USA culture

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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BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND MARILYN MONROE

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Marilyn always attracted intellectuals.  Elvis had his working class fans, the people he called ‘my crowd’.   Both were instinctive performers whose popular appeal depended on glamour rather than cerebral analysis.   Predictably, their lives ended prematurely.   Marilyn has been exalted by Gloria Steinem and others.  Lisa Appignanesi is extremely clever and level headed but the tone of her marvellous book on psychiatry and women, ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, changes when she writes about Monroe.  We all know that Elvis and Monroe were flawed, vulnerable at best.  But the fans find sympathy for them irresistible.   The difference with Monroe is that intellectuals have been willing to share these emotions about her celebrity.     True, they often pretend that they are being analytical but not always.  They will talk about a special quality that simply touches them.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Some Like It Hot’.  It is a great movie with sharp lines and inspired performances.   Sometimes the film appears to be perfect.  Others, I think the humour against Monroe is offensive.   It can depend on mood.  ’Bus Stop’ is underrated but it works for me because it is the appropriate fantasy for a vulnerable voluptuous waif that I have always wanted to protect.   The man who takes her away from the real world is strong but stupid.  Only the idiot cowboy, Don Murray, will be able to provide a life of respect without molesting her unique female innocence.   ‘The Misfits’ is different.  It is overrated and plodding but it nags.   Even its opening scenes, where a stunning Monroe heads for the divorce court, convince us that she is simply too beautiful for any kind of life that makes sense.  Howard Hawks had his own view of the world and, although cynical, he could be described as an optimist.  His adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is very different from the book by Anita Loos and nowhere near as witty but he accepts that the dumb blonde can triumph just like the male heroes of his action films.   All it requires is a world of stupid rich boys.  Hawkes makes sure that there are plenty in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.   Maybe the film should be dedicated to George Osborne and David Cameron.  Now there is a thought.

 

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The rise of feminism in the late 60s is a handy explanation for the appeal of Monroe to intellectuals but inadequate.  Norman Mailer was the first to insist Monroe had significance for human understanding.   Mailer has had his moments and even when being absurd he is readable.  Norman Mailer, though, is no feminist although he was desperate to deify Monroe as a remote existential goddess.  Mailer was obsessed with the unique meaning of America, his troubled homeland, and he sought clues in the lives and appeal of Monroe and Mohammed Ali.   Considering the extent of his epic curiosity it is significant and sad that this literary giant never wrote a word about Elvis.

Monroe married an intellectual and she read James Joyce which must have helped.  She was always curious about intellectuals.  Not that Arthur Miller was any better than the rest.  Supposedly her relationship with the playwright began to perish after she discovered that Miller had written that he would only ever love his daughter.   By the time he was into his next relationship the words were in the public domain.  That relationship prevailed until his death and long after Monroe had self-destructed.  Men like her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, and her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, rearranged their professional lives so that they could devote themselves to the icon.  Elvis had similar relationships with hairdressers, jewellers and, most famously, his doctor.  Hollywood money played a part but so did the presence of fame and the promise of consequence.   But, unlike Monroe, the intellectuals have mainly scorned Elvis.

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Both Presley and Monroe had to make difficult choices that invariably sacrificed integrity and growth for success and money.   Monroe complained more than Presley.   She described the Western ‘River Of No Return’, which is actually not that bad, as unworthy of her.  She called it a ‘Z grade movie’.   Elvis said nothing about his troubles.  Monroe became difficult on the set and Elvis mumbled and froze.  In Hollywood, the two vomited frequently.   The pills contributed.  But despite the similarities, one still has a sense of woman being comprehensively used by men.  It is possible that Monroe had men on an assembly line ready to exploit sexually but nobody really believes that.  We imagine her being lied to and we sympathise with her misplaced dependency on her lovers who, as Miller later admitted, were simply overcome by lust.    The more powerful the men, the less they worried about their lust and her dependency.   Her treatment by the Kennedys is not important because it is exceptional.   It is more of the same deceit, just more extreme.   And Mailer is right.   There is something America defining about Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at the birthday gala of JFK.   This is the evening when the arrogant and the powerful willingly shared the stage with a vulgarly dressed, drugged, overweight woman whose sacrifice would concern none of them providing that their secrets and impulses were kept hidden.   And, no, that sentence does not imply that her death was the consequence of conspiracy and murderous intent.   Neither was it accidental.  Marilyn committed suicide.  The sheer scale of the overdose is the ultimate evidence of her angry insistence on oblivion.  The coroner recorded that her dead body had forty to fifty capsules of the barbiturate Nembutal.  A murderer would have been more subtle.

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The death of Elvis was like his career.  Without adequate support from others he failed to nurture himself and his talent.  He lost his grip on his life.   Perhaps there was no final self-destructive act but like Marilyn he was impatient for resolution.   The drugs escalated out of control, and the result was waste, as it was with Marilyn.  Both could be stupid and brilliant.  Nobody who takes movies or music seriously would argue that either of them can be ignored.   Monroe is memorable in a film which is so brilliant that she could be excused for being anonymous.  As the girlfriend of Louis Calhern in’The Asphalt Jungle’ she steals scenes but more than that she defines perfectly not only the weakness at the heart of her sugar daddy but also what makes him sympathetic.   This was a difficult task but Monroe coped so well the world became instantly excited.  In the Henry Hathaway movie ‘Niagara’ her sexiness is overplayed and absurd, and she weakens the film.  There is one scene where the camera follows her walking away into the distance.  The actress, Constance Bennett, said, ‘There is a girl with her whole future behind her.’   Elvis provided the same uncomfortable mix.  Only a bigot, though, would ignore the classic records because of the existence of the dross.

But somehow the sympathy that is automatic for Monroe is withheld for Elvis.  Gender is important.   Most of the women Elvis slept with would have understood his intentions but he would not have had to taste condescension from his lovers.  That only came from the people who owned him.   He may have thought he was making music for his fans but really he was like Marilyn, singing for his supper at the dinner tables of the powerful.    The contempt Monroe experienced riddled her whole identity.  Elvis had more freedom but he still experienced the same contempt.  These two victims had to feed on it throughout their terrible lives.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past 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.