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An Enemy Of The People
(1979)
 

Director: George Schaefer                    
Cast:
Steve McQueen, Charles Durning, Bibi Andersson


Steve McQueen fans will no doubt be surprised by this movie on several levels. Probably their initial surprise will be when they discover that this movie exists - despite the presence of their favorite movie star, this movie has not attracted a lot of attention over the years. Their next surprise will probably come from when they see how Steve McQueen looks like here. In An Enemy Of The People, McQueen is pretty much unrecognizable - even I had a lot of trouble picturing him under his long wavy hair, his granny glasses, his puffy and curly beard, and his extra weight. And the final surprise is the subject matter of this movie; in previous movies (and afterwards, with Tom Horn and The Hunter) McQueen is known for playing cool, heroic loners in actioners. An Enemy Of The People is nowhere near an actioner - it's an adaptation of a dramatic play by Henrik Ibsen! And McQueen's character here is a small town doctor in 19th century Scandinavia who tries to solve a crisis with logic and scientific fact - no cars, motorbikes, or guns here.

How did McQueen get involved in such an unlikely project? As it turns out, even he knew that the commercial prospects for An Enemy Of The People were not great, to say the least. After 1974's The Towering Inferno, he took some time off, partly due to some big problems in his personal life. (Though he secretly did some of the motorcycle stunt work in the 1976 exploitation movie Dixie Dynamite.) Though he wanted to rest, there was one monkey on his back - he was under contract by the production company First Artists (a company he now despised) to do another movie for them. However, his contract stated that he was allowed to pick the project. So to get revenge, and possibly get First Artists to go under (they eventually did, though I'm not sure if this movie was the cause), he decided to pick something extremely uncommercial - hence An Enemy Of The People.

The movie was shot and completed in 1977, with a closed set and McQueen refusing to give interviews. A funny thing happened to McQueen during the shoot. As time progressed, his fondness and enthusiasm for the project kept growing. By the end, he was convinced that the movie was going to be a big hit, and started claiming to his friends that he had chosen the movie because looking back at his previous work he felt "artistically, I've failed," and that, for the first time, he felt like he was actually acting. However, when distributor Warner Brothers saw the movie, they got nervous, and shelved it for some time, unsure on how to market it. After two years had past, they tested the movie at several college campuses, where several movie critics caught it and heavily panned it. As a result, the movie never got a further release to theaters, and to this date it hasn't been released on video. I finally caught this movie on one of its rare broadcasts on TV.

It's a pretty good movie. It isn't a masterpiece or a great movie, but it's a competent, interesting little movie, covering issues Ibsen wrote about that are still around today. McQueen's doctor character Tom at the beginning of the movie makes a horrifying discovery - the town's spring, which is destined to become a future health resort by several of the town's leading citizens (including Tom), is contaminated. Feeling that the resort plan should stop, Tom tells his brother Peter (Durning), who is also the town's mayor. To Tom's shock, Peter refuses to stop the project, claiming the costs and time for cleanup would be enormous, and potential tourists would be scared off. ("You want to ruin this town?")

Tom then heads to the owners of the local newspaper, who are initially eager to print Tom's report, partly due to the fact they despise the town council and have political aspirations of their own. However, Peter later visits the newspaper to tell them that printing the article would result in a large taxation for the cleanup - and the citizens wouldn't be fond of any government under that tax. The newspaper then declines to run the story. Tom, still determined the truth should be told, tries taking his case to the citizens, but finds it much harder than he thinks, due both to unforeseen circumstances and the citizens not taking to the tongue of this stubborn, scientific man. Soon, Tom finds himself an outcast, finding himself in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma and wondering what to do next.

Government corruption, a public unable to comprehend scientific fact, greed - these are all things we can relate to even in the 20th century - Ibsen clearly had a good idea of the basic, unchanged nature of man. In addition, there's discussion on the individual's role in society (to blend in or not?), if the majority is "always right", and also interesting looks when people agree on a problem, but can't decide on the proper solution. Moderation? Full out? There are no easy answers both for Tom and the other citizens. Even the neutral side is explored in this movie, represented by Captain Forster (Richard Bradford, in a small but standout performance), who claims to be politically neutral (he doesn't vote), but his later actions show that even he has a hard time staying neutral in the conflict.

Besides Bradford, there's also an excellent performance by Durning as Tom's brother. The way the role is written, it's very easy for a performer to portray Peter as a selfish, evil man. But with During in the role, you see that Peter isn't altogether bad - he is sneaky and manipulative, and will do anything to survive the crisis, but at the same time he seems to genuinely believe what he's doing is for the overall good of the community. A special acting note also goes to Eric Christmas as Tom's father-in-law, whose memorable character initially seems to be in the play for light comic relief, but later provides a sinister piece of the puzzle.

