Outstreched arm

Friday, July 01, 2005

Broken pawn

Boy, did I pick the wrong movie to watch on yesterday's flu. Sidney Lumet's Pawnbroker (1960), a depressing, dark, slow, and nihilistic look at a Holocaust survivor who, despite Lumet's able direction, seems like an asshole by birth, not by experience. Perhaps this was the point - my brother's view was that the movie didn't want to be sentimental. I can respect that, but it simply makes for torturous viewing.

Sol (Rod Steiger), the pawnbroker, lives in New York and spends his time dealing with various "scum" (his words) from the streets - when he's not busy being a dysfunctional wreck. Several unpleasant things in his life collide on one particular day, and he goes through a doubtful catharsis which, in my opinion, does little for both him and the viewer. I'll say it clearly: I didn't like him before his story was piecemealed, and I didn't like him after I learned about his past (which, oddly, was merely made graphic on the screen - beyond that, there was no surprising insight into the horror he had gone through. Equally, when he finds out that his shop is used for laundering of prostitution money, I went, "uh... duh?")

The contrasty black and white photography is fitting, but Quincy Jones's music most definitely is not. It's great jazz, but when the first notes kicked in, I half-expected the broken Jewish man to voiceover, "My name is Sol. I'm a pawnbroker by day... by night, I chase escaped Nazis in airport lounges and cocktail bars." The performances are dramatic and filled with energy, but they lack subtlety. In Jaime Sánchez's case - playing Jesus, a ghetto kid trying to go straight - there's not much he can do as the script sets up some overly staged moments. Sol dismisses him and he goes back to his thug past quickly, like a well-oiled plot machination.

Rod Steiger's turn here won much praise, but I'm not sure how I feel about it. I basically have two problems with his character: he is a jerk, and somehow people still invest all this effort into getting some sort of a response from him. Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a kind, lonely woman, not only falls for him for some unintelligible reason, but gives him a second chance as well. So strong was my sympathy for her that I wished to see the story told from her point of view: The Man Who Repeatedly Made Me Feel Like Shit, I'd call it.

Jesus is ambitious and eager to please, true, but how much of a clue do these people need to see that Sol is a complete misanthrope? It may be that Sol was not meant to be seen as a product of the War, but as a lost soul in a more general sense. This works, but only in a very direct, obvious way. So what if we have this annoying character? Does he deserve a story? I hope I'm not making too distant an analogy if I mention John Merrick's remark in Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man, said of Romeo and Juliet (he thinks that Romeo doesn't truly love Juliet), "if he didn't love her, why should there be a play?"

Maybe it's a personal thing with me (I say this for purposes of full disclosure). I'm annoyed on a very personal level when crazily-behaving characters seem 'irresistible' to women. Janet Leigh falling for the near-mental Frank Sinatra in the Manchurian Candidate - what was that about? Where's all this patience and understanding coming from? Not that guys don't fall for unapproachable and issue-laden girls (in fiction, I mean). I like David Strathairn's (in Limbo) answer to why his last girlfriend dumped him: "she thought I was too downbeat for her." Spoken like a sincere loser.

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