The subject of director Neal Slavin’s Focus (adapted by Kendrew Lascelles from a novel by Arthur Miller) is cowardice in the face of intolerance. I haven’t read the novel, but Slavin’s film has all the trademarks of Miller’s plays: the humorless solemnity, the affected poetry-of-the-common-man dialogue, the liberal conscience sputtering with indignation, shocked—shocked—at the idea of man’s inhumanity to man.
William H. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a low-level office manager in New York in the waning days of World War II. (Miller is deliberately vague on this point; just as in Death of a Salesman he never tells us what the feckless Willy Loman actually sells. Apparently he feels it enhances the “everyman” quality of his protagonists if he doesn’t go into too much detail about their lives.)
Lawrence squirms like a skewered insect specimen as he sees (and shares) the rabid anti-Semitism around him. His bigoted neighbor (Meat Loaf Aday) casts a malevolent eye at the corner grocer Finkelstein (David Paymer) and his family (“I tellya, they’re takin’ over. It’ll be niggers next.”). Lawrence’s boss orders him to get some glasses so he can take a better look at job applicants and avoid hiring the “wrong sort.” Lawrence is cowed into rejecting an applicant named Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern) because of her “Jewish” name; she sneers contemptuously at him, “I was born Episcopalian, if that’s what you’re thinking,” before stalking out.
Finally, when Lawrence gets glasses for his failing eyes, he finds that he suddenly looks “too Jewish.” His employers shunt him off into a back office, impelling him to quit in protest. Then he can’t find work in a city where the help-wanted ads say things like “Christians Only,” “Gentiles Please,” “Restricted.” At one establishment, ironically, he is interviewed by Gertrude for a position in a Jewish firm. At last he has a job, and a chance to atone to Gertrude for humiliating her before.
He atones so completely, in fact, that soon he and Gertrude are married. At this, his next-door neighbor—a member of a gang of fedora fascists called “Union Crusaders”—eyes the couple with more suspicion than ever. Naturally, as Lawrence and Gertrude become the targets of anti-Semitism, the irony is that (like the Gregory Peck character in the old chestnut Gentleman’s Agreement) they aren’t Jewish.
Slavin underscores the irrationality of anti-Semitism and the Snidely Whiplash evil of his villains by the casting of his central characters. The fact is, Laura Dern and William H. Macy look about as stereotypically “Jewish” as Raggedy Ann and Andy. By making them, despite their whitebread appearance, the targets of ethnic hatred, the film makes the point that nobody is safe. Then, because Arthur Miller is not one to overtax the imagination of an audience, the point is hammered home in a conversation between Lawrence and the timorous Finkelstein: “For God’s sake, don’t you see what they’re doing? There’s hundreds of millions of people in this country, and a couple of million is Jews. It’s you they want, not me! They are a gang of devils, and they want this country.” (The bad grammar is Miller’s idea of how the lower classes talk; it’s like the corny/classic groaner from Death of a Salesman: “Nobody dast blame this man.”)
It goes without saying that there’s right-thinking rectitude in Focus, but there’s smugness and self-congratulation, too. By melodramatizing anti-Semitism, the film trivializes it. This Union Crusader group that Miller concocts is like some criminal gang out of a low-budget 1940s Dick Tracy serial—the very name is at once sinister and meaningless. Focus suggests that Jew-hating is something that was done 60 years ago by glowering B-movie villains in ominous lighting and cheap suits. It put me in mind of what one wag said about Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947: “That movie taught me that the next time I see a Jew I should be nice to him, because he might really be a Gentile.”