As for McQueen - well, I was relieved to see that he actually seems to fit in the movie, a large part of that being that he is pretty much unrecognizable. So he doesn't seem that out of place, though at the same time he isn't stupendous. McQueen gives a low key performance here, talking very softly when he is not brooding in silence. His performance is so low key at times, other performers sometimes have trouble with him - witness the scene when Durning and McQueen are first alone. You'd think this would be a great scene, with two acclaimed actors by themselves. But McQueen is so subdued, that Durning seems unsure of how to act with him, even  descending down to McQueen's low key nature in this scene. In fairness to McQueen, there is one kind of acting that he does very well here - his "eye" acting. When he has a close-up, and you see his eyes clearly, you can tell exactly what his character is thinking.

There are some other notable flaws in An Enemy To The People that make it a perfectly acceptable movie instead of the powerhouse it could have been. The musical score by Leonard Rosenman is nice, but it seems this low budget movie could only afford one instrumental song, since variations of various pieces of this song are played throughout the movie. The movie is directed in a fashion that seems more suited to the stage instead of a sound stage; at key moments we sense a curtain should be falling to end the act, and many of the sets look only a little better to what one may find at a good community theater. Some scenes are directed with the central conversation in one room, while the camera looks on at someone (working in silence) in another room. And the few outdoor scenes were obviously filmed indoors. It's almost as if the production didn't have time to rewrite the play as a movie, and director Schaefer was struggling to make the play script look as much like a movie as possible. And the ending of the movie is extremely rushed - I haven't seen or read the original play, but I sincerely doubt the final action, whatever it is, is played at that speed. Despite this kind of treatment, the story and themes of An Enemy To The People are still strong enough to be of interest to viewers who are interested in them, and made the movie worthwhile to me. Still, the movie clearly could have been much better, and I'm not sure that McQueen fans, enthusiastic as they are about their idol, will be as interested in this movie as they are of his better-known efforts.
 


UPDATE: One of the sources I used during my research on this movie was a Steve McQueen biography (published just a few years ago) that stated the movie was only screened at college campuses. However, reader William Norton reveals that the release was actually wider:

"You...mentioned An Enemy Of The People never played on regular runs, but it did in 1981 (or was it 1982?) in Seattle.  Siskel and Ebert mentioned the film on their show also, so it must have played in Chicago."

If any other readers remember seeing any kind of release in their area for An Enemy Of The People, please write in, so the size of its release can be confirmed once and for all.


UPDATE 2: C.F. Velkas sent this along:

"I came across your review some time ago and was pleased to have the opportunity to read it, especially the information about the distribution/ showings of Mr. McQueen's film, An Enemy Of The People.

"Background: In Oct. 1976 (at age 51) I read a front page story in the local Bennington, Vermont newspaper about a research team from the Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) having discovered high levels of lead in the blood of factory workers who worked at Globe Union Battery Factory. The batteries contained lead plates and the workers were exposed to lead dust, etc. at the work place. To their surprise, the (CDC) team also found above average lead blood levels in a research "Control Group" with no history of exposure to lead. The CDC team then called for another CDC team, composed of epidemiologists, to investigate and determine the source of the lead in the Control Group. After ruling out many other factors, the epidemiologists found that the town public drinking water contained high levels of lead.

"As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I understood the permanent damage caused by lead, etc. to the central nervous system and assumed the medical doctor community would see to correcting this problem. After a short while, it became obvious that they were not going to lift a finger. So I sought to have the then State's Attorney (referred to in some other States as the "D.A.") to legally stop the Town from distributing the lead-laced drinking water via the Town public water distribution system. I had become aware that Vermont has a "rule" (which has the force of law) that prohibits lead and some other toxic materials in Town public water with a penalty of one year in jail and/or a fine. No action came from the "D.A." So I tried, and failed, to persuade an attorney to represent me in a suit to restrain the Town from distributing the water.

"Having no experience in writing up law suit papers to file in Courts, I looked over legal papers drawn up to prosecute persons involved in the 1865 shooting of Pres. Lincoln and, acting as a self-appointed prosecutor, put together a complaint against the criminal behavior of the six members of the Town governing Board of Selectmen (Chair "man" was a woman), and filed it,, "pro se", in Dec. of 1976 with the Court Clerk after serving a copy on the Town Manager. This resulted in the Town testing lead levels in different parts of Town, selecting public locations able to meet the then government mandated permitted levels of toxic substances in public drinking water, and advising residents of the availability of drinking/ cooking water at those approved locations. Then over the year 1977, I worked to secure government funds to replace the old lead distribution pipes in town with non-lead pipes. (As I write, the Town is still removing old lead pipes). It turns out that the Town added "acidic" river water to our nice underground aquifer water source in order to meet the needs of a new industry they were trying to attract to come to Bennington with jobs for the locals. They sweetened the offer with sufficient water, a tax reduction clause, and the acidic water is carried via a new long main water pipe from our new water treatment plant (money came from my continuing hell-raising) to the site where they were to build their new Globe Union Battery Factory.

