Movie review: ‘Time After Time’

tatA good crime thriller with a touch of humor is always appreciated (try the relatively unknown “The Big Fix” — click here for my review — with Richard Dreyfuss) as is time travel (“Back to the Future,” of course) So, “Time After Time” from 1979 is an especially good example since it offers both together. It has an inventive storyline (H.G. Wells chases “Jack the Ripper” into the future), wonderful direction and the cast is more than capable if not mildly spectacular. You’ll have to work a little bit to find this one, but it is worth it.

‘Time After Time’
(1979; 112 minutes; rated PG; directed by Nicholas Meyer and starring Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen and David Warner)


(NOTE: I updated links in this review on July 29, 2015.)

Nicholas Meyer enjoys the Victorian delights of Sherlock Holmes and he wrote “The Seven Percent Solution” about the famous detective and was the writer when it was brought it to the big screen by Herbert Ross in 1976. Even better is the Meyer-directed “Time After Time” from 1979 in which H.G. Wells pursues “Jack the Ripper” into the future.


Time After Time” is the total package: it has a meticulous screenplay (especially good are the details on the characters becoming adjusted between Victorian England and 1979 San Francisco), outstanding direction and the cast gives a mildly spectacular effort. All the bases are covered and not a single thread is left hanging as the credits roll here.

Malcolm McDowell, who was also in Gore Vidal’s notorious “Caligula” in the same year, plays H.G. Wells, the noted writer and commentator (he wrote “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds”). McDowell’s character is naïve, straitlaced, intelligent and clever. He’s far ahead of his time and believes the future holds utopia.

In the film, McDowell has built a time machine and plans to become the first time traveler. However, a guest who is London’s famous “Jack the Ripper” of the Whitechapel murders needs to use it to escape the police. Since the time machine returns automatically, McDowell knows where to find him in the future and sets off on an adventure to bring him to justice.

McDowell, who has an impressive resume of 237 credits from “A Clockwork Orange” to “Blue Thunder” to even TV’s “Monk,” makes you believe you are watching Wells.

The details of learning about a new century are amusing and well done: From ordering at McDonalds (think of what a man from Victorian England would say about a Big Mac) to hailing a cab (he stands on one leg waving his hat as he saw a woman do) to identifying himself as “Sherlock Holmes” to police (remember, he doesn’t know that modern-day Americans know about Mr. Holmes), McDowell strides resolutely along to find his villain. He is truly excellent in this role.

Just as good but the other side of the coin is David Warner, who plays “Dr. John Leslie Stevenson” and is “Jack the Ripper.” Warner knows how to play menacing and is right at home here as the bad guy. His serial killer persona fits quite nicely in the future (see a further comment about this later in the review) and Warner flexes his acting talent here. Warner was in “The Omen” (click here for my review), “Tron” and “Titanic.” He’s as good here as in any of those.

The two play off each other wonderfully, with Warner superb in making it appear easy to toy with McDowell with his far superior intellect.

Coming in third in the cast but certainly equal in effort is Mary Steenburgen as “Amy Robbins” (Wells’ second wife in real life was Amy Robbins; his first was a cousin). The two meet as McDowell scours banks once he realizes Warner, like himself, will have to exchange old currency and coins for modern money. Steenburgen is a bank officer and that’s how she meets both.

Steenburgen offers an excellent turn from vulnerable to confident to scared, she is the right actor for this role. Steenburgen was also in “Ragtime,” “Parenthood” (click here for my review) and “Step Brothers.”

The film has nice twists and turns as the characters navigate San Francisco either looking for each other or trying to avoid each other.

Especially nice is how Meyer offers the theory that time travel can go from place to place. Warner travels from Victorian London to San Francisco, where the time machine was on display in 1979. Traditionally, time machines travel to and from the same spot, but here it is dependent on the machine’s physical location. Further, a quick time demonstration by McDowell for Steenburgen plays a big part in the plot.

After the three principal characters there’s little to offer, but that’s all right.

Charles Cioffi, a veteran supporting actor, plays “Lt. Mitchell” and Kent Anderson plays his “Assistant.” Both are cops and McDowell turns to them for help (calling himself “Sherlock Holmes,” of course). Cioffi does his usual competent job and was wonderful in “Missing” and was also in “Klute.” Anderson knows assistants, as he played one in the great TV movie “Barbarians at the Gate” (click here to read my review) as well as having worked on “WarGames” (click here for my review) and a string of TV shows.

The most depressing moment of the film is when McDowell and Warner are talking a hotel room after McDowell catches up with him (not surprising since the scene is the best in the film). Warner has shown McDowell television clips showing terrorist violence, murder of a civic official, violent sports and a clip from a World War II movie with tanks (actually, “The Battle of the Bulge” … click here to read my review). McDowell had told Warner that they didn’t belong in a modern world.

Warner’s stark reply includes, “… I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur.” Unfortunately all too true in 1979 when the film was released and the even sadder statement is that in many ways these things haven’t changed or become worse in the years since.

Time After Time” made $13 million at the box office in 1979, according to Wiki, and finished the year well behind the No. 1 film: “Kramer vs. Kramer,” which raked in $106.2 million.

Additional cast notes (via

  • McDowell and Steenburgen met and fell in love while filming “Time After Time.” He was married at the time and they married the year after “Time After Time’s” release and were wed for a decade before divorcing. She’s currently married to TV actor Ted Danson, as she has since the divorce. He remarried in 1991 and remains wed to Kelley McDowell.
  • Corey Feldman of “The Lost Boys” (click here for my review) fame has a small role as a boy at the museum. He was also in “License to Drive” (click here for my review) and “Stand By Me.”
  • Shelly Hack of TV’s “Charlie’s Angels” fame plays a museum docent here. She was offered a bigger role but declined because she was dating Meyer and didn’t want to get it just because of their relationship. Hack was also in “Annie Hall” and “The King of Comedy” before leaving acting in the late 1990s.
  • Joseph Maher, who played the bad-guy in “The Evil that Men Do” with Charles Bronson, plays a Victorian London superintendent here.

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