SIXTEEN– TIME AFTER TIME, USA 1979
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.