The Best Movie You Never Saw: Time After Time

time after time movie looks back at the classic H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper romp, Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell.

THE STORY: H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) does the impossible – after writing about a time machine he actually builds one. Too bad then that one of his dearest friends is secretly Jack the Ripper (David Warner) and uses the machine to escape justice by going into the future – 1979 San Francisco to be exact. Left with no choice and believing that he’s unleashed a monster upon a utopia (ha!), Wells pursues him through time, but winds up being a lot more out of his element than his nemesis.

THE PLAYERS: Starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner & Mary Steenburgen. Written and directed by Nicholas Meyer.

Oh, I love that part. I love that film, actually. Well of course, I was in love during the filmmaking—how could you not love the damn film? And I’ve always loved San Francisco since. – Malcolm McDowell – Random Roles

THE HISTORY: Long before he became the colorful character actor we know and love today, Malcolm McDowell was like the Timothee Chalamet of the seventies. Lithe and strikingly different from most leading men of the era, he became something of a British counter-culture hero through an initial pair of films with Lindsay Anderson, If and O Lucky Man, before really hitting the big time through his iconic role as Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. This made him an iconic bad boy, something he often leaned into with movies like Caligula. However, after filming that hardcore, debauched romp McDowell decided to thoroughly change his image by signing on to a much kinder, gentler film – Time After Time.

time after time

Before he became famous as the “man who saved Star Trek” after directing The Wrath of Khan, Meyer was known for mostly for The Seven Per-Cent Solution, a historical fiction mash-up where the very real Sigmund Freud helps treat the very unreal Sherlock Holmes’ cocaine addiction. Time After Time was similar, in that it proposed the following – what if H.G. Welles actually did create a time machine and had to fight Jack the Ripper? At the time, Saucy Jack was in the zeitgeist, but usually when they did movies he was somehow pitted against the more able Sherlock Holmes, as in Murder by Decree (starring Christopher Plummer as a tougher Holmes than usual).

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Pitting Wells against Jack was a great idea, and indeed was based on an unpublished (at the time) novel by Karl Alexander. The movie got great reviews but did only modestly (but not terribly) at the box office, and is well regarded today – by those who’ve seen it. The film itself certainly paid off for the two leads, Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, who were married shortly after, having a ten year marriage that produced two children, including son Charlie McDowell, director of The One I Love & The Discovery.

The thing is, I’ve never been a handsome leading-man type, so let’s not kid ourselves. I’m very happy to be where I am. Of course, H.G. Wells is really a character lead; it’s not a romantic lead, even though it’s a romance. And actually, when the studio sold the movie originally, they sold it as a Jack the Ripper chase movie, which killed it stone dead. If they’d sold it as a romance, a love story, I think they would have done a lot better with it, because audiences loved that film. – Malcolm McDowell- Random Roles

WHY IT’S GREAT: Time After Time is a charming film, and probably my favorite Malcolm McDowell role outside of A Clockwork Orange. It’s a minor miracle that he was cast as Wells, as usually he would have played Jack the Ripper, an assessment McDowell himself would agree with. Yet, he’s absolutely wonderful as the idealistic author. It’s especially fun to see the gentle, intellectual Wells try to fit in to 1970’s New York, and Meyer shows to have a light touch here, lighter than you’d think considering that the same guy later went on to make the most depressing movie of all time – The Day After.

David Warner Mary steenbergen

It helps that McDowell’s chemistry with Mary Steenburgen is absolutely spot-on. The two were falling in love as the film was shooting and that really comes across on screen. She’s absolutely charming as the bank teller who finds herself drawn to Wells, with the part, in many ways, very similar to the role she played in Back to the Future Part III. It seems like time traveling guys just can’t help but fall in love with Mary Steenburgen, right? Who could blame them?

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However, it’s not all trips to McDonald’s (which Wells loves) and The Exorcist (which he’s less keen on). Time After Time also works as a thriller, and a damn good one at that. David Warner is terrific as the slick, urbane Jack, who finds himself quite at home in the seventies, continuing his string of murders without the infamy that plagued him in Victorian London. In 1979 San Francisco, the murders are almost – routine. Despite the PG rating, Time After Time gets quite violent in spots, with a few shockingly gory bits that always take me by surprise given how lighthearted the rest of the movie is.

mcdowell warner

BEST SCENE: What makes the film work so well is McDowell’s evolution as Wells. The seventies change his character is ways both good and bad. For one, he falls in love and learns to truly be happy, but in another sense he loses his idealism when faced with a society where Jack the Ripper is no longer one-of-a-kind. Their confrontation, where Warner confronts him over his place in society is one for the books.

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PARTING SHOT: I’ll say this – often when I do this column I highlight movies that, while fun, aren’t always legitimately good films. Time After Time is a different beast. It’s a minor classic that’s undeservedly obscure and deserves to be thought of as a classic.

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