USA cinema

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’

SIXTEEN– TIME AFTER TIME, USA 1979

 

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Movies are like coffee. They range from entertaining froth to the intense and austere.   Lattes have milk and froth, and sipping them can be a distraction from daily drudge. The espresso is dark and intense. Without the sugar or a cigarette it can be a challenge. The movie Time After Time is froth but it is not a cappuccino. There is no sprinkling of too sweet chocolate. Instead, it is enriched like the best lattes with an extra dose of pungent coffee.   The script is smart, and the movie stands up.   It achieves the impossible. Somehow the actor Malcolm McDowell is sympathetic as the hero H G Wells. The moustache and wire rimmed glasses help McDowell appear serious, sincere and curious.   H G Wells was not without his faults. He wanted an egalitarian society but had peculiar ideas about how people would be made equal. Wells advocated genetic science and controlled breeding to eliminate human imperfection. Thanks to an extra dose of coffee, or the sly and clever moves by writer and director Nicholas Meyer, the audience is persuaded that the human weakness in Wells came later.

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Our old friend Jack the Ripper is the undisputed villain in Time After Time.  The Ripper is a good friend of Wells and a chess opponent. His name is John Leslie Stevenson. The reference to the creator of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde helps us realise that Wells and Ripper have much in common. Both are self-possessed and uncommon men.   Wells wants to create, and the Ripper wants to destroy. In his worst performances the actor David Warner resembles the kind of man who does not know how to leave University, the middle-class Briton who is too snotty to grow up. McDowell is capable of the same shallow superiority, which may be why McDowell as Wells and David Warner as the Ripper make such good foils in Time After Time. At his best Warner can be subtle and complex. In his eyes there is both darkness and disappointment. Warner introduces us to a man haunted by his depravity but also disappointed by a violent world that reflects his own unpleasant appetites.  If he feels superior, it is because he does not pretend to be blind to the depravity. In a confrontation with Wells, the Ripper grabs the TV remote and forces Wells to see the world and the human race as it really is. The scene works because not all of the violent examples are extreme. The different shots exist as protest that challenges the high-minded puritanism of Wells. David Warner even has a sympathetic moment at the climax of the film. We observe a man of strength who needs relief from his own evil.   Unable to be a saint he is obliged to be a devil. All of this happens in a light escapist thriller.

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The plot of Time After Time has time travel, Jack the Ripper, H G Wells as the detective or Sherlock Holmes substitute and the feminist counterpoint of, what was in 1979, a modern and independent American woman. These elements cannot be described as routine.   The plot mechanics, though, are rudimentary. Jack the Ripper escapes in the time machine of H G Wells who follows him to 1979 San Francisco. Wells is bewildered by the consumerism of 70s America. A passer by says that Wells thinks he is in Disney World.  Despite the bemusement Wells traces the Ripper. He enquires at different banks about a man who has exchanged old British currency.  In the process he meets the American woman Amy, has sex and falls in love. They have to find the Ripper to prevent him killing more women.  Inevitably, Amy becomes the target of the Ripper. Wells not only has to save the life of Amy but convince her that there is some truth in his nonsense about time travel.   The plot is rudimentary because it exists in separate sections. Man wanders around foreign country, man meets girl, man chases other man, Ripper retaliates and so on.   The romantic interlude feels like the middle eight in a pop song. The charm and appeal of Time And Time is in the overall concept and detail. The framework is crude.

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Mary Steenburgen is irresistible as Amy.  Her performance is loaded with charm.   Steenburgen is a modern girl but we can also imagine her in another age.   The actress has a dizzy strength. The romance between Amy and Wells is unbelievable but they are likeable and share some smart dialogue. We root for them. The decision by Amy at the end of the film will offend many women of today. The career and destiny of the male take precedence. We do hear Amy say she will change her name to Susan B Anthony, and because Anthony was a woman rights activist the implication is that Amy will not settle for being an appendage to H G Wells. The reference to Anthony, which was inspired by the real life Amy changing her name to Jane, is too obscure. A line of dialogue insisting upon gender emancipation would not have gone amiss. Yet it is heart warming to observe H G Wells and Amy together in the time machine and in love.   In the rest of the film the couple are often seen in long shot, as if they are swamped by both time and an age to which neither belongs.   Together they have achieved an intimacy that defies the intrusion of fate and others. That sound might heady but Time After Time really does have a happy ending. Steenburgen and McDowell married after they had finished the film. They divorced nine years later.

