Political Film Society - Newsletter #117 - November 15, 2001

November 15, 2001


Arthur Miller’s novel Focus (1945) has been brought to the screen by director Neal Slavin at a time of national hysteria over international terrorism. Whereas filmviewers will recall how Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) featured a Gentile news reporter who pretends to be a Jew to dig up a story about postwar anti-Semitism, the film Focus tells a similar story from the standpoint of a Gentile mistaken for a Jew during World War II and based on Miller’s own experiences. Lawrence Newman (played by William H. Macy) has been a personnel administrator for a venerable New York firm for twenty years. One night he is awakened as a neighbor is beating up and raping a prostitute, but he goes back to bed and does not report the crime; the woman is later taken to the hospital in a coma. Due to male pride, he refuses to wear glasses, but one day his immediate boss insists. When he arrives home in Brooklyn with his new spectacles, his mother (played by Kay Hawtrey) disapproves of the style of his frame because now he appears Jewish. But Newman discounts her perceptive observation; after all, he is Episcopalian, and his forebears were Pilgrims. One day he interviews job applicants for the position of typist. When Gertrude Hart (played by Laura Dern) walks to his office swinging her hips and crosses her legs lasciviously before unmarried Newman, he concludes that he cannot hire her because the company’s policy is to refuse to hire Jews. A Gentile, she sounds off against his obvious discrimination and leaves. At the end of the day his boss is so displeased with his new bespectacled appearance that he insists that Newman exchange his position for that of a mere clerk, so he quits. When he applies for personnel administrator positions elsewhere, he is turned down because of his Jewish appearance; ultimately, he applies at Meyer Peterson, a Jewish firm in Hoboken. By some coincidence, Miss Hart is the boss’s secretary, so he apologizes to her, she puts in a good word for him, he gets the job, she agrees to be his girlfriend, they marry, and the newlyweds move into the Newman house in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, Newman’s next-door neighbor Fred (played by Meat Loaf Aday) has joined the Union Crusaders, followers of Father Crighton (played by Kenneth Welsh) who believe that Jewish internationalists caused World War II and who terrorize Jews. Finklestein (played by David Paymer), who runs a store at the corner, becomes the first victim of the Union Crusaders when garbage is overturned in front of his store. Fred importunes Newman into attending block meetings to rid the neighborhood of all Jews, but Newman demurs, and garbage soon ends up on his lawn. Newman, accordingly, is intimidated into buying his Sunday newspaper from friends of Fred rather than from Finklestein. Then, when Newman brings home his new bride, Fred surmises that she is Jewish and therefore that Newman is Jewish, so matters escalate to more garbage on the lawn and an increasingly hostile reception in the neighborhood. To get away for a weekend, Newman and Gert go to the country, but a "Restricted" inn refuses to allow them to check in, prompting another nasty outburst from Gert. One day some of the bigwigs of the Union Crusaders arrive from out of town, Gert tells Newman that she knew some of them when she was living in Hollywood, and she urges him to attend meetings so that they can evade impending terror. However, when he attends a talk by Father Crighton (Miller’s pseudonym for Detroit’s Father Coughlin), he perceives that the groups consists of "morons"; refusing to clap, he is thrown out of the event. When he walks home, he runs into a neighbor, who asks him what has been going on, and Newman gives the most important speech of the film about the need for community, honesty, and integrity, though the neighbor is impressed. One evening Newman and Gert go to a movie; as they walk home, they are cornered by six thugs, who start slugging. Newman fights back, tells Gert to run home, and soon Finklestein comes to Newman’s aid in the nick of time. On hearing that the raped woman has just been pronounced dead, Newman walks to the police station to report the attack. Gert follows and is prepared to give the names of the outsiders. As the film ends, the duty officer at the station asks them if they are Jewish, and they respond affirmatively. Today, when vigilantes are roughing up Arab-looking residents in a manner similar to gaybashing, Focus warns that racial vigilantism is itself a form of terrorism. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Focus for this year’s best film on human rights. MH