Ask me to name a time traveling movie I hold near and dear and this Nicholas Meyer adventure is probably the title that will first come to mind. I saw it as a youngster and it’s remained a favorite to this day. No idea how many times I’ve watched it but now that it’s out on blu ray from the Warner Archive I felt I was long overdue (maybe 5 or 6 years) for a re-watch.
Not only did Meyer direct but he wrote the screenplay that mixes fact and fantasy to great effect resulting in one of those classic fish out of water stories involving H.G. Wells, Jack the Ripper and modern day San Francisco. The story begins in fog shrouded London of 1893 and the Ripper is on the loose. Following Jack’s latest killing cleverly filmed for a PG rating the story cuts to a wonderfully cast Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells hosting a dinner party for a few intimate friends. He’s about to unveil to them his latest creation. A time machine.
Turning up late for the dinner engagement is David Warner who listens intently as McDowell goes over just how his machine should work. The fact is he’s yet to work up the courage to try it himself. Dinner is interrupted when Scotland Yard are on the trail of The Ripper and begin searching all the homes in the area. The search is quick to turn up a black handbag inside McDowell’s home that has incriminating evidence within. Turns out it belongs to the good Doctor David Warner who has just been unveiled as the notorious Jack the Ripper.
When Warner isn’t found within the home and everyone has cleared out, McDowell realizes that his “best friend” has fled in his time machine but as he holds the key that is needed to fully operate it, the machine has returned to him in 1893 though minus it’s passenger. All McDowell has to do is follow The Ripper to the year 1979. And so the adventure begins.
While the subject material of Jack The Ripper might be a harsh topic, the film becomes a real charmer when McDowell arrives in modern day San Francisco wearing his 1893 suit and spats. In just one day he’ll come to realize the world has advanced further than he had ever dreamt. In order to track Warner he’ll look to a literary figure of his own generation for inspiration, Sherlock Holmes. This in turn will lead him to a bank employee played by Mary Steenburgen who will figure prominently in our story. She’s the connection between Warner and McDowell thanks to her exchanging their ancient British money into modern day dollars. And of course she’ll become romantically involved with the gentle McDowell.
It’s a startling eye opener when our time travelers first meet in San Francisco. McDowell pleads with Warner to come back to their own time and stand trial for what he’s done. He claims they don’t belong here in this new age of mankind. Warner is quick to turn on the TV and force McDowell to face the facts. Warner does indeed belong in this modern era of sex, war and violence.
“We don’t belong here? On the contrary, Herbert. I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”
So just how is McDowell going to hunt down the Ripper when he can barely ride an escalator let alone drive a car, save the fair damsel in distress and return to his own day and age? I’m not telling but as charming as this film is, it’s also a thriller that will have a first time viewer on the edge of their seat as Malcolm fights time and modern day police tactics to do so.
If ever there was a case of perfect casting, Warner and McDowell are bullseyes. Warner was already well known thanks to his appearances for Sam Peckinpah and scored a huge hit opposite Greg Peck in The Omen. McDowell had by this time already developed a cult following thanks mainly to A Clockwork Orange and is probably best known as a villain on camera which is perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy this film so much. He’s not only gentle as H.G. Wells but he plays up the fish out of water scenes for all he’s worth and in the end he nearly breaks your heart when attempting to convince police of just who he is and how Steenburgen’s life is in peril. Easily one of his best performances in a career that encompasses over 250 acting credits.
It’s probably due to seeing this film as a youngster that I’ve been a Mary Steenburgen fan ever since. She was easy to fall for and apparently I wasn’t the only one. She married her co-star Malcolm following the production staying with him till their divorce in 1990. This was just her second film role following her debut opposite Jack Nicholson in Goin’ South. She’s been busy ever since.
