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Focus (2001) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

newman jewish gertrude anti

Principal social themes: racism/civil rights, hate groups

Paramount. PG-13 rating. Featuring: William H. Macy, Laura Dern, David Paymer, Meat Loaf, Kay Hawtrey, Michael Copeman, Kenneth Welsh, Joseph Ziegler, Arlene Meadows, Peter Oldring, Robert McCarrol, Shaun Austin-Olsen, Kevin Jubinville, B. J. McQueen, Pat Patterson. Written by Kendrew Laselles based on the novel Focus by Arthur Miller. Cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia. Edited by Tariq Anwar. Music by Mark Adler. Produced by Robert A. Miller and Neal Slavin. Directed by Neal Slavin. Color. 106 minutes.


Noted playwright Arthur Miller experimented with novel writing in 1945 with Focus , which depicts a meek, middle-aged man, Lawrence Newman, whose life changes dramatically after he starts to wear glasses. People now see him as “looking Jewish,” and he becomes a target of anti-Semitism. Miller’s book was dramatized on television in 1966. In 2001, the project was developed as a feature film with a solid cast and strong production values. It debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, received largely positive reviews, and had a limited but distinguished theatrical run.


Focus is set in a residential area of Queens during World War II. Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) is a finicky bachelor living with his elderly mother. One night he hears a woman being attacked in the street. Going to the window, he sees that one of his neighbors is the attacker, but he refuses to get involved. He later learns that the woman was hospitalized with serious injuries, but he still says nothing to the police. He has worked as a personnel officer in a stolid New York firm for twenty years. Criticized for accepting a Jewish applicant, Newman claims he made a mistake because he is no longer able to read the application forms. He is ordered to get glasses, and that is when his troubles begin. As his own mother initially observes, wearing glasses gives Newman a Jewish appearance. At work, he refuses to hire an applicant, Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), because he fears she might be Jewish. Leaving his office, she denounces him for his prejudice. However, Newman is soon told that his firm no longer wants him in a high-visibility job, and he resigns instead of accepting a demotion. However, he now finds himself mysteriously unable to find a new job, slowly realizing that it is because of his appearance.

His neighbor, Fred (Meat Loaf), is a member of a populist hate group, the Union Crusaders, who have targeted the Finkelsteins, the Jewish proprietors of the corner candy store. Newman himself is somewhat anti-Semitic, and he joins in the boycott. Soon, however, he finds himself the victim of the group’s attacks, when his garbage is scattered across his front lawn. He complains to Fred, saying they should know he is not Jewish. Eventually, Newman applies at a Jewish-owned firm in New Jersey, surprised to find a friend in Gertrude Hart, who is now an employee there. They date, fall in love, and get married. At this point, harassment increases against the Newmans, because the neighbors believe Gertrude is Jewish. When the newlyweds go on vacation to the Jersey shore, they are refused lodgings at resorts that are restricted. Gertrude is familiar with the Union Crusaders, since she had once dated a leading member of the group. She encourages her husband to talk to Fred and join the organization, but Newman cannot bring himself to do it. He reluctantly attends a meeting sponsored by a local church, but is thrown out because he refuses to applaud during a racist speech. Newman visits Finkelstein and tells him that it would be best for him to move, but the shopkeeper refuses. One night, a group of thugs attacks Newman as he and his wife are returning from the movies. Swinging a baseball bat, Finkelstein comes to his aid and together they fight off their enemies. Gertrude runs to Fred for help, but Newman has had enough. He decides to go to the police and file a formal complaint against the Union Crusaders. His wife follows him, telling the police that she can provide the names of the attackers. The desk sergeant assumes the Newmans are Jewish, but Lawrence and Gertrude no longer bother to correct the error. They now completely sympathize and identify with the victims of anti-Semitism.


Focus is one of the most impressive films examining American anti-Semitism since Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). It is particularly effective on two levels, first as a historical portrait of America when radio demagogues such as Father Coughlin (represented in the film by Kenneth Welsh as Father Crighton) had considerable influence, and second, as a portrait of a man who personally experiences the poisonous results of attitudes that he himself has believed. At times, Miller’s allegory seems to overreach. For example, while racism might flourish in Newman’s Queens neighborhood, the setting of the Manhattan business world is more cosmopolitan. There was a shortage of manpower due to the war, and an experienced worker such as Newman should have had little trouble securing employment. Also, Newman never considers exchanging his glasses for a different pair. Nevertheless, the racist attitudes, the hostility, and the prejudice that Newman encounters are brilliantly conveyed. William H. Macy is an ideal actor to portray Newman, endowing the role with intelligence, sensitivity, and unending frustration. Former rocker Meat Loaf (Marvin Lee Aday) is exceptional as Macy’s bigoted neighbor, showing an impressive acting range. David Paymer is equally good as the long-suffering Finkelstein, who continually tries to reach out to Newman whom he recognizes as a decent man. Laura Dern may be a little too highly charged as Gertrude, but she carries her part well.

The film could serve as a rich focal point for studying racism and the psychology of hate groups such as the Union Crusaders. For instance, since this group has a large Catholic component, how would they feel about the strong anti-Catholic fervor of other hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan? What events feed or reduce racism? Will the revelation of the European Holocaust defuse their anti-Semitism? Why is the key achievement in this film, its victory, an internal one, specifically the changes of attitude within Newman and his wife? Such a resolution is usually a very difficult thing to portray onscreen, but Focus manages to bring it off quite well, and the audience is able to share in their new resolve.


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