Time After Time (1979) Retrospective

In 1893 London, popular writer Herbert George Wells displays a time machine to his skeptical dinner guests. After he explains how it works (including a “non-return key” that keeps the machine at the traveler’s destination and a “vaporizing equalizer” that keeps the traveler and machine on equal terms), police constables arrive at the house searching for Jack the Ripper. A bag with blood-stained gloves belonging to one of Herbert’s friends, a surgeon named John Leslie Stevenson, leads them to conclude that Stevenson might be the infamous killer. Wells races to his laboratory, but the time machine is gone.

Stevenson has escaped to the future, but because he does not have the “non-return” key, the machine automatically returns to 1893. Herbert uses it to pursue Stevenson to November 5, 1979, where the machine has ended up on display at a museum in San Francisco. He is deeply shocked by the future, having expected it to be an enlightened socialist utopia, only to find chaos in the form of airplanes, automobiles and a worldwide history of war, crime and bloodshed.

Reasoning that Stevenson would need to exchange his British money, Herbert asks about him at various banks. At the Chartered Bank of London, he meets liberated employee Amy Robbins, who says she had directed Stevenson to the Hyatt Regency hotel.


Confronted by his one-time friend Herbert, Stevenson confesses that he finds modern society to be pleasingly violent, stating: “Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now… I’m an amateur.” Herbert demands he return to 1893 to face justice, but Stevenson instead attempts to wrestle the time machine’s key from him. Their struggle is interrupted by a maid and Stevenson flees, getting hit by a car during the frantic chase. Herbert follows him to the San Francisco General Hospital emergency room and mistakenly gets the impression that Stevenson has died from his injuries.
Herbert meets up with Amy Robbins again and she initiates a romance. Stevenson returns to the bank to exchange more money. Suspecting that it was Amy who had led Herbert to him, he finds out where she lives. Herbert, hoping to convince her of the truth, takes a highly skeptical Amy three days into the future. Once there, she is aghast to see a newspaper headline revealing her own murder as the Ripper’s fifth victim.


Herbert persuades her that they must go back – it is their duty to attempt to prevent the fourth victim’s murder, then prevent Amy’s. However, they are delayed upon their return to the present and can do no more than phone the police. Stevenson kills again, and Herbert is arrested because of his knowledge of the killing. Amy is left alone, totally defenseless, and at the mercy of the “San Francisco Ripper”.

While Herbert unsuccessfully tries to convince the police of Amy’s peril, she attempts to hide from Stevenson. When the police finally do investigate her apartment, they find the dismembered body of a woman. Now aware of Herbert’s innocence, the police release a now-heartbroken Wells. However, he is contacted by Stevenson, who has actually killed Amy’s coworker (revealed to be the dead body in Amy’s apartment) and taken Amy hostage in order to extort the time machine key from Wells.


Stevenson flees with the key – and Amy as insurance – to attempt a permanent escape in the time machine. Using Amy’s car, Herbert follows them back to the museum. While Herbert bargains for Amy’s life, she is able to escape. As Stevenson starts up the time machine, Herbert removes the “vaporizing equalizer” from it, causing Stevenson to vanish while the machine does not. As Herbert had explained earlier, this causes the machine to remain in place while its passenger is sent traveling endlessly through time with no way to stop; in effect, he is destroyed.

Herbert proclaims that the time has come to return to his own time, in order to destroy a machine that he now knows is too dangerous for primitive mankind. Amy pleads with him to take her along. As they depart to the past, she jokes that she is changing her name to Susan B. Anthony. The film ends with the caption: “H.G. Wells married Amy Catherine Robbins, who died in 1927. As a writer, he anticipated Socialism, global war, space travel, and Women’s Liberation. He died in 1946.”


Meyer first came to fame in 1974 for his best-selling Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Two years later, he adapted his book for the Herbert Ross-directed film and earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. When the book was published, Meyer heard from a lot of people including Karl Alexander, whom he knew from his days at the University of Iowa. Alexander had started a book inspired by The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and wanted Meyer to read the 65 pages he had written revolving around Wells and Jack the Ripper time traveling.

Meyer loved the idea of H.G. Wells creating a real time machine and having Jack the Ripper and Wells using it. “That was back in the days when I had time to read other people’s stuff,” Meyer recalls. “I was fascinated by it. I had some thoughts. I gave him some notes about it. I thought I was putting it out of my mind and then realized as days and then weeks were going by, that it was an idea I really couldn’t let go.”

