The Pawnbroker deals not within the Holocaust but in its aftermath - such an event having an undeniable aftershock in the world's community. This type of treatment has a different power in 1964 than nowadays, where the Holocaust is a sacred and delicate topic reserved for but the most revered directors, demanding utmost solemnity. Compare this to Lumet's direction. See, for example, how the lively character of Jesus Ortiz is introduced to us. The setting is the dim, still pawn shop, and then Jesus bursts in from the side entrance like a sitcom character, blasts his trumpet a few times, and bumbles around without doing much work. The second person who breaches Sol's cage is a loud black woman, almost a walking stereotype, who reacts to his meagre offer for her ornate candlesticks with hysterical, over-the-top laughter, as if they were both in on a practical joke. Sol remains unmoved.
Rod Steiger is a frigid and cold type. He shuffles silently around the interiors of his pawn shop, and Boris Kaufman captures his profile in a way so that it is always obscured and hidden behind layers of protection and distance, either physically in the shadows of bars over his face and the steel-mesh cage, or in his body language, in the way Steiger never holds a gaze while his customers unload the tales of their merchandise. They might as well be talking to a brick wall. Sol is unwavered by their nostalgia for these relics, and has a good reason for being unwilling to delve back into the past. His curt, clipped replies offer no weakness to probe or enter, and act as a foil to the emotional desperation of the customers who are often parting with treasured belongings because of dire financial need. In one particularly haunting sequence, a man walks hobbles in looking not for money but merely a face to talk to and an ear to listen, and Sol coldly turns him away.
Lumet unveils the cracks slowly, as if wanting to avoid the branding of a Holocaust film immediately so that we are not so quick to cast our sympathies out. The direction doesn't force Sol's hand, but merely presents his circumstances in a way which reveals his past and how unforgettable the torment of the concentration camp must be. At first, subtly, he introduces characters which shake up the equilibrium of the lowly pawn shop. When black boys come in to pawn an expensive lawnmower, Sol directs a thinly veiled accusation at its origins, and we can feel the tension in the room. The object rocks his apparent cold impartiality, and through Steiger's eyes we witness him wresting between his disdain for the 'scum' and the silent front he has forged through years of suffering and mourning. Another is Marilyn Birchfield, the local social worker, who is so entirely honest and open-faced that we wonder how she has survived so long in Harlem. Because she presents herself as a figure of charity and future change, Sol rejects the very idea of her; such kindness and humility does not agree with his pessimistic worldview, forged from the horror of his experiences. When she tries to reach out (on the balcony of a sunny, skyscraper apartment, no less) he bitterly unleashes what he swore he would not release, and refuses her hand.
The past is revealed in stuttered flashbacks, not as grand condemnations but as filtered and intensely personal memories which resurface despite Sol's insistence on pushing them down deeper. Lumet channels Alain Resnais, who in Night and Fog created a haunting juxtaposition of the past and present. While the camera hovers all around the city and slums, it picks up on indiscriminate events which are magnified through his vision; a man trying to escape from a gang of thugs reminds him of the barbed wire walls of the camp, and a pregnant girl pawning her ring forces his mind back to the image of Jewish wedding rings being picked off the conveyor line of the same fence. One sequence involving an prostitute's offer plays out like a tape rolling between two scenes over and over, as the site of bare breasts invokes an ugly memory of the rape of his wife. The unsettling effect is combined with overlapping sound tracks until the two scenes converge into one painful, singular moment for Sol. Sexual bliss has been long eradicated from his life - see how the edits flit from Jesus and his girlfriend in an animated tryst, and then to Sol and his partner, who treat sex like an oft-forgotten obligation, an act of silent passion.
Steiger's greatest moment comes when he realises his complicity all these years with the local racketeer Rodriguez and his prostitution den, and his entire face scrunches up in agony because his distance has been all for nought. Quincy Jones' jazzed up, uninhibited score hurtles along with the camera through Harlem, and betrays Sol's old world sensibilities by being piped out from every murky street corner and store. There is excitement and energy leaking from the seams of the post-war society, one that he is quick to stamp out of his protégé. But in Jesus' death he finds new meaning and existence. The man who once felt the greatest pain of them all is allowed vulnerability once more, and perhaps a new start can finally begin.