The time has come once again to honor the memory of the late James Horner, a genius of the film music world who is still sorely missed. Many of you joined me last year for my first ever blogathon and I hope you can join me once again for the 2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon, which will be held June 23rd-June 25th later this summer.
As with last year, this blogathon will focus on any film that features the work of James Horner. To give you an idea of what this looks like, here are links to the recaps of last year’s blogathon:
“Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”
As further evidence that network television executives are seemingly incapable of coming up with new ideas, ABC has launched a TV version of Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 directorial debut, TIME AFTER TIME. Honestly, I’ve not checked in on that attempt at a remake (as of now), but there’s quite a bit to say about the original film.
Previously, Meyer had been best known for his Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” while he would soon become the man who helped save the Star Trek film franchise. In between, he would write the screenplay for and direct TIME AFTER TIME, which was based on an original story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes.
On its face, it’s a rather silly premise. In 1893, Victorian novelist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who would later become famous for such stories as “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds” has actually built a working time machine, but so far has lacked the nerve to test it out. Over dinner with several of his friends and colleagues, including surgeon John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), he shows off his new machine and states that he plans to soon travel into the future to a time when, he believes, the social utopia will have been achieved.
His gathering is soon interrupted by the police—it turns out that Dr. Stevenson is really the notorious Jack the Ripper, and he has come to dinner immediately after committing yet another murder. As the police search Wells’s house, Stevenson steals the time machine and escapes to 1979. Thanks to a homing feature that really doesn’t make sense if you think about it, the machine soon returns, allowing Wells to set off in pursuit.
As mentioned earlier, this all sounds a bit silly. At the same time, it opens the door to several different types of stories at once: the “fish out of water” premise, with two Victorian gentlemen thrust into modern (for the time) society; a chase film with Wells tracking Stevenson through San Francisco; and eventually, a love story between Wells and 1979 banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). Much of the early scenes in San Francisco play off of Wells’ bafflement at the world if 1979. He is utterly confused about the newspaper headline, “Colts Maul Rams.” A lunch visit to McDonald’s requires Wells to navigate fast food ordering (“I’ll have a Big Mac, fries…and tea to go.” And later, “Pommes frites! ‘Fries’ are pommes frites!”), and he subsequently becomes fascinated with the plastic table (“I never saw wood like this before,” he remarks to another patron).
Most of the success of the film is due to the three great performances. Malcolm McDowell is cast completely against type (he was most known at the time for playing Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE ), yet he is superb as the bookish and somewhat bewildered Wells. Warner is equally excellent as Stevenson, playing a character who is both charming and menacing at the same time. Steenburgen turns in the third quality performance in the film, portraying a strong, modern woman that plays well off of Wells’s Victorian sensibilities, and she and McDowell certainly sell the developing romance between the two characters (the fact that the two actors themselves were beginning a relationship during filming probably helped).
There several stand out sequences worth highlighting. There are essentially two chases in the film: one a foot chase between Wells and Stevenson throughout the Hyatt Regency hotel and surrounding streets; the other involving Wells attempting to drive a car while chasing after Stevenson, who has taken Robbins hostage in her own car. While these two sequences aren’t quite at the level you see today, they certainly hold their own for their time, and they are helped significantly by the musical score (more on that later).
Possibly the best scene takes place right before the first chase, when Wells has tracked Stevenson to his hotel room in San Francisco. Since the opening scenes in 1893, Wells has been convinced that the future will hold a utopian society; however, his experiences in 1979 to this point have provided significant evidence to the contrary (a great beat earlier is when an exhausted Wells, an atheist, finds himself praying for refuge in a church only to be immediately evicted by the priest). Now, to Stevenson’s admitted shock, Wells finds himself standing in his former friend’s hotel room saying that neither of them belong in the future and they must go back. In response, Stevenson first congratulates Wells on his invention and then admonishes him for his belief in a “perfect and harmonious society.” On the contrary, society has moved more in Stevenson’s direction. To emphasize this point, he switches on the television, flicking through channel after channel of death, destruction, and violence, as Wells becomes more and more horrified.
“We don’t belong here? On the contrary, I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. It is you who do not belong here, with your absurd notions of a perfect and harmonious society.”
Stevenson continues to taunt Wells, pointing out the easy access to guns and how American society encourages the ownership of such weapons when Wells finally snaps, smacking Stevenson across the face, “STOP IT!!” Stevenson’s only response is to calmly reply, “It’s catching, isn’t it? Violence.” It’s a scene that carries a lot of weight and is superbly performed.
There are only a couple of issues that I can find with the film. Amy Robbins is portrayed as a strong, modern (for the time) woman, but the film’s final act unfortunately reduces her to a clichéd “woman in distress” who needs to be rescued by Wells. It fits the pattern of Stevenson (and pays off a well-done plot point from earlier) and also gives the three actors the chance to do some fine acting, but it’s also a bit disappointing.
