For many years, around the holiday season, the Catholic Church had a pledge they brought forth to their parishioners. The oath was for “Good” Catholics not to attend any film considered morally objectionable, that is, the big C word was applied…Condemned!For years, the Church’s list of objectionable films was a dominant force that changed filmmaking. Many directors, among them Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) and Billy Wilder (The Seven Year Itch), edited their films, eliminating scenes found objectionable. While it’s true most of the films on the list were foreign that received the condemned rating there were exceptions. In 1953, Otto Preminger’s lightweight romantic comedy, The Moon is Blue was given the dreaded C rating, this after the Hays Office refused to give the film its seal of approval and Preminger and United Artists refused to make what today seem like ridiculous deletes.
Growing up Catholic brings a lot of guilt. You grow up guilty about everything, no matter how minor. Ridiculous things like eating a hot dog on a Friday at a time when it was still considered a sin. One day, when I was in my mid-teens, I inadvertently bought a hot dog and started eating it. Halfway, thru the dog, I realized it was a Friday, and I threw it away. Now tell me what was the bigger sin, eating the hot dog or throwing it away? But that was the kind of mindset the Church put you in; never mind that years later the church changed its rules and suddenly it was okay to eat meat on Friday.
Billy Wilder was one of my early film director heroes. His films, if not condemned, were just a step up, many considered for adults only. By 1964, I was already familiar with and liked plenty of Wilder films (Some Like it Hot, Irma La Douce, Double Indemnity) when Kiss Me, Stupid was released. I wanted to see it, but there was the darn pledge. A little full disclosure here. Though I was only in my early teens, I remember not taking the annual oath in church. I just stood there silently while most people made the pledge (what a rebel!). That pledge from the church to not to see a film only increased my curiosity resulting in me wanting to see the condemned movies even more. What could be in it, I would think, that was so bad it was condemned? Over the next few years, I saw many films on the list: Blow-Up, Hurry Sundown, The Penthouse, Valley of the Dolls and The Pawnbroker. Magically, I survived without turning into a wicked sinner. That said, there was that guilt. The one film I did not see until many years later when it was released on VHS was Kiss Me Stupid. I bought a copy, and I still felt at that time I had to carry the VHS tape in a brown paper bag!
In 1965, The Pawnbroker arrived on screens in New York. It received mostly excellent reviews, and Rod Steiger was praised for giving one of his strongest performances. The Legion of Decency condemned the film for scenes of bare female breasts. Though they admitted, the film was a thought-provoking intelligent work; the Church felt most inspired to try and stop the future of nudity on screen. Unlike with Kiss Me, Stupid, I had to see The Pawnbroker. Yes, I was a horny teen, but it was more than that. Among the loads of overblown junk that came out of American films in the mid-sixties, some serious films were coming out that were showing the future. The Manchurian Candidate, The Collector, Bonnie and Clyde and The Pawnbroker were among them. Yes, the guilt was there, but you deal with it. Was I really going to burn in hell for going to a movie with nudity?
Steiger is Sol Nazarman, A German-Jew survivor of the Holocaust. A Professor in Germany; the rise of Adolf Hitler saw Sol, his wife and two kids dragged off to a concentration camp. Sol saw his wife raped by Nazi soldiers and his two kids killed. He also watched his best friend tortured and killed. He survived, came to America, and now runs a pawnshop in Harlem. The experience has left Sol intellectually numb, a broken bitter, disaffected and hateful man. His pawnshop is used by Rodriquez (Brock Peters) a local Harlem big shot who uses the store as a front for laundering money for his various rackets. Sol considers everyone in the neighborhood scum. His customers who pawn their meager goods for a few dollars like trash (the great Juan Hernández has a small role as one of his customers). He likes no one and no one likes him, except for Jesus Ortiz (Jamie Sanchez), his assistant in the shop who tries to be friends. Ortiz also wants to learn the business so someday he can have his own store, but it only leads mostly to rants from Sol about how it is all meaningless except for money. Similarly, Sol rejects a welfare worker, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) offers of friendship. Then there Thelma Oliver’s prostitute. She works for Rodriquez but is Ortiz’s girl. In an attempt to get money for Ortiz to start his business she offers Sol her body. For Sol, seeing her bare breasts brings back painful memories of watching his wife stripped and raped by Nazi soldiers. Sol is haunted twenty four hours a day. When he rides the New York City subway, he equates the overcrowded passengers, via quick flashbacks, with the lost souls heading to concentration camps.
Toward the end of the film, Sol’s pawnshop is robbed by three former gang cohorts of Ortiz. They want money. When one of the punks pulls out a gun after Sol refuses to give them the money; he practically begs them to shoot him, Ortiz jumps in front of the old man taking the bullet for him. The selfless act lets loose a flood of emotions openly for the first time.
The Pawnbroker is a bleak, dark film, and one of the most important American films of the 1960’s. Directed by Sydney Lumet with crisp black and white photography by cinematographer Boris Kaufman. It was filmed on location, and Lumet and Kaufman paint the mid-1960’s view of Harlem and New York as another kind of prison equating Sol’s life as trading one prison for another.
Censorship, no matter who is doing the censoring (Church, Government, Organizations) never takes into consideration the importance of the work of art. Recently, the Biloxi Public School District in Mississippi banned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The board claimed it was too disturbing in its use of racist language for 8th-grade students; this despite previously calling the book a “classic with a focus on developing an appreciation for how ethical principles or laws of life can help people live successfully.” (Biloxi School Curriculum Guide)
Censorship is self-serving. It’s about dominance, it’s about being afraid, it’s about imposing one’s belief on others, the control of information and it’s about the ability to have free speech. Sex in the arts is one of the most frequent targets of individuals and pressure groups. Exhibits by Robert Mapplethorpe have been banned because of his explicit photographs. Books have always been a prime target. Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, works like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, are just a few others that have felt the bite of various censors. Movies have always been a target: Violence, sex, and nudity are hot-button issues, especially the latter two which I can never understand. Frankly, I rather look at a naked body than a gory, blood dripping, ripped to shreds corpse any day.
This post is part of the CMBA’s BANNED AND BLACKLISTED Blogathon. For more articles in this series click on the link here.