And he had one of this middle of the night brainstorms telling himself, “You’re an idiot! Why don’t you just option what he wrote?” Meyer gave Alexander the completed script and the novelist utilized the script to complete his novel Time After Time, which was published in April 1979. Meyer hooked up with producer Herb Jaffe. “When Universal had optioned The Seven-Per-Cent Solution book, they optioned it on condition that I write the screenplay,” Meyer says. “I just took the same idea and stepped it up one and said, ‘Yes, you can have the screenplay, but I have to direct the movie. Orion and Warner Bros. said yes more or less on the same day. They teamed up and split it, with Warner Bros. getting to distribute.”

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Malcolm McDowell wasn’t Meyer’s first choice for Time After Time. He originally envisioning British actor Derek Jacobi — who was then enjoying acclaim for the British series I, Claudius — as the charming, bespectacled Wells. “I was looking for a non-muscle-bound, spandex-clad hero,” says Meyer, who made his feature directorial debut with Time After Time. “I was looking for somebody who was cerebrally endowed,” Meyer adds. “I wasn’t looking for a macho guy. I was willing to cast against type if I could. We now think of I, Claudius as a classic. But when I brought it up to Warner Bros., nobody had seen it. Nobody knew who he was.” It was one of his 3 a.m. brainstorms that led him to McDowell. “I remember sitting bolt upright [and thinking,] ‘Now, that’s a weird notion.'”

“When I raised the idea of him with Warner Bros., they said they knew who he was, but he always played the villain. I said, ‘Well, that’s what’s going to be so interesting. This is called acting. This time, he’ll play the hero.”’

Warner Bros. also was pushing for Mick Jagger to play Jack the Ripper. “I thought no one would lose themselves in the movie if Jagger were cast,” says Meyer. “We’d be watching Mick Jagger, not the Ripper.”

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McDowell was attracted to the material because he was looking for something different than the sex and violence in Caligula, in which he played the title character. While preparing to portray Wells, Malcolm McDowell obtained a copy of a 78 rpm recording of Wells speaking. McDowell was “absolutely horrified” to hear that Wells spoke in a high-pitched, squeaky voice with a pronounced Southeast London accent, which McDowell felt would have resulted in unintentional humor if he tried to mimic it for the film. McDowell abandoned any attempt to recreate Wells’s authentic speaking style and preferred a more dignified speaking style.

The cast all gave high marks to Meyer as a director. “I remember him saying — he did it in front of the whole crew — ‘Listen, you all know I haven’t directed a movie before,'” recalls David Warner. “‘So you know more about making movies than I do. I love movies. If there’s any suggestions or anything you see me doing that you think isn’t quite right, please tell me. Don’t be afraid to tell me.’ I really liked him for that. I really respected him. He didn’t pretend he knew everything, which is a very good quality, I think.”

01H.G. Wells walks by a TV store. All you have to do is show television. It parodies itself All I had to do was light it and photograph it right.” H.G. Wells has stopped at a McDonalds to try to get some lunch. He watches the man ahead of him in line, a truck driver type, and listens as the man orders: Truck driver: “Gimme a Big Mac, an order of fries, and a small Coke to go, please.” Wells, imitating the trucker, orders next: “Gimme a Big Mac, an order of fries, an ” he finishes in his native clipped British: and tea, please.”

Time After Time really operates on five levels,” says Meyer. “It’s science fiction. It’s a thriller homicidal maniac being chased by a man of reason. It’s a romance Wells falls in love with a bank teller, and she’s the ultimate quarry of Jack the Ripper. It’s a comedy. And it’s an ironic social comment Wells decides he’s gone backward as much as he’s gone forward.

“The film’s jaundiced view is apolitical, H.G. finally says at the end, ‘Every age is the same. It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.”

“I hope I don’t sound pretentious or pompous when I say that our aims are somewhat more serious than the aims of most science fiction movies. More serious than what? Star Wars, for instance?

“No, no, Star Wars has a serious intent beyond its fireworks. It sought to recreate a mythology, of sorts. To me, Star Wars was King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table set in outer space. It worked, and it’s what makes that film so enchanting.

