Notwithstanding an uncredited bit part in the 1976 B-movie Dixie Dynamite, Steve McQueen ended a four-year screen hiatus by starring in a film that’s the opposite of the glossy action thrillers that made him famous. An Enemy of the People is an unassuming adaptation of an 1882 Henrik Ibsen play, and McQueen plays an intellectual from behind a mask of glasses, long hair, and a thick beard. It’s hard to tell whether his intention was to destroy his own screen person, to prove he could act, or simply to try something new. Whatever the motivation, the experiment was only partly successful, because An Enemy of the People pushes McQueen far beyond his limited range. Nonetheless, his obvious desire to convey intelligence rather than just coasting on charm is admirable, and the film itself is solid, if a bit antiseptic. So while it’s easy to imagine a “real” actor delivering a scorching performance in the same role, the novelty of seeing McQueen stretch is what keeps An Enemy of the People from feeling like a museum piece.
As written for the screen by Alexander Jacobs, who employed Arthur Miller’s adaptation of the Ibsen original, the setup is simple. Dr. Thomas Stackman (McQueen) is the doctor in a small town known for a spa that draws water from a nearby spring. The town’s mayor is Thomas’ domineering older brother, Peter (Charles Durning). One day, Thomas receives the results of a chemical analysis that he requested, and the information is damning: The spring water has been poisoned by spiloff from a mill, which means the spa must be closed for public-safety reasons. Thomas tries to spread the bad news, but local residents oppose him, fearful the report will destroy the town’s principal source of revenue. Even Peter betrays Thomas, scheming with the town’s wealthiest citizens to have Thomas branded an “enemy of the people.” All of this is powerful stuff, touching on themes of free speech, greed, and persecution.
Director George Schaefer does little to disguise the material’s theatrical origins, employing soundstages for both exterior and interior scenes. Similarly, the choice to adorn Durning’s face with massive fake eyebrows and an unconvincing beard was imprudent—and indicative of the production’s overall artificiality. Yet bogus trappings are insufficient to suppress Durning’s extraordinary skill, so he elevates all of his scenes, as does costar Richard Dysart, who plays a sly power-monger. (Leading lady Bibi Andersson’s work is earnest but perfunctory.) All told, the pluses of An Enemy of the People outweigh the minuses, though it’s no surprise the film received an indifferent reception; An Enemy of the People delivers none of the things that fans associate with McQueen, and McQueen’s acting is more noble than noteworthy. Still, the movie is an interesting facet of a great screen career, and the inherent quality of the source material makes the experience of watching An Enemy of the People edifying.
An Enemy of the People: GROOVY