It was the first American film to deal with the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a survivor. It earned international acclaim for Steiger, launching his career as an A-list actor. The film was among the first American movies to feature nudity during the Production Code, and was the first film featuring bare breasts to receive Production Code approval. Although it was publicly announced to be a special exception, the controversy proved to be first of similar major challenges to the Code that ultimately led to its abandonment.
With the rise of Adolf Hitler, Sol Nazerman (Steiger), a German-Jewish university professor, was dragged to a concentration camp along with his family. He saw his two children die (one while riding in a cattle car) and his wife raped by Nazi officers in the camp. Now he operates a pawnshop in East Harlem, while living in an anonymous Long Island apartment. Numbed by his experiences, he has worked hard not to experience emotions. Nazerman is bitter and alienated, viewing the people around him as "rejects, scum." He is shown interacting cynically as he bargains with the many desperate characters pawning their goods.
Nazerman is idolized by a young Puerto Rican, Jesus Ortiz (Sánchez), who works for Nazerman as his shop assistant, but the youth's friendship is rebuffed, as are the overtures of Marilyn Birchfield (Fitzgerald), a neighborhood social worker.
Nazerman learns that Rodriguez (Peters), a racketeer who uses the pawnshop as a front, makes his money through prostitution. Nazerman recalls his wife's degradation and wants no part of it. This results in a clash with Rodriguez, who threatens to kill Nazerman. Meanwhile, Ortiz, his feelings hurt when Nazerman says that Ortiz means nothing to him, spitefully arranges for the pawnshop to be robbed by a neighborhood gang. During the robbery, Nazerman refuses to hand over his money. Ortiz takes the gang member's bullet intended for Nazerman and dies in Nazerman's arms in the street.Rod Steiger – Sol Nazerman
Geraldine Fitzgerald – Marilyn Birchfield
Brock Peters – Rodriguez
Jaime Sánchez – Jesus Ortiz
Thelma Oliver – Ortiz's girl
Marketa Kimbrell – Tessie
Baruch Lumet – Mendel
Juano Hernández – Mr. Smith
Linda Geiser – Ruth Nazerman
Nancy R. Pollock – Bertha
Raymond St. Jacques – Tangee
Morgan Freeman – Man on Street (uncredited)
The Pawnbroker tells the story of a man whose spiritual "death" in the concentration camps causes him to bury himself in the most dismal location that he can find: a slum in upper Manhattan. Lumet told The New York Times in an interview during the filming that, "The irony of the film is that he finds more life here than anywhere. It's outside Harlem, in housing projects, office buildings, even the Long Island suburbs, everywhere we show on the screen—that everything is conformist, sterile, dead."
The film was influenced by the French New Wave films, through its use of flashbacks to reveal Nazerman's backstory. It bore similarities to two films of Alain Resnais: Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) and Night and Fog (1955). But a recent commentator observed that the film "is uniquely American, with its harsh, unforgiving depiction of New York City, all of it brought to vivid life by Boris Kaufman's black and white cinematography and a dynamic cast highlighted by Rod Steiger's searing portrayal of the title role."
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Sol Nazerman "is very much a person of today—a survivor of Nazi persecution who has become detached and remote in the modern world—he casts, as it were, the somber shadow of the legendary, ageless Wandering Jew. That is the mythical Judean who taunted Jesus on the way to Calvary and was condemned to roam the world a lonely outcast until Jesus should come again."
The film was controversial for depicting nude scenes in which actresses Linda Geiser and Thelma Oliver fully exposed their breasts. The scene with Oliver, who played a prostitute, was intercut with a flashback to the concentration camp, in which Nazerman is forced to see his wife (Geiser) forced into prostitution. The nudity resulted in a "C" (condemned) rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency. The Legion felt "that a condemnation is necessary in order to put a very definite halt to the effort by producers to introduce nudity into American films." The Legion of Decency's stance was opposed by some Catholic groups, and the National Council of Churches gave the film an award for best picture of the year.
The scenes resulted in conflict with the Motion Picture Association of America, which administered the Motion Picture Production Code. The Association initially rejected the scenes showing bare breasts and a sex scene between Sanchez and Oliver, which it described as "unacceptably sex suggestive and lustful." Despite the rejection, Landau arranged for Allied Artists to release film without the Production Code seal, and New York censors licensed The Pawnbroker without the cuts demanded by Code administrators. On a 6-3 vote, the Motion Picture Association of America granted the film an "exception" conditional on "reduction in the length of the scenes which the Production Code Administration found unapprovable." The exception to the code was granted as a "special and unique case," and was described by The New York Times at the time as "an unprecedented move that will not, however, set a precedent." The requested reductions of nudity were minimal, and the outcome was viewed in the media as a victory for the film's producers.
Some Jewish groups urged a boycott of the film, in the view that its presentation of a Jewish pawnbroker encouraged anti-Semitism. Black groups felt it encouraged racial stereotypes of the inner city residents as pimps, prostitutes or drug addicts.
The film, and Steiger's performance in particular, was greeted by widespread critical acclaim. Life magazine praised Steiger's "endless versatility." Brendan Gill wrote in The New Yorker: "By a magic more mysterious. . . than his always clever makeup, he manages to convince me at once that he is whoever he pretends to be."
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it a "remarkable picture" that was "a dark and haunting drama of a man who has reasonably eschewed a role of involvement and compassion in a brutal and bitter world and has found his life barren and rootless as a consequence. It is further a drama of discovery of the need of man to try to do something for his fellow human sufferers in the troubled world of today." He praised the performances in the film, including the supporting cast.
One negative review came from Pauline Kael, who called it "trite", but said: "You can see the big pushes for powerful effects, yet it isn't negligible. It wrenches audiences, making them fear that they, too, could become like this man. And when events strip off his armor, he doesn't discover a new, warm humanity, he discovers sharper suffering—just what his armor had protected him from. Most of the intensity comes from Steiger's performance."
In recent years, with a revival of interest in the Jewish Holocaust, the film has become noted as the first major American film that even tried to recreate the horrors of the camps. A New York Times review of a 2005 documentary on Hollywood's treatment of the Holocaust, Imaginary Witness, said that scenes of the camps in the film as shown in the documentary were "surprisingly mild."
It has been described as "the first stubbornly 'Jewish' film about the Holocaust", and as the foundation for the miniseries Holocaust (1978) and Schindler's List (1993).
The Pawnbroker is viewed as containing one of Steiger's most notable film roles, and as one that was crucial to his ascendancy to the top ranks of his profession.
In 2002, in his last television interview on Dinner for Five hosted by actor/director Jon Favreau, Steiger cited The Pawnbroker as the film he viewed as a significant standout of his body of work.
Its display of nudity, despite Production Code prohibitions on the practice at the time, is also viewed as a landmark in motion pictures. The Pawnbroker was the first film featuring bare breasts to receive Production Code approval. In his 2008 study of films during that era, Pictures at a Revolution, author Mark Harris wrote that the MPAA's action was "the first of a series of injuries to the Production Code that would prove fatal within three years." The Code was abolished, in favor of a voluntary ratings system, in 1968.
Steiger received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor – Drama, the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 14th Berlin International Film Festival, an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and received the British Film Academy BAFTA award for best foreign actor in a leading role.