I saw this at an “art house” in East Lansing my first year at Michigan State. It hit me like a freight train. I had never seen a movie like it. Hollywood was still not into making really down and dirty, gritty movies yet. Things like The Blackboard Jungle, billed as hard-hitting, are very, very tame compared with this. I knew very little about the Holocaust, probably because people still were not talking about it much, and no one in America was making films about it. This was the first, and though the scenes from the concentration camps didn’t begin to show the depth of bestiality and inhumanity of the fucking Nazis, it was the most the movie-going public had seen up to that time. It also showed bare breasts, almost unheard-of back then. In spite of that, it got approval from the Production Code, a special exemption because of the subject matter. That may be the only time the Code enforcers did anything good in the whole lousy history of its existence.
I have to say its impact is somewhat diminished after fifty-two years. Most of what’s wrong centers around Jaime Sánchez, the writing and performing of his part. He is the impossibly gung ho Puerto Rican kid who wants to go straight and make something of himself. You can see he is heading for a fall (though I didn’t see it in 1965). What still holds up well is the stark B&W photography, the performance by Brock Peters, the polar opposite of the wronged Negro he played in To Kill a Mockingbird. But most of all it is Rod Steiger, who finds new levels of intensity within himself. That’s really saying something for an actor not known for underplaying. Here, he does, for the first part of the movie. He is a man so withdrawn from the world that he hardly notices the world passing outside of his grungy little pawnshop in a neighborhood that has turned black around him. The explosion, when it comes, is epic. The movie is still worth seeing if only for that. BTW: It was Morgan Freeman’s first appearance on film, in the thrilling role of “Man on Street (uncredited).” Well, we all have to start somewhere.