MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

MOVIES THAT GIVE ART A BAD NAME

Sure, The Pawnbroker won medals, but does it have to be nasty?

WENDY MICHENER June 4 1966
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

MOVIES THAT GIVE ART A BAD NAME

Sure, The Pawnbroker won medals, but does it have to be nasty?

WENDY MICHENER June 4 1966

MOVIES THAT GIVE ART A BAD NAME

Sure, The Pawnbroker won medals, but does it have to be nasty?

Michener on movies

AS THE LIGHTS came on again a lady behind me breathed out: “Oh, it’s a tremendous picture, just tremendous. Twelve medals,’’ she said with awe, “didn’t the signs say it won twelve medals?”

“Maybe it did,” said the next woman, “but who wants to see a thing like that?”

Sad to say, the second lady was right. The Pawnbroker is the kind of movie that gives art — and medals — a bad name. It’s bad enough that the advertising mentions film festivals where the picture was not shown. Far worse that people should go home convinced that art movies are something like medicine — good for you, maybe, but almost always nasty to gulp down.

If The Pawnbroker is nasty, the reason is that director Sidney Lumet consistently overplays his hand. Apart from a magnificent virtuoso performance by Rod Steiger — that incredibly versatile actor — the movie has nothing to do with art.

Its reputation, it seems to me, stands on the fact that it deals with such disagreeable but worthy subjects as racial persecution, loneliness, and man’s exploitation of man. But the road to bad movies is paved with such good intentions.

Steiger alone is a wonder — his fleshy face frozen with denial of emotion as the pawnbroker-frontman for a shady Negro gang-boss in Spanish Harlem. When the local residents come in to hock their few miserable treasures at the elaborate system of cages where he hangs out, Steiger says “one dollah,” “two dollahs,” almost without looking up from what he’s doing.

This is the face of a man who has

suffered beyond his capacity in a Nazi concentration camp, and now lives on, troubled by his own survival but refusing to recognize any more suffering — other people’s or his own. He’s "Sol Nazerman, the walking dead — no love, no passion, no pity.” Like Scrooge, Nazerman is “reformed” by dreams of the past that lash out at him, and force him at last to see that he himself has become a tormentor by default.

But Steiger isn’t alone. He can be as subtle, delicate and restrained as he pleases, but he’s surrounded, like any movie actor, by the world as the director secs it; and Lumet tramples over his material like a rogue elephant on the loose. The Pawnbroker is another proof — if any more were needed — that in film-making it’s the director that counts.

1 wish I could have sent those two ladies who were put off by The Pawnbroker right out to sec The Slwp on Main Street, the Czech winner of this year’s Oscar for foreign films. The subject matter here is equally unpleasant to think about — the persecution of Jews in wartime Slovakia — but the treatment is full of a sly, clear-eyed humor. The Czechs seem to have a genius for turning tragedy upside down, converting it into comedy, as Chaplin did in The Great Dictator.

The hero of the story is basically a clown figure. One of those little underdog men, he walks around with his dog, poking fun at all the gogetters in the town, while at home he’s constantly badgered by an ambitious wife. To satisfy her he accepts the position of Aryan controller of a button shop on the main street, only to find that the aging Jewish proprietress has lots of pride but has lost most of her buttons. Underdog refuses to bite underdog, and soulmates turn a legal injustice into friendship. But inevitably there comes the terrible day when the town’s Jews are all to be deported. Then we see in action the answer to the question everyone has been asking ever since — how could it have happened? — as the Aryan is torn between a primitive urge to survive and his moral horror at the price he would have to pay.

Harper, as the hero himself is quick to tell you, is about a newstyle private eye. Actually, he’s only new in relation to guys like Bond for whom the dangerous life turns out to be the best of all possible lives. In most respects Harper (Paul Newman) is pretty old - fashioned, like Sam Spade. But in one way he’s truly contemporary: he's cool, man, real cool. Harper is always ready to see the humor of the situation. It’s not that he makes wise-cracks, like Bond, or sends anything up. It’s just that life keeps turning out to be funny, even though he gets beat up, is being divorced by his wife, and is usually hired to play the sordid role of snitch, rather than savior, in other people’s lives.

Paul Newman makes an altogether likable person out of the central

character based on Ross Macdonald’s hero, and I soon became so engrossed in watching him track down the daddy-nappers that I had my weekend’s supply of cash stolen from right under my seat without noticing it.

Some guy sat in the row behind, manoeuvred my purse along the floor during one of the tense parts, neatly removed the bills, dumped the wallet, and quietly moved on to another victim. As I realized afterward, I was the ideal set-up: sitting alone in a sparse afternoon audience, busy taking notes. All the same, I think that if the picture had been less good than Harper, I would have done more than give him a few dirty looks when he started to jiggle the seat.

WENDY MICHENER