Likewise, Meyer emphasizes not once, but twice, a specific aspect of the time machine’s design in a way that almost provides a flashing neon sign saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER.” In his director’s commentary, Meyer does remark on how film audiences are unlikely to remember things through the entirety of the film and this is probably why he made the choice he did, but it does feel a bit like playing to the lowest common denominator.
According to Nicholas Meyer’s director’s commentary for the film, Warner Brothers initially insisted that TIME AFTER TIME have a contemporary score, as was the norm at the time. Thankfully, Meyer insisted that, because the film was about a 19th century man, the movie needed a score that reflected that sensibility. In the end, he hired a composer who was probably the farthest thing removed from a pop score: Hollywood legend Miklós Rózsa.
Rózsa had made a name for himself during the “Golden Age” of cinema and was most well-known for scoring such epics as THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), (QUO VADIS (1951), IVANHOE (1952), BEN-HUR (1959; for which he won an Oscar), and EL CID (1961).
“Warner Bros. Fanfare / Main Title”
Meyer had wanted the film to have an old-fashioned feel to it, to the point where he brought back the Warner Bros. shield logo (having commented that the one in use at the time looked like something that would be stamped on office furniture) and the Max Steiner fanfare. Rózsa expertly transitions from the Steiner fanfare into his main titles, which serve to introduce his main theme that also serves as a motif for the time machine.
This theme also appears when H.G. Wells, having discovered that his friend Stevenson has used the time machine to travel into the future, finally decides to “work up the nerve” to use the machine himself and follow him to 1979. After a brief pause as the machine disappears from his work room, the music resumes, continuing a “tick-tock” rhythm played in the percussion, literally marking the passage of time, with glissandi and other swirling lines from the orchestra giving the sense that the machine may be going out of control.
Stevenson is given two themes in the film. The first is a descending motif that serves as his primary theme, often appearing when he is committing some atrocity or simply lurking about. This cue covers the second of two on-screen murders that occur in the film, also highlighting the “L’Aio de Rotso” that is played by Stevenson’s musical pocket watch.
“The Ripper / Pursuit” (excerpt)
His second theme plays over the first action sequence. After a brief fight in Stevenson’s hotel room, Stevenson runs out the door with Wells in pursuit. The chase then begins in two glass elevator cars, across two levels of the hotel, and finally onto a pair of walkways over the street. Ultimately, Stevenson decides to run for it, until an ill-fated attempt to cross a street against traffic brings the chase to a sudden end.
“The Time Machine Waltz”
One of my favorite cues is barely heard in the film. At one point, Amy takes Wells to lunch, and this piece is played in the background. It’s a lovely waltz performed by piano and orchestra, and it certainly deserves more exposure than it gets in the movie.
“Dangerous Drive” (excerpt)
The final cue I’ll highlight is the second chase of the movie, where Stevenson has forced Robbins to drive him to the museum where the time machine is kept. In response, Wells runs back to Robbins’ house and takes control of her car, speeding off in pursuit. It’s another great instance of writing by Rózsa that covers many of the primary themes, modifying Stevenson’s main theme into a more up-tempo action mode. Playing counterpoint to this is the Wells/time machine theme. The cue wraps up with a more standard playing of the Stevenson theme, as he drags Amy into the museum with Wells close behind.
Overall, TIME AFTER TIME is a somewhat overlooked gem of a film. While it’s certainly not perfect, there is a lot to like here. Once you get over a somewhat goofy premise for a film, you’re left with three strong leading performances and some interesting social commentary. Highly recommended!
“I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”
I was lucky enough to get to see NORTH BY NORTHWEST in the theater for the first time this past weekend. It’s long been my favorite Hitchcock film and it definitely still holds up on the big screen.
Note, I have tried to avoid spoilers in the discussion below, but there may be some to be found in the various clips I have included.
In the off chance you haven’t seen the film yet (and what are you waiting for?), Cary Grant plays New York ad man Roger Thornhill, who finds himself mistaken for a U.S. spy. After a kidnapping/murder attempt by foreign operative Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) goes awry, Grant sets off to try to find the real agent and to set the record straight.
Along the way, he manages to also get framed for the murder of a United Nations representative and meets and falls in love with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train ride from New York to Chicago. Ultimately, the chase winds up at the footsteps and then the top of Mount Rushmore. There, Thornhill and Kendall attempt to elude Vandamm’s men, one of whom, Leonard, is played by a very young and very effectively creepy Martin Landau.
