Time Marches On

When it was recently announced that Nicholas Meyer has joined the production team for the new Star Trek TV series, the hearts of Trekkies everywhere glowed with hope. Meyer wrote the screenplays for the best original cast movies – The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country – and he directed Khan and Country as well. He first rose to prominence as a novelist, having penned the bestseller (and the best Sherlock Holmes homage) “The Seven-Percent-Solution.” When the book was filmed, Meyer did the screenplay, and then six years later he did Khan. But in between he wrote and directed a film that crossed science fiction with mystery, with a large dollop of romance as well: 1979’s Time After Time. It’s long been a favorite of mine.

The movie begins in 1893 London. A prostitute is tossed out of a bar. The camera views her from behind a wrought-iron fence across the street, but then it begins to move as you hear footsteps. It’s looking through the eyes of someone following her. When she finally turns around and sees him, she speaks directly to the camera as they make an “arrangement” to go into an alley. As she readies herself she asks his name. The camera is tight on her face when he says, “John, but most people call me Jack.” Then there’s the sound of a knife ripping through clothing as the woman’s eyes go wide before they lose animation. It’s wonderfully effective with little blood shown. Meyer restrains the obvious violence throughout the movie. He lets a drop of blood speak volumes, so different from many movies these days that show blood by the bucketful. When he does show a bloody crime scene near the movie’s climax, it’s more powerful for the audience because of his prior restraint.

The scene changes to a dinner party hosted by H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell). After his final guest, his friend Dr. John Stevenson (David Warner), arrives at the table, Wells announces he’s invented a time machine and intends to travel to the future which he imagines will be Utopia. (The scene mirrors the opening of Wells’ book “The Time Machine.”)  He shows the men to his basement workshop where he explains how the machine works. They return upstairs to continue their discussion, only to be interrupted by the police who found the murdered woman right after the attack and traced the killer to the area. The men then notice that Stevenson is no longer with them. When the police open his medical bag they find his gloves and a knife covered with fresh blood. Wells goes downstairs and finds the time machine is gone.

He’s built a fail-safe key into the system so that if someone else uses the machine it will return to its last position in time. It does, and the display shows Stevenson’s gone forward to November 1979, so Wells sets out to apprehend him. He’s knocked out on the trip and when he comes to he’s in the middle of a museum exhibit dedicated to him and his futuristic works, none of which he had written by 1893. (Interesting side note: a young boy who points out Wells in the exhibit is played by Corey Feldman, who’d go onto fame in the 1980s and infamy after that.) Instead of London, the machine has been moved to San Francisco for the exhibit. Wells realizes Stevenson will need money, so he checks the exchange desks at the city’s banks until he discovers Stevenson’s trail. The banker who helps him, Amy Robbins (Mary Steenbergen) finds herself attracted to Wells, and he to her, but first he must stop a murderer.

In some respects, you could view Time After Time as a dress rehearsal for The Voyage Home. Meyer even films on some of the same locations, and wire-rimmed spectacles like the present Bones gives Kirk in the later film also are a prop in Time. He also gives a shout-out to The Seven-Percent-Solution. Stevenson has continued hs murderous ways, and the papers call the killer now preying on women the Bay Area Ripper. Wells goes to the police to tell them about Stevenson, but afraid the police won’t believe him if he told them he was H.G. Wells, he tells them he’s a London detective named Sherlock Holmes – unaware of the timeless phenomena Sherlock became, since only the first couple of stories were published by 1893.

The triumvirate of McDowell, Warner, and Steenbergen was a fortunate choice for Meyer, and all three have had long and distinguished careers. Life imitated art a bit, in that following the movie McDowell and Steenbergen married. They didn’t have the full Hollywood ending, in that the marriage only lasted 10 years, but they did have two children and one of them, Charlie McDowell, is a director whose first feature was the well-received The One I Love. Meyer had better luck as a casting matchmaker six years later when he directed Volunteers. The comedy starred Tom Hanks, John Candy, and Rita Wilson. Wilson and Hanks had worked together once before (on the Bosom Buddies TV series), but their romance began on the movie set. They married three years later and are still together.

Meyer did fudge the dates a bit, since Jack the Ripper was active in 1888, not 1893. But that’s a small quibble, especially when it comes to such an enjoyable movie. The movie was well received and it was nominated for an Edgar award as the best mystery movie of the year. It lost out to another movie set in Victorian times directed by a novelist turned movie-maker – Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery.

Time After Time shows up on TCM now and again, and it’s available on Amazon to watch or purchase. It’s worth checking out.

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