Time After Time (Blu-ray Review)5 Dec, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen.
One of the more durable mano a mano movies for anyone into literary celebrity, Time After Time has picked up such a cult over the years that you have to believe that Warner Archive is set (and then some) to “move some units” by releasing a surprisingly sweet time travel fantasy whose MIA status on Blu-ray has been among the media behemoth’s most conspicuous. Of course, in dealing with novelist H.G. Wells’s pursuit of Jack the Ripper into 1979 San Francisco, the sweetness is tempered by the fact that the latter’s victims are still getting slain by a mad physician blades — though debuting director Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote the original screenplay here, keeps the graphic gore in ‘PG’ check. This is, after all, a project that had the consummate taste to hire Miklos Rozsa to compose its score.
Even way back when, I much preferred this film to the following year’s more conventional time travel romance Somewhere in Time, a stiff whose popularity I’ve never been able to cheer (speaking as a Portrait of Jennie kind of guy). But even so, TAT was easy to overlook by 1979 movie folk when Warner brought it out roundabouts Labor Day following a spring/summer that had given us Manhattan, Alien, Apocalypse Now, “10” and other loud voices (including those of the Ramones in Rock and Roll High School) that have proven to be durable as well. Meyer’s take played a little as if George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine had gone mildly kinky — just enough to conjure up fantasies of Machine’s Yvette Mimieux traveling to that city on the bay during an era when it had gone full Marilyn Chambers. This was all amusing enough and certainly wild to think about — but, in terms of screen history, not quite a match for Woody Allen or Francis Coppola in their primes.
On the TAT bonus commentary carried over from the old DVD, I was surprised to hear lead Malcolm McDowell say he’d never seen the Pal movie despite always having wanted to, though one would bet that Meyer had. In terms of staging, though not content, the two films’ openings are quite similar: Wells/McDowell and buddies gathered at his home for cigars and brandy or other comparable minor vices — at which point the time machine’s existence (every man must have a hobby) is divulged. Doc Ripper — though history doesn’t know for sure that this elusive historical figure even was a physician — is late to the party and doesn’t stay long because he’s just pulled one of his “jobs” on a prototypically foggy London street set. This comes immediately after an old-school Warner logo that recalls the opening of 1954’s Phantom of the Rue Morgue with Karl Malden (a movie I’d like to see get a Warner Archive Blu-ray release itself, if only because it plunks featured player Merv Griffin into the Victorian era). So right off the bat, we’re in savvy hands.
TAT’s Jack, who goes by John and is played by David Warner, swipes the machine — which, in one of those wild contrivances fantasy writers have to concoct, is capable of zooming back to London after dropping off our ripper in Frisco during the Jimmy Carter administration. Tony Bennett’s town is amidst an era of free love, which suits a sexually maladjusted assailant’s purposes just fine — as it eventually does for free-love advocate Wells when he pursues his friend-turned-adversary to an equally strange era and city. Meyer’s commentary reminds us that both characters are in a state of permanent disorientation because everything is new to them: speeding taxis, televisions, disco and the Mickey Mouse telephone that a bank employee (Mary Steenburgen) has in her apartment. Wells meets her as part of the pursuit, and she’s charmed as much by his clothes as his disco-alternative manner. McDowell and Steenburgen fell in love during filming and married for about 10 years, which isn’t bad as subtext goes.
Meyer was a first-time director here before going on to helm two of the most favored “Star Trek” features: II and VI, the first of which once earned me a letter from a rep for Ricardo Montalban when, in print, I made fun of the actor’s sweater-girl figure. Meyer is frank in admitting that his camera placement here isn’t all it should be but expresses disappointment that his script didn’t get an Oscar nomination. In addition to a surprisingly strong feminist angle that was way ahead of most Hollywood releases of the day, the movie is made by its premise, tight pacing, three inspired performances (including a then rare McDowell “nice guy” turn) and the Rozsa score. Meyer notes that the three-time Oscar winner (who could do both noir and Roman beefcake epics) was considered old-fashioned at the time by studio suits who wanted pop-oriented soundtracks they could release on LP. This kind of thing, of course, had already been a major ’60s factor in Universal pressuring Hitchcock to fire Bernard Herrmann from Torn Curtain so he could be replaced by then hot Tom Jones composer John Addison. And we all know how many vinyls the Addison score ended up selling on Decca. Maybe seven.
The late Paul Lohmann was cinematographer, and you have to believe it would have been fun to dine out with a guy who also shot Coffy, Fillmore, three Altmans that included Nashville, Hells Angels ’69, High Anxiety, Mommie Dearest, Lust in the Dust and (lest we forget) Loni Anderson and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Jayne Mansfield Story. Handsome as TAT is, Lohmann was working with Metrocolor, which means that visually speaking, this crowd-pleaser is a little like a punchbowl where someone stinted some on the vodka. Rozsa, though makes up the difference and was no doubt enjoying the opportunity. Because it wasn’t long before that he’d been toiling on The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.