SIFF 2014: Quincy Jones, Part 1/3–The Pawnbroker

Tuesday, June 3

The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 116 mins, USA 1964–released 1965)

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Rod Steiger as pawnbroker Sol Nazerman (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

As part of the Quincy Jones tribute at SIFF, the festival showed the first film he ever scored.  Carl Spence introduced the film by saying it was picked in 2008 by the Library of Congress as a significant film.  When Spence said it was one of 36 films that Jones scored, a woman’s voice in the back said, “38.”  “38.  He was keeping busy,” Spence joked.  Then Jones appeared to do an introduction, which was as free-flowing as a jazz melody, but tied everything together.

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With Carl Spence

He started by saying that he had many memories here.  While traveling around today, he saw the YMCA when he first performed.  He was 13 or 14 years old at the time.  He also met a 17-year-old Ray Charles there (Wikipedia says 16).  Originally, Jones’s family was from Chicago, but they moved to Seattle when he was young.  Due to the Chicago influence, he wanted to be a gangster.  One time, he and some friends broke into a place in Bremerton for ice cream.  In one of the rooms, he saw a piano.  Seeing it, he felt compelled to come back, as if he knew that music was what he would be doing for the rest of his life.

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Up until the age of 15, he watched all sorts of movies, but he noticed that there were never any black composers scoring the films.  Then, the singer Lena Horne told Sidney Lumet about Jones (Lumet had married Horne’s daughter, and Count Basie and Jones had written a song for her).  Jones was 30 at the time, and tried to record the score as you would a regular recording session — in 3 days.  During the shoot, Lumet didn’t talk to Jones about the music.  Instead, he talked to him about Jewish guilt.  Lumet’s father would ask him how he was.  Lumet would tell him how great everything was — that he was married to a wonderful woman, that his movies were winning awards, and that he was busy working on more of them.  His father would reply, “It’ll be all right.”

Jones ended up scoring five movies for Lumet, and while Steiger was nominated for an Oscar, he didn’t win until In the Heat of the Night, which was one of five films that Jones scored starring Sidney Poitier.  Just as Jones had to break the color barrier in movie music composition, so Poitier had to in acting.

The film itself is exceptional, due to Jones’s score, Lumet’s handling of memories (quick flashes of images), and Steiger’s incredible acting.  Hard to believe he didn’t win the Oscar that year (Lee Marvin won for Cat Ballou).  In the film, Steiger plays a pawnbroker living in New York City whose family was killed during the Holocaust, leading to his pessimistic, unfeeling view of the world.  But then events in the film lead to stronger and stronger flashbacks of that time.  He begins to feel fear, and by the end, empathy.  This is a film that had me gasping when the lights came up and wondering why, of all of Lumet’s great films, I had never heard of this one.  This one blows 12 Angry Men and Network out of the water for sheer power, and Steiger’s acting is better even than Newman’s in The Verdict.  Plus, the 50th anniversary restoration was pristine.  While reputed to be a print, I didn’t think Landmark Theatres had projectors that could show prints anymore (UPDATE 6/10: The format was DCP).  Regardless of what format it was in, it looked fantastic.

As I was leaving the theater, I ran into one of my many cinephile friends.  After talking to him about the movie, he said, “Are you gonna meet Quincy, because I sure am.”

“He’s here?” I asked.

My friend then pointed across the aisle, and there he was, sitting nonchalantly with his family.  A bodyguard stood in the aisle near him, watching as people came up and shook his hand, but that was the only hint one had that he was a special person.  He was very friendly, chatting with everyone who came up.  As I waited, I heard that this was the first time he had seen this film since its release.  He also mentioned something about how the optical sound had worked when they first showed the film.

When I reached him, I merely said that it was an honor to meet him, that it was my first time seeing this film, how great it was, and how good the score was, all the while shaking his hand.  He said, “Thank you,” and then I left the theater, happy that my friend had stopped me and I had gotten the chance to meet a legend.

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