SIFF 2014: Quincy Jones Introduces The Pawnbroker (1964)

Quincy Jones talks with SIFF artistic director Carl Spence

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sánchez, Thelma Oliver

It was quite the tone shift to move from the jovial Quincy Jones to a bleak drama about an Auschwitz survivor's post-war trauma. That's just what I did this week at the SIFF screening of The Pawnbroker (1964) though.

This groundbreaking film has won much admiration over the years. In 2008 it was even selected for inclusion in the National Registry of Film. It's one of those movies that lives way beyond its awards though; it's a harrowing experience that inspires disgust, horror, compassion and the tiniest bit of laughter. Its depiction of a death camp survivor was novel at the time. It was also the first US film under the production code with female nudity to be approved for release.

Quincy Jones made several appearances at this year's TCM Film Festival, and I didn't catch one of them. I was determined to see him at SIFF. While I didn't get to watch him fist bump Leonard Maltin at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, it was still a lot of fun to hear what he had to say.

Before the movie, Jones walked out on stage in a matching silver shirt and pants, a long striped scarf and maroon shirt cuffs with matching leather sneakers. There can't be many people who could pull off this outfit. He had the relaxed air of a man who has been living a satisfying life.

Though SIFF artistic director Carl Spence was onstage to chat with Jones, the musician pretty much took over once he had his mike, telling charming, well-rehearsed stories.

Seattle has played an important part in Jones' life. He moved here from Chicago at age ten. Four years later, he had his first gig at the YMCA. Jones laughed when he said that if he hadn't found music, "I'd have been in jail or dead."

The movie theaters on Seattle's skid row became a regular destination for Jones. He obsessed over the soundtracks of the films he saw, learning the particular sound of each composer. While he didn't know of any African American film composers, he was determined to make it happen for himself.

Eventually, his friend Lena Horne hooked him up with Sidney Lumet, who gave the then 30-year-old musician his first scoring job on The Pawnbroker. Jones said he rushed through the recording of the score, treating the session like the record sessions with which he was familiar. He earned praise for his work thoug. The film set him on his way.

The Pawnbroker is the story of Sol Nazerman (Steiger) a World War II death camp survivor who has lost his feeling for humankind. While in captivity he witnessed the rape of his wife and lost her and his two children to death. He has lived a numb existence for nearly twenty-five years, running a pawn shop in Spanish Harlem which he knows is a front for a gangster. Nazerman is repulsed by the human race and treats everyone from his customers to his eager assistant with contempt.

Scenes of his daily life at the shop are juxtaposed with flashbacks, sometimes only a few seconds long, of his life in captivity. A ride in a subway car brings him back to the crowded train car taking him and his family to the concentration camp. The glittering glass of a pregnant customer's wedding ring reminds him of fellow prisoners extending their hands over a barbed wire fence while Nazi soldiers pluck the rings off their fingers. I'm still particularly haunted by this scene, because it shows in such a brutally simple way how these people were stripped of everything: their treasured possessions, control of their bodies, control of their lives.

The flashbacks begin to increase, alarming Sol. As the twenty-five anniversary of his family's death approaches, he tries to hold it off, even refusing to update his daily calendar, but those memories become stronger as more details of the horror are revealed to the audience. Sol begins to realize he cannot escape his emotions and he is not ready to give up on other people. It takes another death to bring him back to humanity, but it is just the shock he needs to feel again.

A nearly unrecognizable Steiger
I've never seen Rod Steiger so completely absorbed in a role. His transformation from empty resentfulness to overwhelmed horror is painful and astonishing. He makes his face quiver in the most astounding way. You can feel the emotion coming back to him, that overwhelming fear and sadness that he thought he had left behind. He knows this is a necessary transition, and he finally gives in to his feelings, but he fights it, perhaps because it means he is losing control of himself again.

A grim film like The Pawnbroker is definitely not what I would associate with the famously funky sound of Quincy Jones, but his style is perfect for the film. While Sol struggles, life on the busy New York streets keeps bursting around him, and Jones' sharp, bright jazz score throbs with that energy. He backs off for many of the dramatic scenes, letting many play without music, which makes the return of those blaring sounds all the more bracing. It's a great start to a legendary career in movie soundtracks.

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