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.