I happen by luck, or by circumstance, to own a rather obscure 1970s movie on DVD. It is one of my favourite films and hard to source these days. Its title is ‘Time After Time‘.
The movie was made in 1979, and its lead stars were Malcolm McDowell and David Warner. McDowell’s most notable horror credits including A Clockwork Orange and Warner’s being The Omen.
With that aside, Time After Time’s relevance in cinematography terms to me is that its special effects are strengthened by its strong story. The primitive special effects, which are how they’d look to present-day audiences – pass across the eyes with significance and substance, all aided by the riveting script.
The filming for Victorian London was shot at Stage 6, in the Warner Brothers’ Burbank Studios, California, USA. But you would never think that. The lighting, atmosphere, cobbled streets and night mist conjures up Queen Victoria’s London flawlessly.
Consequently, Time After Time starts in 1893. Lead character, H. G. Wells (McDowell), has summoned his colleagues to unveil to them a time machine built by his own hand. Wells is met by comments of “Poppycock!” and disdained remarks about the machine but he rebuffs them and dreams of travelling into the future where he believes there will be no more war and mankind will be living in some kind of “Utopian society”. Unbeknown to Wells, a close colleague who is observing his invention is Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, (Warner). Behind Stevenson’s pleasant exterior lurks a secret – he is none other than Jack the Ripper.
When Stevenson is unnoticed he steals the time machine and catapults into the future to avoid the Scotland Yard Police, who are on his trail after a recent murder in Whitechapel. Dr. Stevenson then finds himself in San Francisco, USA, and the year is 1979. Due to a key-set homing device the Time Machine returns back to 1893 and H. G. Wells realises he must turn detective and use his machine to track down Stevenson.
When you have a plotline rotating around a 19th century character in the modern age it throws up humorous connotations – as Wells tries to get to grip with new technologies and values. But while Wells plays the innocent eccentric, fumbling with gestures and studying the gadgets and small talk of the age; Dr. Stevenson on the other hand feels at home in the violence, decadence and anguish of the times, and resumes his murderous intentions. “Ninety years ago I was a freak!” he proclaims, “Today I am an amateur!”
Amy Robbins, played by (Mary Steenburgen) is Wells’ love interest in the film and she plays along with a delightful grace but with a tough outlook. “My work is my life” she quotes to Wells during an altercation.
The diversity of San Francisco comes across well in the film; there are the shops, beautiful parks, churches and architecture. Followed by the different human characters that inhabit the city, getting along with their lives in a somewhat abrasive and hurried manner.
However, there is a sleazy side to 1970s San Francisco. With the strip bars, seedy cinemas, and dark distinctive sidewalks. Also there are the looming parks that feel ominous in the darkness. You can really feel the fear aspect of Jack The Ripper, and how he would blend in to this unholy environment without much effort.
During one scene a woman offers Jack The Ripper a marijuana joint, which would have been something to behold back in 1890s London. “Like some grass,” she remarks. He responds with an unsettling line “You are very observant. Are you a typical American woman?” Abruptly she comes to a brutal end.
The screenplay, which was based on a story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes is cleverly written by Nicholas Meyer, who later directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. His direction is crafted extensively to the characters – and in addition, the Miklos Rosza orchestra score gives an epic feel.
When the movie was first released in 1980, the reviews were mixed. I have to say the one thing that bothered me is that H.G. Wells’ accent in the film is a typical upper class Victorian English. While Wells’ real accent was nothing like that – but I suppose the voice would not of portrayed well on screen. Malcolm McDowell, who played Wells in the movie hints at this during the voiceover feature on the DVD.
I have often wondered on how the real H.G. Wells would of reacted to the film. Being a visionary he would have been perturbed by the future of mankind. Nevertheless, I think he would have liked other aspects of the film. Mainly on how his political views about socialism were portrayed.
I highly recommend a viewing of Time After Time. Maybe Warner Brothers will re-release it on Blu-ray as the picture elements on the original DVD are very rich in detail. A higher definition format would give it a new lease of life – and it would allow future generations to appreciate its brilliance, for it is truly a great film and one of a kind.