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Nicholas Meyer wrote and directed Time After Time.  His novel The Seven Per Cent Solution made him famous and led to well-paid work in the cinema. The novel by Meyer featured Sherlock Holmes but was blessed with a radical reimagining of the nature of the famous Detective.   Meyer was born and raised in New York. If he was inspired by the Victorian age, it appears to have been a phase. Later in his career he directed two Star Trek movies. His knowledge of Victorian fiction, though, taught him a few tricks and good taste. The opening scenes in Victorian London pay homage to the gothic traditions. There are the familiar cobbled streets and picturesque white fog. But there are also innovations. The encounter between the Ripper and the London prostitute has an erotic edge that is not weakened because the viewer does not see the sex. The Ripper carries a pocket watch that is musical. The watch has other functions. It identifies the Ripper, adds a poignant effect to the opening murder scene, hints at the theme of the movie and is the device that aids Amy and Wells in the final confrontation with the Ripper. Having the watch help Amy escape from the Ripper is clever, and the idea is loaded with symbolism but the effect is weakened by poor editing.

The same flaw is evident in what could have been an interesting car chase. Overall, though, the light touch of Meyer prevails. A fine example occurs when Amy discovers that the nonsense about time travel previously spouted by Wells is actually true. The moment is brief and silent but we recognise the relief of Amy as she obtains proof that the man she loves is not crazy.   Doubt is replaced by faith. A similar revelation occurs in the Hitchcock disappointment Torn Curtain. In that film Julie Andrews discovers that her fiancé Paul Newman was only pretending to be a traitor.  Julie Andrews does not help him but Hitchcock overplays the scene. In Time After Time the revelation is subtle and there is space for the audience to imagine what Amy feels.

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Movies about time travel have a tendency to trip over their cleverness.   With the ability to travel through time Wells has a simple option for dealing with the threat of the Ripper against Amy.   We have to go back in time says Wells. He does but Amy could have stayed in the future where she was safe. The two reverse time because without them back in the past there would be no movie.   Yet Meyer mainly makes the right calls.   The time machine is driven by solar power.   The opening credits are accompanied with music by veteran Miklos Rozsa, and the Disney feel of the film suits the consumerism of modern America.   The special effects have dated but indicate imaginative skill. Swirling smoke represents the fourth dimension, and as the time machine makes its journey, we hear random extracts from the soundtrack of the twentieth century. The words are more than mere history. They establish the impossibility of the utopian dream of Wells.   For contentment he will have to rely on romantic love. His adoration of Amy is what saves Wells from disillusionment. But we also remember what the Ripper told Wells when they were reunited in San Francisco. The Ripper may be remote from the rest of us but Jack and his fellow serial killers understand that the violent modern world is the place they can call home.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

HOUR OF THE GUN

USA, 1967

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Director John Sturges went to his grave knowing that he had at least made some classic Westerns. The Magnificent Seven and Bad Day At Black Rock are the obvious highlights in a fine career.  Sturges, though, faltered after the success of The Great Escape in 1963. Hour Of The Gun appeared in 1967.   The opening credits of Hour Of The Gun feature the gunfight at the OK Corral.  The rest of the film is about what happened after the famous shootout.  The credit sequence promises a lyricism that the rest of the film fails to deliver.   In this opening scene there is an understated and mysterious moment.   As the Earps walk down the main street of Tombstone, we see and hear a distant figure urge the Earps to reconsider what they are doing.   Many years ago I walked the full length of Tombstone to the OK Corral, the same journey that Wyatt took with his brothers and Doc Holliday.  It is not a short walk. Wyatt Earp had plenty of time to think about what he was doing.

No Western character has inspired Hollywood moviemakers as much as Wyatt Earp. The story of what happened in Tombstone between the Earps and the Clantons has obliged many actors to reach for their holsters.   A few of these films have attempted a biography of Earp.  Others changed the names of the protagonists but shamelessly recycled the history.  Despite all this effort the character of Wyatt Earp remains as elusive as ever. Biographies like Tombstone and Wyatt Earp have their moments including a not to be forgotten performance by Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp.  All, though, fail to convince.  My Darling Clementine is supreme cinema from master filmmaker John Ford but romantic tosh.

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Wyatt Earp was a hard case that was interested in making money and having authority. The best of him stood up to other hard cases but the worst was not averse to taking advantage of the weaker. In Dodge City, and before he arrived at Tombstone, he was the local lawman that ran gambling and prostitution.   In the revisionist movie Doc the conflict between the Earps and the Clantons in Tombstone is presented as an economic contest between two rival families who each wanted to control the town.  The Earps did have economic interests in Tombstone but the Clantons were rowdy and unruly and their behaviour needed a law enforcement response.

Hour Of The Gun is not tosh.  It is interesting, decent and even important but for all that the movie somehow falls flat.   There are various reasons. The proclamation of historical accuracy at the beginning of the film invites an audience to expect authenticity and suspend disbelief.  Sturges fails to deliver and if there is a heaven, he may be there right now wondering why.   There are various reasons.  The casting is not as disastrous as it was in Gunfight At The OK Corral, which Sturges made ten years earlier, but it is not right.   Authenticity benefits from fresh faces and a different style. They do not bring realism but can supersede familiar theatrics.  James Garner tries hard as Wyatt Earp but the supposed moral decline of the lawman as he seeks vengeance for the shootings of his brothers is beyond an actor noted for his charm.   Jason Robards is watchable but he supplies scorn rather than the vicious temperament needed to make Holliday convincing.  The great Robert Ryan plays Clanton but is underused. Hollywood paid good wages, so it should have been able to recruit decent support players. There is not one convincing cameo in Hour Of The Gun.

