Wednesday, September 7, 2016

An Enemy of the People (1978)

Over the long weekend I had the chance to watch An Enemy of the People off of the DVR, having taped it when it ran on TCM back in March. (Shows how far behind I am in my movie viewing.) It's gotten a release to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection and is available from the TCM Shop, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it, even if it isn't coming up any time soon.

Steve McQueen stars as Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the doctor in a small Norwegian town in the late 19th century. (The movie is based on a play by Henrik Ibsen, hence the setting.) Thomas spent time working in the northern part of the country and has apparently returned relatively recently, to work at the town's new spa, managed in part by his brother Peter (Charles Durning), who is also the town's mayor. Peter and the rest of the townsfolk are pinning their hopes on the spa, in that it will become, like Carlsbad or Baden-Baden, a place for the rich people to come and get the spa cure, thereby pumping a lot of money into the town's economy.

However, Dr. Thomas has had some worries that he hasn't wanted to admit to anybody else. There's a tannery upstream, and the good doctor has the sinking feeling that the runoff from the tannery is in fact polluting the spa water because the town fathers put the water supply for the spa in the wrong place. So instead of getting a healthful cure, the spa visitors would be getting a miasma of toxins. Sure enough, Thomas sent some samples to the university chemistry department, and his worst suspicions have been confirmed.

So Dr. Thomas is writing up a scientific report on the water, and is going to have it published in the local paper, one edited by Hovstad (Michael Christofer), a man with radical ideas. Hovstad would like nothing better than to take the town fathers down a peg or two, and damn the consequences. Most of the people in the town, however, don't see things that way. They're understandably worried that if news about the spa's water not being all it's cracked up to be gets out, that nobody will want to visit the spa, and it will condemn the town to poverty and a slow death. That, and fixing the problem is pretty darn costly and is going to take years.

With those concerns, the mayor tries to impress on his brother not to publish the report. And when that doesn't work, the mayor tries to impress on everybody else not to publish the report. Can Dr. Thomas stand alone with an entire town against him?

An Enemy of the People is an interesting story idea with some universal ideas about principle and consequences. It could be set pretty much anywhere and in any time, but McQueen, who co-produced the movie, didn't move it out of Ibsen's Norway. McQueen is quite different here than in any other movie I've seen him in, and if you didn't know it was him, you might not recognize him; his Dr. Stockmann has long hair and an unkempt beard. Different doesn't mean bad, and McQueen does more than a good enough job. Charles Durning sometimes seems as though he's out of place playing a 19th century Norwegian, but since this is a universal story, that doesn't really matter. Bibi Andersson is obviously more of a natural as Thomas' wife Catherine, and young Robin Pearson Rose, who has done a lot of TV work, is notable as Thomas' daughter Petra.

If An Enemy of the People has a flaw, it's in the adaptation. McQueen used an adaptation by Arthur Miller, and at times it comes across as overly obvious and almost didactic. It also drags a bit toward the end because the big conflict comes a bit too long before the ending. But that's not McQueen's fault or that of any of the actors. It also doesn't detract from the movie anywhere near enough to make it not worth a watch.

If you only know Steve McQueen from films like The Great Escape or Bullitt, watch An Enemy of the People. I think you'll be surprised.

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