How The Pawnbroker changed film censorship

Sidney Lumet’s controversial drama about a Holocaust survivor living in New York proved a landmark case for film censorship in America and helped usher in the New Hollywood era.

Poster for The Pawnbroker (1964)

Although it rarely features in top 100 lists, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) played a significant role in shaping 1960s American cinema. Yet, it was almost never made and sat in a vault for months, while Hollywood debated whether it should even be released. 

When it acquired the rights to Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel about Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman, MGM considered relocating the story to Soho, London, and casting James Mason in the lead. Groucho Marx had expressed interest in the role that eventually went to Rod Steiger, but while the foundering project was rescued by independent producer Ely Landau, neither Stanley Kubrick, Karel Reisz nor Franco Zeffirelli wanted to touch it.

Hollywood had examined the psychological toll of the concentration camps in films like The Juggler (1953) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). But the persecution had always been kept off screen – which makes Sol’s flashbacks, as he approaches the 25th anniversary of his wife’s death at Auschwitz, so notable,

A peacetime professor in Germany, Sol now runs a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem that’s used as a front by a gay pimp (Brock Peters). Wracked by survivor guilt, Sol adopts an air of callous detachment to prevent his traumatic memories from crushing him. Whether sleeping with a lost friend’s widow or doling out chits to impoverished clients, he lives entirely on a transactional basis. However, Puerto Rican assistant Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) and social worker Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) strive to make a redemptive connection.

The Pawnbroker (1964)

For a picture so preoccupied with death, The Pawnbroker throbs with life, especially outside the Park Avenue store designed by Richard Sylbert. Its wired cages, bars, locks and alarms are framed and lit by celebrated cinematographer Boris Kaufman in a noirish manner that can only remind Sol of his incarceration.

At first, these recollections are little more than stabbing slivers. But Ralph Rosenblum’s editing borrows the shock cut tactics made popular by French New Wave films Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Breathless (1960) to show how a fight in a basketball court evokes a man’s entrapment on the perimeter wire; how a busy subway car resembles a crammed cattle truck; and how a pregnant girl’s cheap glass ring recalls the Nazi theft of jewellery from the fingers of defenceless Jewish women. 

Most harrowingly, the sight of Black prostitute Mabel Wheatly (Thelma Oliver) baring her breasts in the hope of securing a loan forces Sol to remember the horror of his wife, Ruth (Linda Geiser), being sexually abused by guards at the camp. But, while Lumet was so convinced that de-eroticised nudity legitimately conveyed Sol’s torment that he didn’t bother shooting coverage, Geoffrey Shurlock of the Production Code Administration thought otherwise.

The Code had been in force since 1934 to protect filmmakers from outraged viewers as much as to restrict what they could show on the screen. However, the need to pander to powerful religious and social pressure groups had prompted the PCA to assume an advisory role on screenplay content. They would also excise any scenes that would prevent the awarding of the certificate that passed a film for general exhibition.

Aware that the Catholic Legion of Decency had already condemned The Pawnbroker, Shurlock withheld PCA clearance both because of the nudity and a bedroom scene involving Jesus and Mabel that was branded “unacceptably sex suggestive and lustful”. 

Bolstered by Steiger’s best actor win at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival, Landau was ready to release the picture without the seal through Allied Artists. However, Oscar-winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who was on the appeals committee) urged Lumet to argue his case before the Motion Picture Association of America, which oversaw the Code. By six to three, the board granted exemption in decreeing the feature to be “a special and unique case”, albeit one that shouldn’t set a precedent. 

The Pawnbroker (1964)

Yet, by approving the US release in March 1965, the PCA had allowed its defences to be breached and there could be no going back. In 1968, the Code was replaced by a ratings system that ushered in the New Hollywood era by allowing filmmakers to explore contentious issues with greater latitude. 

Moreover, The Pawnbroker changed the way in which Hollywood tackled the Holocaust. Yet, it was criticised by Jewish groups for being self-hating and anti-Semitic. Similarly, civil rights activists condemned the perceived racial stereotyping. 

Lumet refuted accusations that he had turned East Harlem into a latter-day ghetto. But he did challenge the melting pot myth by having Sol seek sanctuary in a country that had not only severely restricted the migration of European Jews before and during the war, but which had been founded on genocide and enslavement. American cinema could never look upon the Land of the Free in quite the same way again.

The Pawnbroker is available in a new dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD) now.

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