Censorship, The Pawnbroker and Me

the-pawnbrokerFor 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!

The PawnbrokerIn 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?

pawnbroker-concentrationcampSteiger 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.

Thelma_Oliver_in_The_PawnbrokerToward 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.

The Pawnbroker - insideCensorship, 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.



24 comments on “Censorship, The Pawnbroker and Me

  1. A thoughtful and intelligent essay on this very interesting theme of censorship. I’ve not seen THE PAWNBROKER, but I like Rod Steiger and so you’ve inspired me to keep an eye out for this one. And I think throwing the hot dog away was the bigger sin.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful post. I was also raised a NYC Catholic, but I think the oath must’ve been lifted in the ’70s. The Pawnbroker was also the first collaboration between Lumet and composer Quincy Jones, who did the score. Coming at a time when there weren’t many African-Americans doing film music, Lumet took a big chance by hiring Jones, and they worked together on a few pictures including from the brilliant The Anderson Tapes to the awful picture The Wiz.


    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      I’m not sure when the Church lifted the meat on Friday ban, but I do remember thinking about all those “sins” people committed during its existence. Always wondered if they were given some sort of dispensation? Were those “sins” expunged from their permanent record or were they forever branded? 🙂


  3. The Lady Eve says:

    I haven’t seen The Pawnbroker for many years, John, it is one of those films that’s so powerful and in its way disturbing that you never forget it it but you don’t necessarily revisit it.

    Your recollection of being raised Catholic (back when the church had more power in this country) and all the guilt that entailed is fascinating. That such guilt could bleed into what you eat and what you watch seems so cruel. Thankfully your were strong enough to rebel!

    Wonderful piece, John!

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      I know what you mean. There are some powerful and disturbing movies that you really have to be in a certain mood for, or that you really liked, and know its a great film, but not the type you want to watch again.

      As a young kid, that kind of guilt gets instilled in you and, at least for me, it remains in the back of my mind.


  4. This one-time Catholic saw MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN before seeing THE PAWNBROKER (on TBS…many, many years ago) and since I was told I was already going to H-E-double hockey sticks for that indiscretion, bare breasts were merely an add-on.

    THE PAWNBROKER is one of my most favorite films from the 60s, and indisputably one of the most important. Nicely done piece, John.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. How often does it turn out that the condemning of a piece of art only makes it more popular; more desired? The thought police can’t give up their perceived power. Perhaps it is all they have.

    I echo the Lady Eve’s sentiments regarding The Pawnbroker.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Very true, Paddy. As soon as they say, it’s banned, that made me want to run to the theater. What could be so bad, and who are you to tell me what to see or not to see?


  6. Well done! I so remember when this film – and others of the same era – came out and how we longed to see them. And truly, those Catholic Legion of Decency “condemned” reviews in The Tablet only put those films on everyone’s must-see list!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rick says:

    John, I always enjoy when you include your personal experiences in your posts about films. Amazingly, I saw THE PAWNBROKER on a local TV station during the 1970s. Obviously, no one at the station had watched the film or had any idea what it was about. And it certainly wasn’t what I expected, since I knew little about it except it was critically acclaimed. Steiger should have won the Oscar for his performance. I’ve always thought his Oscar for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was to atone for his loss for THE PAWNBROKER.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Rick. I agree about the RS Oscar. His performance in The Pawnbroker was one of the most powerful ever. As you are well aware, the Academy giving out awards are not always for the current work, but many other reasons.


  8. What a wonderful contribution to the blogathon! A standing ovation at my laptop for your last paragraph; censorship really is about dominance and control. Besides, the nudity in The Pawnbroker is not prurient.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Amanda! I have always been stumped why bloody gross violence is more acceptable to censors than nudity. They always come down harder on the latter.


  9. Aurora says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, John. Lumet is one of my all-time favorite directors, a purveyor of truth, so your choice of film drew me in. But I also enjoyed reading about your Catholic guilt, something I understand fully although not in relation to having to take movie oaths. It’s interesting to read about that. Thanks for sharing the stories.


    Liked by 1 person

  10. This very cogent review inspires me to want to see this film again after many, many years. I think Lumet is still quite underrated, as indeed are the films of the 1960’s.


  11. kelleepratt says:

    Oh boy, do I know that (Irish) Catholic guilt! Took me decades after the change to start eating meat on Fridays. Great piece on an important (yet thoroughly depressing) film. It’s so disturbing it gets under your skin. Steiger is phenomenal.

    Liked by 1 person

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