"By late 1977, the New York Times got wind of all this and their Boston Bureau Chief came up here, with a photographer, to put together a story which appeared on the front page of a Sunday issue of the NYT in January 1978, and which story was distributed to over 200 U.S. and other papers world-wide (including the Paris American Herald Tribune). The writer compared my experience to that of the Doctor in Ibsen's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Then followed a segment on a CBC TV affiliate in Albany, N.Y. on their "30 Minutes" program which aired just before the Sunday CBS "60 Minutes program" and later an invitation from a Professor of Political Science to address some classes and a faculty group at Keene (New Hampshire) State University where I was applauded by the students after the talk and approached for my autograph. My treatment from Bennington residents, however, was not unlike that accorded Ibsen's Doctor.

"So I have wondered if Mr McQueen's decision in 1977 to select the Ibsen script was influenced by knowledge of my 1977 then mostly unpublicized local efforts. Some time after the NYT article, I received a phone call from a famous LA/NY publicist who asked me to review the film and make suggestions as to what final form it should take. He later had to cancel the trip here. Didn't say why - perhaps because of Mr. McQueen's illness. In the middle of this, I did receive a package of 8 X 10 stills of scenes from the film and some pages of descriptive material with information that the film had been shown in St Louis and the audience had written good review comments about it on forms they filled out at the end of the showing.

"I have always been sorry that the film has not received wider distribution and has not been available on video tape (and now DVD). Years ago, I telephoned Warner Brothers about lack of distribution and they were not pleasant. I suppose they control what happens and Mr. McQueen's widow and children have no say in it.

"A few years ago, I read an article (Associated Press) in the local paper that had a story about the increase in the use of bottled water and I noticed that a graph that was part of the article showed a dramatic increase in the sale of bottled water beginning in early 1978 (following the Jan. 1978 NYT article ?) It so happens that we have here a natural spring (in Town) named Morgan Spring that produces gallons per minute of the best drinking water you could ever imagine. Instead of bottling it and putting it on the market, that spring water is added to the river water along with CHLORINE, SODIUM HYDROXIDE (the main ingredient of DRAINO - see the skull and crossbones on the can), and SODIUM BICARBONATE (see the warning on the side of boxes of baking soda). Cheers ! Of course, you can buy Saratoga (N.Y.) bottled water, and bottled water from Hawaii, the island where Napoleon spent his last years, Canada, Alaska, water from icebergs (big in Japan), France, Italy, you name it."


UPDATE 3: John Wilson sent me this:

"Re your reference to Siskel and Ebert's discussion of An Enemy Of The People, Siskel wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune about attending a showing at a drive-in in the Chicago suburbs at which the movie was shown. I believe he ironically pointed out that this was the "world premiere" for the film, which had been completed some time before that showing.

"There was no special advertising, just than the regular listings of what was to be shown. It is unclear what the motive was for this isolated screening, but it may be that the "release" was accidental. In any case, although the movie has been shown in isolated instances such as this, no funding was ever provided by the studio for a general release, according to STEVE MCQUEEN: PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN REBEL by Marshall Terrill."


UPDATE 4: Bora Kizilirmak sent this in:

"You were asking readers in your site if anybody saw An Enemy Of The People in their region and/or country. Well, I saw it in Ankara/Turkey in "Cagdas Aahne" movie theatre around the early 1980s and I liked the movie a lot. I remember it very well; it was played just after the week they played another forgotten movie which is also very good, Children of Sanchez."


UPDATE 5: "Markmanpix" sent this in:

"Maybe this is ancient history now, but if you are still interested:

I worked in Pay TV in the late '70s and early '80s. An Enemy of the People had its U.S. TV premiere on a system called SelecTV, which operated in Los Angeles. This was somewhere between '79 and '81, and this was reported in one of the books that came out on McQueen - but I can't remember which. Immediately after that, it was shown by ON TV, another L.A. based pay TV system, which had over half a million subscribers in Los Angeles, and also aired their programming in a few other cities back east.

"The movie also played in a few art houses in New York in 1981, creating some press at the time. the reviews were all good.

"In the mid 1980s, AMC ran the movie. I have it on tape from one of those airings, with the AMC intro.

"Several years back, it was released on video, by Warner Home Video, in England. some of those used tapes, in a picture box, come up on ebay from time to time."

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
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Check for availability of Steve McQueen biography on Amazon

Also: The Ambassador, Bad Company, Your Three Minutes Are Up

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