Tag: Charles Cioffi

Time After Time (1979)

Time After Time (1979)

HG Wells zooms through time on the trail of Jack the Ripper in this surprisingly charming time travel romantic thriller

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Cast: Malcolm McDowell (HG Wells), David Warner (Dr John Leslie Stevenson), Mary Steenburgen (Amy Robbins), Charles Cioffi (Lt Mitchell), Kent Williams (Assistant), Patti d’Arbanville (Shirley), Joseph Maher (Adams)

1979 was clearly the Year of the Ripper. New conspiracy theories abounded on his mysterious identity. In Murder By Decree, Sherlock Holmes took on the investigation. And in Nicholas Meyer’s Time Travel fish-out-of-water drama, he pops up in 1970s San Francisco, still up to his wicked ways. How did he get there? Well, imagine instead of just writing The Time Machine, HG Wells had actually built it: and that, during a dinner with a doctor friend, he not only discovers his friend is the infamous killer, but watches him pinch his time machine to escape the long arm of the law.

HG Wells is played by Malcolm McDowell – who surely when he was sent the script assumed he was being asked to take a look at the role of the Ripper – who uses his machine to follow the Ripper to the 1970s to find him. The Ripper is played by David Warner (one of the few actors even more demonic than McDowell), and he’s rather more at home in the 1970s than Wells, who expected to find a utopia. Wells is helped by Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who is drawn to this charming Englishman, who she believes is a Scotland Yard detective on the hunt for a serial killer.

Meyer’s first film is a little raw – you can see he’s still learning his craft, a few shots are a little rough around the edges in their framing and some plot points and transitions are not easy to follow – but rather charming, for all it’s about the hunt for a serial killer. Meyer gets a lot of affectionate comic mileage from Wells – the quintessential gentle Englishman, timid but determined when riled – working out the social rules of the 1970s. From crossing the road, to hailing a taxi, from consuming a McDonalds (“Fries are pomme frites!” – some silver presumably crossed Meyer’s hands to show the novelist chomping down thrilled on the fast food chain’s merchandise) to working out the rate of exchange for his fifteen Victorian pounds doesn’t translate to many dollars, it’s got a fish-out-of-water delight and a shrewd comic energy.

It’s helped a great deal by McDowell’s gentle, playful and thoroughly engaging performance – Time After Time leaves you sad he doesn’t get to play more roles like this. Wells is optimistic, polite, gentlemanly and admirably brave: even more so, because he’s so hesitant about risk. He travels around the 1970s with a wide-eyed wonder and has a humanitarian streak a mile wide. He’s one of the nicest guys you could meet.

No wonder Amy falls for him so swiftly. There is an electric chemistry between Mary Steenburgen – full of Southern sweetness but with a very modern (but never grating) feminism – and McDowell (and clearly off screen as well, as they married almost immediately after). Meyer plays this romance like a classic rom-com, with meet-cutes at the bank and McDowell’s playing of this shy Victorian gentleman’s courtly manners (he touchingly stops a kiss to make absolutely sure he has full consent – which Amy makes clear he more than does!) works like a charm.

The jokes are genuinely well-thought out and keep the film brisk. I love the alias Well’s plucks out of the air when pretending to the police to be a Scotland Yard detective: he seizes upon what he guesses will be a long forgotten popular fiction character of his day and calls himself Sherlock Holmes. McDowell and Steenburgen have an affinity for physical comedy – watch McDowell hail a taxi with a jaunty wave or Steenburgen sitting frustratedly on a sofa waiting for Wells to make a move. The fish-out-of-water elements work a treat (you can see the clear groundwork for gags Meyer would take even further in his next time-travel hit Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).

Time After Time sits this comedy next to a genuine Ripper-flick. The film opens with a long POV shot as the Ripper strikes in the streets of London. David Warner gives a very good performance as a world-weary psychopathic, who can hide his depravity but not control his urges. Unlike Wells, the Ripper adjusts very naturally to the modern world – probably because he’s more used to pretence than the honest Wells – dressing in progressively more relaxed 70s garb. His murders are shot with discretion – mostly off screen with the inevitable splash of scarlet on a surface or face from off camera. The actual historical elements of the Ripper are bunkum, but the handling is well done.

The time travel elements are rather laboriously explained, with much talk of keys, return-prevention locks and stabilisers. Wells points out the various features of the machine with a bluntness that all but has Meyer tapping you on the shoulder and saying “remember that it will be important later” – you can utterly (correctly) guess the eventual ending purely from this lecture. But the time travel effects use a mixture of 2001-ish camera tricks rather effectively and the film plays a little bit with paradox and timeline tweaking (although without any depth).

Meyer’s film is an enjoyable ride, even if some plot developments gear shift swiftly (the Ripper seems to have had a sudden emotional breakdown at some point between his penultimate and final scene and the reasons for the time machines physical shift to San Francisco are barely explained) and it at times loses its drive (the Ripper is all-too-obviously presumed dead at one point and his determination to grab a key that controls the time machine oscillates with urgency from act to act). But as a debut, it’s an enjoyable piece of pulp. And it’s got a hugely likeable performance from McDowell and very assured support from Steenburgen and Warner. It’s a very enjoyable romp.

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Paranoia runs rampant in this fascinating – and chilling – murder thriller that taps into into conspiracy thrillers

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.