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Laramie Movie Scope: Focus

Arthur Miller novel comes to the screen with class

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 27, 2002 -- Arthur Miller's first novel, "Focus," hits the screen as a powerful story of bigotry which, unfortunately, has not lost its relevance over the years. William H. Macy of "State and Main" stars as Lawrence Newman, an unassuming office worker who finds out what it is like to be a hate crime victim.

The story is set in Brooklyn near the end of World War II. Newman, after donning a new pair of glasses that makes him look Jewish, suddenly is assigned to a new office out of the public eye. After quitting his job, he finds it difficult to find a new job. Some jobs are advertised for "Christians only," while others are not as forthright in their discriminatory practices. Newman is not Jewish, but he looks Jewish, and that is enough for the bigots he meets. The anti-Semitism becomes nastier as he and a neighboring Jewish businessman, Finkelstein (David Paymer of "State and Main") have their property vandalized. Neighbors he has known for years shun him and his wife Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern of "I Am Sam"). His neighbor, Fred (Meat Loaf Aday of "Fight Club") is very active in trying to get Finkelstein out of the neighborhood. Then the situation gets even more ugly and violent.

It is ironic that Newman is the target of such hatred because he, as a personnel director, had denied jobs to a number of people because he thought they might be Jewish. Newman is basically a decent person, but he did not have the courage to stand up to the anti-Semitism in the company he worked for. Eventually, he winds up working for a Jewish boss. Being the target of so much unreasoning hatred, Newman gradually abandons his prejudices and finds himself allied with Finkelstein against the neighborhood hate-mongers. The final scene beautifully brings the story full circle.

The most striking thing about the film is the use of color. First-time director Neal Slavin has the kind of eye for color one would expect from an award-winning photographer. The interior scenes are muted, but there is a use of lively primary colors in the exterior shots. The bright red of Finkelstein's store cries out for attention, and is a symbol of the communism that the bigots in the neighborhood associate with Jews. Images in the film are striking. In one scene, Newman's reflection in the window of a subway shows the emotion he has inside, but is unable to express. The close up shot of the face of a minister, twisted with hatred during an anti-Semitic speech, is jarring. The visual look of the film gives it the flavor of an existential nightmare.

The artists who worked on the film do a fine job evoking the period of the late 1940s with production design by Vlasta Svoboda, art direction by Edward Bonutto, set decoration by Michelle Convey, costume Design by Vicki Graef and cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchía ("The Corruptor"). Macy, one of the finest character actors in the business, is brilliant in the lead, ably supported by Dern, Paymer and Aday. The film does suffer from a bit of stiff formality. It seems a bit of Miller's literary flair has rubbed off on the film. The story is powerful, though, and has lost none of its relevance. I was reminded of the Arab-Americans, and the Sikh killed in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. They were killed just because of the way they looked. People are always looking for an excuse to hate, it seems. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)