I am sincerely convinced that somewhere in Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time (1980) is a transcendental fable about the greatest loves capable of bridging those proverbial chasms between time and space. I’m not exactly sure where in Szwarc’s movie we are meant to luxuriate within those time-honored kernels of truth; though I highly suspect this was the impetus behind what is ultimately a rather fractured love story. The late Christopher Reeve was, for a time, considered leading man material – mostly because of his iconic transformation into the man of steel for Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). Let us begin by being clear about one thing. There will never be another Superman except Christopher Reeve! He just fit the bill. In hindsight, however, Reeve had some difficulty eschewing his super hero alter-ego to move into more weightily grounded roles, of which Richard Matheson’s screenplay demands.
Somewhere in Time requires something more of Reeve than to merely look good in tights, a cup and flowing red cape. Tragically, Reeve doesn’t do the brooding young man thing well at all – even if he is young and deliciously handsome. Reeve’s sex appeal has always eluded me. He just seems too clean cut and far too fresh-faced to be the virile Lochinvar; sort of a precursor to Tom Cruise, albeit taller than Cruise, if slightly less muscular, though infinitely more masculine. And anyway, something continues to get lost in Matheson’s adaptation of his own novel; a certain je ne sais quoi that would compel a successful, though decidedly unhappy, playwright to fling his entire career and life on a romantic whim after viewing the portrait of a woman he’s arguably never met, except very briefly as a much older woman (Susan French). Too much of Matheson’s novel is left unsaid in the movie; the screen unable to convey the timelessness and supernatural properties beyond a few chaste kisses and some substantial compression of the affair, done practically in montage, exuberantly photographed through heavy gauze by cinematographer, Isidore Mankofsky.
There are moments in Somewhere in Time when one truly begins to believe in the story; the plot just about ready to encapsulate the audience on its ‘wings of love’ scenario. Regrettably, these fleeting glimpses into grand amour play more like a perpetual and very cruel tease; the more full-bodied affaire de coeur never quite materializing as the screenplay repeatedly hesitates in revealing too much of what makes Jane Seymour’s Elise McKenna, the cultured actress from 1919, click with Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve); the dashing young playwright from 1972. The cyclical reasoning behind the movie’s already implausible time travel, and, its Brigadoon-esque quality, skipping from present to past, then unsuccessfully back again, struggles for something more meaningful – or even intelligent – to add to this perfunctory ‘man goes back in time’ story. Somewhere in Time isn’t a bad movie. It’s just a problematic one for these particular reasons.
The movie has undeniable merits: Jane Seymour, for one - utterly luminous as the winsome heroine, and Christopher Plummer, oozing a more sublime villainy as her Svengali; agent William Fawcett Robinson. Herein too, we must give a nod to composer John Barry who, having lost both parents only several months prior to committing himself on this project, has written a truly gorgeous central theme. Initially, director Szwarc balked at the notion of even asking Barry to consider the project. Herein, we must recall that Universal was hardly keen on Somewhere In Time, based on Matheson’s novel, ‘Bid Time Return’ – cutting the film’s budget of $8 million in half before principle photography had even begun. On that relatively miniscule amount, Barry’s services were infinitely more than Szwarc could afford. But Jane Seymour was a personal friend of the composer and telephoned him with the offer. To a large extent, Barry did the score as a favor to Jane without consideration for his usual fee. Listening to Barry’s flamboyantly romantic theme, one is immediately teleported to another time; also from the interpolated few bars of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Somewhere in Time is largely dependent on these orchestrations to sell the ethereal quality of the romance, and is the perfect complement to Mankofsky’s refined imagery.
Pulling off ‘period’ is difficult under the best of circumstances. On a $4 million dollar budget it is all but impossible. For logistic reasons, Szwarc relocated the novel’s dreamlike setting from San Diego’s famed Hotel del Coronado to Mackinaw Island’s Grand Hotel; the latter virtually untouched by the initiations of time and history. Seymour Klate’s production design, Mary Ann Biddle’s art direction and Jean-Pierre Dorléac’s costumes conspire to achieve a level of sumptuousness that belies these shoestring restrictions. Yet, perhaps the greatest coup for the movie is the hotel itself; built by the Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company in 1886 as a summer retreat for the affluent vacationer and visiting dignitaries, and with the longest wrap around promenade of any hotel built since its time, the Grand Hotel is as much a presence as it remains a place. Except for 1947’s This Time For Keeps – a lavish Technicolor musical made for MGM (and for which the hotel’s large swimming pool was later rechristened in honor of that movie’s star; Esther Williams) the Grand Hotel was never again seen in the movies until Somewhere in Time.
