Growing up–early, before I’d really seen any movies–I knew Steve McQueen was in The Great Escape (though I hadn’t seen it, I’d seen the motorcycle clip) and I knew he’d gotten his start in The Blob. When I first did get into film, when AMC was still the station to watch, I discovered McQueen had a method acting era (The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery). In some ways, he’s one of the oddest actors to accept as having a reverence for the stage, so it’s strange An Enemy of the People was a personal project for him. It just doesn’t go along with car racing. Enemy features some of McQueen’s best acting too, since his character’s different (quiet and passive) and he’s got kids. McQueen’s really good with kids and it’s a shame he didn’t get to do more movies with kids.
I didn’t know Enemy was an adaptation of a play until I started watching it, but right away–once the opening credits ended–I knew. A small number of sets, a lot of conversation, these aspects don’t necessarily scream theater, but something about Enemy does. A lot of filmic adaptations of plays scream it–I saw a lot of these in middle school and you can always tell. With a good adaptation, you can’t, but with the standard, you always can. An Enemy of the People is a fairly standard adaptation and, like most adaptations, its problems stem from not going cinematic enough. When a film has a present action of two days, there’s still some impulsiveness about it. It doesn’t have to be deliberate. Scenes can cut from location to location, people can be doing things at the same time and those actions can be important and visible to the audience. I’m sure An Enemy of the People is a pretty good play–it certainly seems like it from the film–but I expect filmic adaptations of plays to make me consider a stage production irrelevant. Maybe McQueen, in not doing so, just had more respect for the theater than I do.
Some of the problem, I’m sure, comes from the director, George Schaefer, being a prolific stage director and a prolific plays on TV director. The sets are beautifully designed and beautifully lighted, but Schaefer’s composition is a visual sedative. The story’s also filled with one dimensional characters. Only one character actually shows any depth and he’s hardly in it. There’s a brother against brother aspect to the story and it never goes anywhere beyond McQueen’s brother is good and Charles Durning’s is bad. Durning still manages to give a decent performance, but it’s one note. Bibi Andersson (the only Scandinavian in this Norway-set film) is also just decent as McQueen’s wife, but Richard Dysart’s got a small role and is real good. Robin Pearson Rose, as the daughter, is good. Most impressive of the supporting cast is actually Richard Bradford. McQueen carries the whole film and it’s a mistake whenever he’s off-screen for too long. It’s probably his most impressive acting work of the 1970s.
Directed and produced by George Schaefer; screenplay by Alexander Jacobs, from the play by Henrik Ibsen, as adapted by Arthur Miller; director of photography, Paul Lohmann; edited by Sheldon Kahn; music by Leonard Rosenman; production designer, Eugene Lourie; distributed by Warner Bros.
Starring Steve McQueen (Dr. Thomas Stockmann), Bibi Andersson (Catherine), Charles Durning (Peter Stockmann), Michael Cristofer (Hovstad), Michael Higgins (Billing), Richard A. Dysart (Aslaksen), Richard Bradford (Captain Forster), Eric Christmas (Morten Kiil), Robin Pearson (Petra), John Levin (Rose Ejlif) and Ham Larsen (Morten).