“Close Encounters also has a serious purpose, a very romantic idea that we are not alone.

“While I enjoyed Superman, I don’t think there was any real thematic purpose there. They flirted a little with the idea of Superman as Jesus Christ, but that was always there in the comic book.

“All three of those movies were finally and fundamentally supposed to reassure you. They all have positive, romantic themes Time After Time isn’t exactly a reaffirmation, but it does say that, well, that the Victorian era was as horrendous in its own way as this-” He gestures toward the editing screen where there’s a midtown San Francisco traffic jam. Meyer says to Donn Cambern, “Now I want this very noisy. We live in a noisy age.” – Nicholas Meyer


Richard Taylor, lately associated with Star Trek: The Motion Picture is in charge of those mysterious time-travel effects. This is the first time I’ve ever directed a movie, and believe me, I went for the easiest thing to do. I didn’t want to bite off a lot of miniatures, opticals, Special effects and so on.” The only effects portions of Time After Time are the passages through time, which Taylor has committed to film in self-contained scenes which were inserted bodily into Meyer’s live-action work. “If the film addresses itself to the science fiction community–if there is such a thing as a science-fiction community it will do so on a unique basis. The only film this bears even remote resemblance tots a film called Alphaville, which did influence me some. Time After Time does not present, fundamentally, a very optimistic look at today.

Meyer got the legendary three-time Oscar winner (Ben-Hur, A Double Life, Spellbound) Miklos Rozsa to compose the lush, evocative score and dusted off the classic Max Steiner-penned “Fanfare” to play over the Warner Bros. logo.

“I thought to myself, ‘This movie should have a musical accompaniment that reflects the personality of the protagonist,'” recalls Meyer. “The protagonist is a 19th century person. So, I was thinking, obviously, not of a rock and roll score. When I started to think about composers who would fill the bill, I was also looking for someone who had a gift for the fantastic. I loved the Rozsa score for The Thief of Bagdad and thought, ‘Yeah, this might be a winning combination.'”

But his glorious score was almost scrapped. “By the time it came toward preview time and mixing the movie, we had heard that Warner Bros. didn’t like the film. They didn’t believe in the film. And one other thing we kept hearing was that they wanted Bill Conti (Rocky, The Right Stuff) to write another score for it.”

Meyer told Jaffe that they should take an ad out in the Hollywood trade papers to announce how much they loved Rosza’s score. “Why don’t we write Mickey a letter telling him how great his score is and then publish the letter? Herb Jaffe’s comment was ‘You’re learning.’ We published the letter and then they really couldn’t take the score away.”

It was one of the last films scored by veteran composer Miklós Rózsa, who received the 1979 Saturn Award for Best Music.

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Despite the preview response and generally getting positive reviews — THR critic and columnist Robert Osborne wrote at the time that “such a scrambling of fact, fiction and imagination in itself deserves back-patting and, for the most part, the rendering is as delightful as the basic idea” — audiences didn’t storm the theaters. The film made only $13 million at the box office (about $45 million today).

“If they were an under confident before the screening, they became overconfident after the screening,” says Meyer. “They suddenly decided to open the movie really, really wide. They didn’t have the stars that would support that, and they weren’t giving it time for word of mouth to build. It was a success, it just wasn’t a huge success.”

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McDowell believes the box office suffered at the time because advertising played up the Jack the Ripper storyline and not the love story. Earlier that year the grisly Holmes and Watson mystery thriller Murder by Decree had a Ripper plotline. “Our movie came out on the tail end of that, and nobody went to see that,” he speculates.

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Time After Time (1979) Pressbook & Posters

Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Produced by Herb Jaffe
Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer
Story by Steve Hayes
Based on Time After Time 1979 novel by Karl Alexander

Malcolm McDowell as Herbert George Wells
David Warner as John Leslie Stevenson/Jack the Ripper
Mary Steenburgen as Amy Robbins
Charles Cioffi as Police Lt. Mitchell
Kent Williams as assistant
Patti D’Arbanville as Shirley
Joseph Maher as Adams

Cinefantastique v08n01

2 thoughts on “Time After Time (1979) Retrospective

  1. What was the purpose of the vaporizing equalizer? Why would H.G. Wells put that device on the time machine? For a plot convenience that makes no sense? For suicide? Anti theft device? Haha!

    Liked by 1 person

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