it illuminated me. I felt rather the same way after viewing Lumet's similarly stagey adaptation of the Peter Shaffer play Equus (1977). Like I needed a bath. Nazerman fucks but he doesn't feel love. He ruminates but he doesn't feel loss. He admits his faults but he doesn't repent. In a way, he's Ebenezer Scrooge without the final ghost.
One of my favorite Lumet films is The Hill (1965) with Sean Connery and Ian Bannen. Lumet, Connery and Bannen teamed up again in (quite possibly Lumet's most difficult to penetrate film) The Offence (1972). The human psyche has never been filmed so crude or compellingly.