The film kicks off with a driving overture by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Rumbling timpani and low woodwinds complement the roar of Leo the Lion and the MGM logo, building to what Herrmann referred to as a “kaleidoscope orchestral fandango” that plays off of a superb title sequence designed by Saul Bass (the first time kinetic typography was extensively used in a film title) that culminates in possibly the most famous of Hitchcock’s cameos:
There is nary a wrong step in this movie, to the point where even an obvious blooper is held up as a classic. This is the kind of role that Cary Grant was born to play (originally, Hitchcock had wanted Jimmy Stewart in the role, and while I like Stewart, I have a hard time seeing him doing as well here). One of my favorite acting sequences is Grant playing off of rear projection has he is forced to drive a car while blind drunk (having been force-fed a bottle of bourbon…not sure how that works). Grant absolutely sells it as he struggles to navigate the road as Herrmann’s fandango theme plays in the background.
Eva Marie Saint is superb in her portrayal of someone whose motives and loyalties are kept somewhat unknown through the first two thirds of the movie. One of her best scenes is her conversation with Thornhill on the train as they share dinner together. The scene also is a good example of the quality of Ernest Lehman’s script, including a wonderful throwaway “button” line that would probably be cut in a movie today.
Herrmann also composes a beautiful love theme for Thornhill and Kendall, which appears throughout the film with various instrumentation (usually performed by solo clarinet or violin).
As the film’s primary villain, Phillip Vandamm, James Mason is excellent at playing both suave and polite yet also cold and calculating. Watching Mason and Grant duel with words provides, not only another example of terrific dialogue, but the opportunity to hear two of the all-time great voices in Hollywood. As I recently remarked on Twitter, I could easily sit through a two-hour movie of nothing but the two of them talking to each other.
Although Herrmann did not write a specific theme for Vandamm, he did compose one to represent George Kaplan, the man for whom Thornhill has been mistaken. This theme appears multiple times and represents the “suspense” portion of the score. The theme is slow, consisting primarily of a series of three notes that repeatedly rise and fall. A second motif is a repetitive two-note figure that occurs at various tempos throughout the film, usually during a sequence when the characters are on the move.
“The Cafeteria” (George Kaplan theme)
“The Police” (two-note motif)
Of course, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is probably best known for its famous sequence where Thornhill is sent to the middle of nowhere in Indiana and is attacked by a biplane. Despite the limitations of the technology at the time, the sequence holds up remarkably well, even on the big screen. Unlike some uses of rear projection (including in this film), it is used here in such a way that it is absolutely convincing. Smartly, the scene is completely unscored (aside from the “music” of the plane propeller), until the chase ends in a fiery crash that is accompanied by an “explosion” from the orchestra as well.
It was a real treat to have the opportunity to see this classic film the way it was meant to be seen. While it is certainly a product of it’s time (there are, admittedly, some creaky special effects shots), it still holds up well. When you add in three terrific lead performances (four actually, as Martin Landau is quite good as well), plus a great score by one of the era’s top composers in Bernard Herrman, you wend up with what is certainly one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films.
If you had a chance to catch NORTH BY NORTHWEST in the cinema, or if you’d simply like to talk more about this great film, please leave a note in the comments!
To celebrate my 30th birthday I have decided to challenge everyone to pick their favourite film from the year of my birth so 1987 will be the selection of films we will be looking at.
If you want to take part in the next Opinion Battles we will be looking at Favourite Performance in a Comedy Movie by a NON-Comedic Actor. If you want to take part email your choice to email@example.com 2nd of April 2017.
Darren – Movie Reviews 101
Predator was one of the very first adult action movies I ever saw and while it definitely isn’t the best movie from 1987 it is easily one of the most fun movies from the year. We get Arnold Schwarzenegger facing off against an alien creature with better weapons then him in the middle of the jungle. A…
I sincerely apologize for the complete lack of updates in the past few weeks. Due to some unexpected issues, I have had little time to work on new content. However, I expect to be back on the proverbial horse in the next couple of days and will be working to post more regularly once again. Thank you for your understanding.
Least Favourite Oscar Winning Performance from an Actor in Leading or Supporting Role
The Oscars are around the corner and we all know that people either love or hate the Oscars committee decisions. We have had the best or the best winning Oscars and after looking at our Favourite we need to look at our Least Favourite this time around.
If you want to join in Opinion Battles our next round will be Favourite Video Game Adaption. Send you choices to firstname.lastname@example.org 5th March 2017.
Darren – Movie Reviews 101
Michael Caine– The Cider House Rules
Dr Wilbur Larch is a performance I do enjoy but when you see the performance it beat you have to question the decision for his choice as a win, Michael Clarke Duncan (Green Mile), Tom Cruise (Magnolia) and Jude Law (Talent Mr Ripley) who could all…
I went to see EX MACHINA on a whim. I was at the theater with no real plans for what I wanted to see, and in the lobby was a card for a film that, as far as I could tell, featured an android with a pretty face. Around the body of Alicia Vikander were a number of quotes from reviews praising the film while almost warning against its content. Needless to say I was hooked, intrigued, and ultimately blown away.