The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An Enemy of the People

Steve McQueen was the King of Cool. He was Virgil Hilts, Cooler King. He was Detective Frank Bullitt. He was the laconic anti-hero, a superstar on-screen who hated dialogue. So naturally, late in his career he did a complete 180 with a film that has been basically forgotten in the annals of movies. McQueen helped spearhead the film that's based on a Norwegian play from the 1880's. Here it is, 1978's Enemy of the People, the only starring McQueen role I hadn't seen. Verdict? Keep on reading.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (McQueen) is a middle-aged man, a successful, respected and well-liked physician who is also a family man who desperately loves his wife, Catherine (Bibi Andersson), and their three kids. They live in a small Norwegian village, Stockmann mostly responsible for the town's hot springs, known for their healing powers and a bit of a tourist attraction. The good doctor though is worried and his worries are confirmed when he receives a report that the spring water is filled with bacteria that could easily kill. It seems an easy fix; shut the springs down and repair them, diverting the poisoned water. It seems an easy fix. The town, especially the mayor and Thomas' brother (Charles Durning), questions what the doctor's methods are while also weighing the impact of the potential decision. It all seems so simple, but it is so far from it as Stockmann is met with barriers wherever he turns.

This is an anti-Steve McQueen movie. Made in 1976, it was ready to be released in 1977...but wasn't. It wasn't even given a major release, only seeing the light of day briefly in some college towns in 1978. No one quite knew what to do with it because it was such a departure for its star. So what is the verdict? It's good, not great, a little stilted at times, but even just as a novelty, 'Enemy' is worth seeking out. It is based off a play (of the same name) from Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen from the 1880s and is heavy on message and dialogue and general disgust with the establishment and system. So...yeah, a fastball down the middle for the King of Cool, right?

Basically from the moment he arrived as an actor, McQueen was a man of few words. He was a huge presence, able to do something physically or with a look that wiped away pages of unnecessary dialogue. He was the anti-hero, the cool as hell badass you couldn't help but root for. This is by far his biggest departure for a career that was cut short by his tragic death in 1980 from cancer. He's unrecognizable, sporting long almost shoulder length hair and a thick beard. He delves into the role, speaking more dialogue here than he probably did in other movies combined. His presence is still there even with the expanded...ya know, talking. He's a ball of righteous energy, knowing that he's right and something must be done immediately to fix this immense problem facing the town, its town council, its mayor, and the people itself, both now and for the future. 

Steve McQueen is an all-time favorite of mine. He's up there with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in my holy triumvirate of movie stars so it was incredibly cool to see him try something so entirely new and different. As an actor, he didn't want to do the same old, same old. He wanted to jump into new and fresh territory so without a doubt, McQueen's performance is the best thing about 'Enemy.' I think his best acting is still The Sand Pebbles and Papillon, but this certainly belongs in the conversation.

Only two other names really jump out from the cast, Andersson as Thomas' wife, eternally faithful to her husband even when his actions threaten to tear the family apart. An excellent performance from Andersson, the wavering in her face evident as she decides if she should continue to back her husband (even if it's not the most logical thing to do). Durning does what he does best, underplayed, bubbling intensity, usually as a slithering villain you just want to slap upside the head. Two excellent performances. Also look for Richard Dysart as the experienced (somewhat cautious) editor of the local paper with Michael Cristofer and Michael Higgins as his two younger, idealistic writers/editors. Eric Christmas plays Catherine's father (a good twist late about him) while Robin Pearson Rose is excellent as Petra, Thomas' daughter, intelligent, thoughtful and starting to figure things out in life as she becomes an adult.

'Enemy' is at times limited by its budget, giving it the look of a made-for-TV movie. It isn't a crippling flaw, but it is noticeable throughout. The cast is small, and the visual appeal certainly reflects the play's roots with long, extended scenes full of dialogue marking the 109-minute film from director George Schaefer. Things limp to the finish line a bit in the final half hour, leading to a finale that tries to go for a touch of hope, but in reality, this is a downbeat ending no matter what we see on-screen.

An interesting movie with an interesting message. It reeks of the 1970's when no one really trusted in the government, politics and those in trouble across any field. I guess that hasn't really changed in 2015 either, huh? The movie is unsettling in those instances as we see a majority rule even though they're wrong, a mob making decisions because who in their right mind would stand up to them? I liked the cynicism of 'Enemy,' the general darkness and bleakness in its outlook on life. Is there hope? Sure, there's always hope, but sometimes you've got to fight for it a little harder. An interesting movie, especially notable because of its scarcity over the last 30-plus years and an excellent performance from the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen.

An Enemy of the People (1978): ** 1/2 /****


  1. the epitome of a return that's not a comeback. i guess the hunter was that. but alas, he didn't remain with us.

  2. I always liked the theory that Jaws is a reworked version of Enemy of the People. I read the play in college and it's probably my least favorite Ibsen, much more strident than his stuff usually is. Haven't seen this movie yet but I've been tempted.