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For the film to have impact we have to witness a supposed hero become a self-righteous serial killer. It never quite happens. The film suggests the dark side of Earp but it always gives the Western hero excuses. Nuance and ambiguity have merit but it is a short route from them towards timidity, and Hour Of The Gun takes it although even muted realism about Wyatt Earp is welcome. The gunfights in the film where the outcome is determined by the speed of the draw are fair contests that never existed. Earp killed the people he did because he was strong and sharp enough to gain an advantage.   This truth is hinted at in the gunfight at the train depot but the scene, which should have been a spectacular set piece full of suspense, is not well handled by Sturges. The point gets lost in our disappointment at the cinematic failure.

Edward Anhalt wrote the script for Hour Of The Gun.  Anhalt has an admirable sensibility and conceptual skill. The strength of the movie is how it analyses the changing relationship between Holliday and Earp. Before the film is finished Doc Holliday is warning Earp about seeking vengeance. The irony is satisfying because we are watching a man be counselled and restrained by the devil on his shoulder.   But Anhalt was a talented playwright who was tempted by Hollywood money.  His best work was outside the movies.  Hour Of The Gun would have worked better as a stage play with the emphasis on conversations between two men who have learnt much about themselves.   In Hour Of The Gun no one appears to learn anything of significance.   Holliday asserts that Earp will regret abandoning the law but that is about it.   The decision by Earp at the end of the film to quit being a lawman is not a surprise but the reasons behind the decision are unexplained and unexplored.  Earp spent much of the rest of his life as a gambler roaming the West.   He became an alternative version of Doc Holliday.  The two men were friends because they were alike.

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Earp only abandons the law when it proves ineffectual. When he can, he utilises the power of vested interests to give him the legal authority he requires.  Earp is also a public sector employee willing to cut corners.  For a brief period he is supported by Holliday, a man who is used to operating in a market where the winner takes all.   All this is believable but it is undercut by the cinematic presentation of Sturges and the performance of James Garner, which ensure that we cannot forget we are watching a resolute hero.   The truth, though, is that the story of what happened after the OK Corral gunfight is a dull one. Two public employees did what civil servants in Britain do often.   They exceeded their responsibilities and bent the rules to suit themselves.  Hour Of The Gun does not conceal the mundane element in the legend but its exposure weakens the action without ever providing enough intellectual interest.   No one should object to subtlety, and there is no reason why an audience cannot be expected to think about what they are watching. But for that to succeed or be justified the moviemakers need to approach their material with integrity, and it is lacking in Hour Of The Gun.   The subtlety on show feels like timidity.

Before Hour Of The Gun appeared in 1967 there were already precedents for realism in the Western.  Man Of The West appeared in 1960.  Gary Cooper is the hero with the dark past. Director Anthony Mann provides a bleak vision of human nature and somehow combines a King Lear tale with impressive action.   Hour Of The Gun has historical detail and two contradictory characters but, when compared to Man Of The West, it is superficial. Sturges and Anhalt refuse to be honest about a tale of vengeance and murder, material that could have been interpreted as stylised horror. There is nothing wrong with characters that are not obvious heroes or villains but the darkness within Holliday and Earp is underexposed.   Instead, we have the compromises in the life of a public sector employee presented as a Western adventure.   The inevitable happens. Hour Of The Gun is interesting but dull.

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Yet the film should be seen. A superficial man too willing to slay others is given the benefit of Hollywood glamour, and the result is an aesthetic confusion that pricks the conscience of the viewer. It may be an unintended consequence but, when we watch Hour Of The Gun, our relationship to violent drama becomes as baffling as the misunderstood men who inspired the tale.  Earp is an action hero but we do not know how to respond to his confident courage.  Something else stays in the mind, and it is the sense of entitlement that some people have.   Although Earp and the Clantons are preoccupied with each other, there is no concern for how their behaviour affects the townspeople.  People without power are invisible in Hour Of The Gun.  Earp feels entitled to his vengeance and influence.  He will not be denied. Holliday has appetites and expects comforts and pleasure beyond his enfeebled body.   Neither man has a conscience about the privilege that enables them to cut corners. They are philosophical about the premature death of others and callous.

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Those British Civil Servants who thought it would help their careers to accept impossible targets for reducing immigration into the UK were also willing to cut corners.  Because their careers and privilege were so important, they were prepared to have legal British citizens removed from their homeland.   No chance, though, of any of them becoming legends.  Earp was lucky.  He outlived his enemies and was able to present himself to writers as a hero. As hard as they try, the present British Government will not be able to rewrite their own history.   The stain is already spreading and it will be remembered.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.