Pawnbroker, The (1964): Sidney Lumet and the Production Code Controversy

American director Stanley Kubrick, British Karel Reisz, and Italian Franco Zeffirelli turned down the project of The Pawnbroker.

Kubrick said he thought Steiger was not “all that exciting.” Reisz, whose parents had died in the Holocaust, said that for “deep, personal” reasons he “could not objectively associate himself with any subject that has a background of concentration camps.” Zeffirelli, then a stage director, was anxious to direct a film, but said that The Pawnbroker was “not the kind of subject he would wish to direct, certainly not as his first Anglo-American venture.”

Ultimately, the film was assigned to Sidney Lumet, who shot the film in New York City, mostly on location, with minimal sets, in the fall of 1963.  The calendar in the pawnshop indicates that the narrative begins on Saturday, September 29.

Much of the shoot took place on Park Avenue in Harlem: The pawnbroker shop was set at 1642 Park Avenue, near the intersection of Park Avenue and 116th Street.

Scenes were also filmed in Connecticut, Jericho, New York, and Lincoln Center (There are both interior and exterior shots of the Lincoln Towers apartments, which were new at the time).

The Pawnbroker stirred controversy for depicting some nude scenes, in which two actresses, Linda Geiser and Thelma Oliver fully exposed their breasts.

The scene with Oliver, who plays a prostitute, was intercut with a flashback to the concentration camp, in which Nazerman is forced to see his wife (Geiser) pushed into prostitution.

The nudity resulted in a “C” (condemned) rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency. The Legion said “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 (MPAA), 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 MPAA said the film was 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 NY 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.