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FOCUS (director/writer: Neal Slavin; screenwriter: Kendrew Lascelles/based on the novel by Arthur Miller; cinematographer: Juan Ruiz- Anchia; editor: Tariq Anwar; music: Mark Adler; cast: William H. Macy (Lawrence Newman), Laura Dern (Gertrude Hart), David Paymer (Finkelstein), Meat Loaf Aday (Fred), Kay Hewtrey (Mrs. Newman), Michael Copeman (Carlson), Joseph Ziegler (Gargan), Kenneth Welsh (Father Crighton), B.J. McQueen (Mel); Runtime: 104; Paramount Classics; 2001)
“Its most relevant message for today is a warning against vigilante ethnic cleansing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This emotionally overwrought melodrama on anti-Semiticism and demagogy is adapted from Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel, and even though it’s an antique it still fits the times we live in to a tee. This is especially true after 9/11 and the cloud of hatred it manifested from that religiously fanatical act. First-time director Neal Slavin allows this one-note morality play to become a necessary film more than anything else. It’s a companion piece to Hollywood’s breakthrough film on the same subject, the 1947 Gentleman’s Agreement, that was also a heartfelt social commentary on bias in the 1940s but did not offer the intense observations and analysis of the problem as does Focus.

The Brooklyn neighborhood where the middle-aged, milquetoast, Protestant Lawrence Newman (Macy) resides with his wheelchair-bound mother (Kay Hewtrey) in the final days of WW11, is on a block of similar red houses lined-up one next to the other. The close-quartered houses create an atmosphere of conformity and claustrophobia. On his way to work everyday in Manhattan to his personnel management job, in a firm that doesn’t hire Jews and where he has worked the last 20 years, the nattily dressed Lawrence always buys a newspaper from the corner newsstand vender — the only Jew in the neighborhood, Finkelstein (Paymer).

Lawrence is a very private person who shuns the spotlight and just wishes to blend in to his bland surroundings, and prides himself in the civil way he acts. One night he witnesses a neighbor mauling a young woman and despite her screams, he does nothing. The Puerto Rican victim ends up in the hospital in critical condition after being raped.

Fred (Meatloaf) lives next-door to Lawrence and is a member of a Christian hate group that wants to remove Finkelstein from the neighborhood. He is friendly toward his neighbor because he considers him one of us, but he insists that Lawrence joins his group and that he should no longer be Finkelstein’s customer. When Lawrence wavers Fred does not seemed too pleased, and will eventually regard his neighbor with suspicion.

At work Lawrence’s boss Mr. Gargan (Ziegler) is upset that he mistakenly hired a Jewish woman as a typist, and he blames it on the fact that he needs to wear glasses. Lawrence is adament he won’t make the same mistake again and buys glasses. When a sexy blonde in a tight red dress named Gertrude (Dern) appears for a typist job Lawrence nervously turns her down because he suspects she’s Jewish. But to Lawrence’s disbelief and the viewer’s, his glasses make him look like a Jew and the big boss of the firm demotes him and relocates him to a back room because he doesn’t make the right impression. But rather than take the demotion, he quits.

Lawrence then goes through a phase of being taken for Jewish because of his appearance and can’t find a job in his field (Why he doesn’t instead get a pair of gentile glasses is not answered). Getting desperate he travels across the river to New Jersey and meets Gertrude again. She’s now a secretary for a Jewish firm and accepts his apologies, and puts in a good word for him with the boss. After he gets that job they become romantically involved and the Jewish girl agrees to get married in church. They live together with his mother.

But even though they are happy together, Lawrence’s Union Crusader neighbors get more paranoid and violent making his home life tense. They overturn his garbage can on his lawn and his neighbors treat him with almost the same contempt they reserve for Finkelstein. On a weekend vacation trip to the country club Lawrence frequented before, the couple is snubbed by the restricted resort that had already accepted their reservation by phone. When he agrees to attend a Union Crusader meeting on Gertrude’s request, he’s thrown out because he doesn’t applaud as a Father Crighton (Welsh) stirs up the crowd with his venomous speech. Crighton’s a demogogic, anti-Semite, right-wing, hate monger, who blames the Jews for causing WW11 (an imitation of the real-life Father Coughlin who had a national following on his radio program during the 1940s where he spread anti-Semitic hatred).

Some of the film’s great lines are: Gertrude telling the restricted country club manager off by saying “That no one makes a Jew out of me and gets away with it.” Finkelstein asking Lawrence why the Jews are so hated and Lawrence saying because they cheat in business. Finkelstein then counters with “What do you see when you look at me?”

The film is effective as a political fable that stretches reality in order to make its point. But it was hard to imagine Dern and Macy scorned for being Jewish looking, as they did not even remotely look like Semites. That part of the film was really hard to swallow. But it seems that all the film cares about is that the viewer observe how the bigot is an irrational, ignorant and small-minded person who threatens the American way of life. It presents a didactic lesson to remind us how pervasive prejudice is and how if unchecked it spreads like a malignant cancer. Its most relevant message for today is a warning against vigilante ethnic cleansing. What the film lacked was something to say that was subtle and went beyond its righteous lecture.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”