This is one of only a few films in which there are certain scenes which, for various reasons, I find almost unbearable to watch again. The others include the scene at the train station when Sophie must make her choice, the sequence of murders in In Cold Blood, the burning of the church in The Patriot, the multiple hangings in The Ox-Bow Incident, and the evisceration of William Wallace in Braveheart.
Brilliantly directed by Sidney Lumet, with equally brilliant cinematography by Boris Kaufman (both of whom should have at least been nominated for an Academy Award), this is among the first films to dramatize with high levels of seriousness and sensitivity the essential evil of the Holocaust. Sol Nazerman is the central character, played by Rod Steiger who was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor. Lee Marvin received that award for his role in Cat Ballou. (I thoroughly enjoyed Marvin's performance but still think Steiger deserved the award. To his credit, so did Marvin and said so.) Nazerman is a pawnbroker in New York City, having long ago lost (or so it seems) his ability to have an feelings for anyone else...or even for himself. His mind may be especially alert but his heart is numb.
In terms of plot, not much happens. Most of the the film focuses is on Nazerman's dysfunctional interactions with other people, notably with Marilyn Birchfield (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Jose Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) who works for Nazerman. What's Nazerman's problem? With meticulous care, Lumet gradually reveals the past from which he emerged but, in certain respects, from which he has not survived. His "problem" is that he has lost his will to live but not to exist.
Many of those who have seen the film will insist that, in the final scene, when Nazerman screams out in pain, the sound of that scream has haunted them ever since. In fact, there was no sound. Steiger later explained that his approach to that climactic moment in the film was inspired by Picasso's anti-war mural, Guernica, which portrays unprecedented atrocities committed on April 27th, 1937, against the civilian population of Guernica, a small Basque village in northern Spain. To Steiger's and Lumet's everlasting credit, Nazerman's silent scream allows the film to have the greatest possible subliminal impact on those privileged to experience it.