Fish out of water stories are great fun and serve to be an inspiring subject for both screenwriters and producers. Their numbers are many and include the hilarious Tarzan Goes to New York back in 1942 and how about that HUGE box office hit from 1986, Crocodile Dundee. It should also be noted that our writer/director Meyer would use the same plot device when he sent the crew of the Enterprise (minus the starship) back in time to 1986 San Francisco in search of whales to bring forward in time to the 23rd century. If you’re like the majority of Trekkies, then we have Meyer to thank for Parts two, four and six. Easily the best three films of the series.
Lastly, be sure to have a good time with this film and enjoy the comedy that mixes extremely well with this fantasy take on what might have happened to Jack the Ripper. There’s plenty of amusing scenes and dialogue to enjoy.
Malcolm : “Do you still insist that this is all poppycock?”
Mary : “That’s not exactly the word I had in mind.”
That had me chuckling and thinking I’m going to have to squeeze that word into a conversation at the office. That and maybe hang up my original one sheet when I pick something new each and every month to feature for co-workers and clients.
A great account of a movie that I too much like. Might be worth mentioning that it’s based on Karl Alexander’s very good novel Time After Time in roughly the same way that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same title — in other words, in both instances director and writer shared ideas as they created the two separate versions.
Thanks for chipping in with that bit of trivia. Wasn’t really aware of that. Not uncommon I suppose that ideas are purchased from original source and then screenwriters run away with it towards a new central idea.
A bit more complicated than that, I gather. As with Kubrick and Arthur on 2001, it seems writer and director worked together such that the movie was a screen adaptation of the book that was the movie’s novelization. So to speak. I discovered this symbiotic relationship between the two only recently: back when (pre-internet) I was writing about the movie for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy I assumed it was just the usual thing of Alexander’s novel being adapted for the screen.
It’s a novel well worth reading, if you ever get the time!
This one’s been a fave since I saw it on opening day. It makes a nice double feature with Somewhere in Time, which is probably the 2nd best time travel flick of that era.
Somewhere in Time, which is probably the 2nd best time travel flick of that era
I’d go along with that!
I have that one on the shelf but for whatever reason I’ve never actually seen it. Guess I’ll have to dust it off.
OH, you should, sir, you should. It’s a very well made flick and totally different in tone with a brilliant ending that has quite the impact.
I too developed a big crush on Mary Steenburgen after seeing this in the theater. As for McDowell, this is such a departure from his breakout role as Alex in a Clockwork Orange that you come to appreciate his acting range. Unfortunately in recent years he seems to be typecast as the sneering villain in low budget action and sci-fi flicks.
Glad I’m not alone concerning Miss Mary. So true about Malcolm ending up playing one villain after another. This role really shows his versatility at playing something different as does Royal Flash which I am also a big fan off. He’s also a great storyteller and love to see him interviewed.
I thought for sure I’d seen this one years ago, but your review has me thinking otherwise…and you make it sound like a lot of fun, so I’ll see if the library has it. I have far too many on my list of ‘love your review, I’ll try to find the movie’ movies, but I might bump this to the top of the list!
And since we’re all mentioning favorite time travel movies, mine will always be ‘Back to the Future’.
I’d be really surprised if you haven’t seen this one. Right in the time frame that you turned into a movie watching animal. I like Back to the Future and think it’s a lot of fun but I never seem to think of it among my faves. Saw it at the theater back in the day but skipped the sequels. No idea why.
I really loved the BTTF sequels when I first saw them, but now, I can’t watch them…they’re just too far off the rails for me. Like Jaws, I just wish it had been left alone, with no sequels made to tarnish it.
Love the film, and the poster is rad! Steenburgen is irresistible and it is hard to believe McDowell went from Clockwork Orange to this! 🙂
I think that’s one reason I like this film so much (aside from Miss Mary) is that it gave McDowell a delightful role and he really delivers a wonderful performance as a man lost in time.
Isn’t he incredibly versatile? Kudos to Nicholas Meyer for seeing it. Peter Weller is another actor that can play heroes and baddies very well. I watched Firstborn (Weller plays a scary stepfather) and Buckaroo Banzai (the coolest scientist) back to back and I was impressed! 🙂