LOS ANGELES, Oct. 14 (JTA) — During World War II, future playwright Arthur Miller worked the night shift in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the pervasive anti-Semitism he encountered among his co-workers made him apprehensive about the future of American Jews.
He expressed his fearful vision in “Focus,” his first and only novel, published in 1945 and the work that first brought him to public attention.
Forty years later, in the foreword to a new edition of the book, Miller wrote:
“It is no longer possible to decide whether it was my own Hitler-begotten sensitivity or the anti-Semitism itself that so often made me wonder whether, when peace came, we were to be launched into a new politics of race and religion, and not in the South, but in New York.”
Miller’s pessimistic scenario did not materialize, and from the perspective of the 1980s, he could write, “When one is tempted to say that everything in the world has gotten worse, here is one shining exception.”
Now, 56 years after its first publication and in a vastly different time, “Focus” has been adapted as a movie, and one has to wonder why. It seems doubtful that an increased interest in all things Jewish will propel moviegoers to flock to “Focus.”
The Paramount Classics release premieres Oct. 19 in New York and will open in major U.S. and Canadian cities in subsequent weeks.
It is telling of the 1940s state of mind in the United States that the victims of discrimination and worse in “Focus,” as in Laura Hobson’s novel “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which was published two years later, are not real Jews, whose fate would presumably elicit little empathy in middle America.
Rather, the protagonist only pretends to be Jewish — as in “Gentleman’s Agreement” — or, as in “Focus,” the victims are good, solid Christians who are mistakenly taken for Jews.
The central character in “Focus” is Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy), his wife is Gertrude (Laura Dern) and the couple lives on a middle-class street in an unidentified borough of New York. He is a middle manager in a large corporation, supervising 70 typists.
Neither “looks” Jewish, except to the most paranoid racist mind. Yet, after Newman buys his first pair of glasses, he instantly “seems” Jewish, even to his mother, and the misperception extends to his blond, blue-eyed wife.
Suddenly a “Jew,” Newman loses his job, is turned down for all other ones, and the couple is brusquely shown the door at a restricted hotel.
Worse, his neighbors, ardent members of the Christian Front, start hounding him. First, they overturn his garbage cans, then beat him up.
His only, and initially unwelcome, ally is Finkelstein (David Paymer), who owns the corner drugstore and is an old hand at coping with anti-Jewish hatred. In the end, Newman has to decide whether to make a stand, however reluctantly, with Finkelstein, or flee his tormentors.
Producer-director Neal Slavin has skillfully reproduced the feel and lifestyle of 1940s New York, though the film was shot in Toronto.
Macy gives a solid performance as Newman, while Paymer as Finkelstein and Meat Loaf as a racist neighbor are natural antagonists. Dern, at least in the first half of the film, lends a welcome touch of playfulness to an otherwise humorless cast of characters.
The most effective, and scary, scene shows the anti-Semitic radio priest, Father Coughlin (here thinly disguised as Father Crighton), who had an enormous audience in the 1930s, rousing the faithful to screaming fury against the Jews, the New Deal and the press.
American Jews who lived through World War II will wince at the recognition of old insults and slurs, such as the subway graffiti, “Kikes started war.”
More fortunate younger generations can measure the long way most of American society has come in half a century.