Posted in: Film Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

His ideas of what to do with the camera are something else again. He tries to intensify a moment of extreme desperation for Wells by intercutting opposing tilt shots of Wells and his interlocutor; this achieves little beyond inappropriately suggesting that Malcolm McDowell and Charles Cioffi are in danger of bumping their foreheads on the table between them. Elsewhere, Steenburgen is running to lock a doorknob that she’s terribly afraid will turn at any minute under the hand of a murderer; she freezes in midroom as it does begin to turn—and we watch her from the door, as it were, the out-of-focus knob rotating at the bottom of the screen. It seems as if there ought to be suspenseworthy merit in such a visual idea, except that (1) too much of the lateral Panavision area is going conspicuously to waste, and (2) one is distracted from the intended effect of the shot to think The camera can’t be in the door, of course—wonder what kind of contraption they rigged on the set to get this shot…. OK, a first-time director has a right to get a few cute tricks out of his system, and mostly Meyer plays it straight and well.

I had doubts in the opening sequence—scene, really—as the camera gave us a studio-foggy period street as framed through an iron fence, and a prostitute lurched out of a pub and began splashing home through the well-placed puddles, and then the camera, which had just sat there watching impersonally, started to move, too, around the fence and in the wake of the woman. Jesus, no, not another Murder by Decree shtick, please, jittery handheld camera vooping down alleyways and upon victims, and once we finally see the culprit toward the end we say Who the hell’s that dude? No, not that; nice, classically smooth movement here; and we will very soon know about and be interested in this version of Jack the Ripper. But there is something amiss: prostitute notices this prospective, er, “John” giving’ her the once-over, and she addresses him/the camera, and it’s OK, I’m not crazy about it, but so far so good—and then this arm reaches out of the lower left corner of the Panavision frame, and it’s supposed to be organically connected to the “eye” we’re seeing through, and no, Meyer, give it up….

But as it turns out, this particular visual gaucherie aside, Meyer may have had something like an organic reason for insisting on this POV opening gambit; for crucial to the ensuing scenario is the idea that amateur detective H.G. Wells must best his old friend Dr. John Stevenson, aka the Ripper, by learning how his mind works. If we translate this into cinematic terms, we might permissibly come up with “learning to see the world” as he does. Hence, while Meyer doesn’t follow through on this tactic, it’s just possible that he thought we, too, ought to start off seeing the world through the Ripper’s eyes. There are hints in the screenplay, in David Warner’s performance, and in Meyer’s direction (a meeting of Wells’s and Stevenson’s eyes, and an almost subliminal go-ahead nod from the latter, at the climactic, mortal moment) that the Ripper is deliberately leading his adversary on, hoping to be delivered from his own monstrousness. Such an ambivalent formula for a psychological-chase movie evokes memories of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, with wearily self- and other-loathing Uncle Charlie the Merry Widow Murderer leading his innocent counterpart into knowledge, and finally into righteous murder.

Herbert George Wells falls into knowledge here, too. Part of the thematic and emotional payload of Time after Time involves Wells’s being so confirmed in despair by his adventures in the modern world that he will put his essay-writing on a back burner and seek to couch his messages—and find some measure of personal solace—in art, fiction. (This theme receives associative reinforcement through the participation of Miklos Rozsa, indispensable to Billy Wilder’s and Alain Resnais’s meditations along similar lines, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Providence, respectively.) And it is in this area that Meyer achieves some of his own loveliest and most promising coups of mise-en-scène. Wells’s stay in contemporary San Francisco tends to gravitate around the neighborhood of his modern helpmate, hostess, and eventual lover. And she lives near the Palace of Fine Arts with its deliberately timeless architecture. We glimpse it several times in casual coming and going during the film. And when Wells believes he has lost Amy, lost all that suddenly has made life worth living, he runs through this eerily abstract milieu in anguish. At this moment Time after Time catches at an aesthetic and dramatic and philosophic grandeur that Meyer’s various verbal pretensions toward metaphysical significance haven’t come near. Mise-en-scène that accretes meaning and power sheerly through compositional particularity and narrative rhythm—that’s a big one to score, for any director. OK, Meyer, please keep doing it—time after time.

© 1980 Richard T. Jameson

Direction: Nicholas Meyer. Screenplay: Meyer, after a story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes. Cinematography: Paul Lohmann. Production design: Edward Carfagno. Editing: Donn Cambern. Music: Miklos Rozsa. Production: Herb Jaffe; associate: Steven-Charles Jaffe.
The players: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen, Charles Cioffi, Geraldine Baron, Patti d’Arbanville, Karin Mary Shea.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.