Somewhere in Time begins on a rather ominous moment. It’s May 1972 and theater student, Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) is basking in the popularity of his first opening night. The play he’s written is being prospected by a Broadway agent and the cast party is in full swing when an elderly woman (Susan French) passes through the crowd; her aged presence in a room full of youthful optimism suddenly deadening the gaiety. Placing a gold pocket watch in Richard’s hand, the mysterious woman implores “Come back to me,” before departing the room. It is a haunted moment, one that does little more than perplex Richard, who quietly files the incident away for eight long years as his career as a playwright takes off. Meanwhile, sometime later, the old woman returns, seemingly in a trance, to her companion/housekeeper, Laura Roberts (Teresa Wright), listening to her records while she remains alone with her memories.
Now living in Chicago, Richard is lamenting the breakup of his longtime relationship, and grappling with an insufferable bout of writer’s block; neither enlightening his dower disposition. Something needs to change – and fast. So Richard decides to take a holiday. He stumbles on the Grand Hotel almost by chance – or is it destiny? – electing to take a room and clear the cobwebs from his brain. Perhaps he’ll find his inspiration there. Indeed, Richard discovers much more than he’s bargained for as he wanders into the hotel’s historical gallery, finding yellowed newspaper clippings about the same elderly woman who gave him the pocket watch eight years earlier.
As it turns out, the woman was Elise McKenna, a famous actress who performed in a play at the hotel back in 1919. The hotel’s kindly bellhop, Arthur Biehl (Bill Erwin) offers Richard a bit of the back story too, and there’s also a stunning portrait of Elise in her prime; one that immediately compels Richard with an affection of puppy love grown into obsession to learn all he can about this ethereal creature from another time. Richard chats up Laura Roberts for details, discovering in her possession a music box once belonging to Elise that plays his favorite melody - Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody. Next, Richard journeys to the nearby college to consult his old professor, Dr. Gerald Finney (George Voskovec) about the possibilities of time travel. The novel is much clearer as to why Finney would be a good source to consult. The film merely suggests Finney once had his own ‘out of body’ experience in another hotel in Venice under self-hypnosis some years earlier; an occurrence he relays for Richard and the audience’s benefit with moody aplomb.
Shortly thereafter, Richard becomes preoccupied with traveling back to 1912 to court Elise and fulfil the prophecy by ‘coming back’ to her. Renting period clothes and cutting his own hair in a style befitting gentlemen of that vintage, Richard attempts to manipulate his mind through the power of suggestion. He’s bitterly frustrated by his lack of initial progress. But then he suffers a curious occurrence in his regression therapy; one that teleports him back to 1912, though he accidentally winds up in the suite of a feuding married couple, Maude (Victoria Michaels) and Rollo (William P. O'Hagan). In retrospect, this sequence seems particularly ill-advised; its moment of light humor (as Richard hides, first in Maude’s closet then behind a chair, eavesdrops on the couple’s unhappy marital exchanges) just plain silly and pointless, and time consuming; as are the subsequent machinations.
Richard wandering about the hotel in utter bewilderment; his fish out of water (or rather, out of time) blending in about as well as pasties on a bull. Unable, at first, to secure an audience with Elise, Richard eventually tracks her down, as she strolls along the beach. She is decidedly taken aback by his sudden appearance, cryptically asking him “Is it you?” However, before he can answer her truthfully, Richard and Elise’s tender moment is interrupted, then, all but thwarted by Elise’s curmudgeonly agent, William Fawcett Robinson (Christopher Plummer). Robinson threatens to have Richard removed from the hotel if he should try to even speak to Elise again. She makes her own inquiries to Robinson about Richard, asking “Is he the one?” to which Robinson even more evasively replies, “Only you can answer that.”
These exchanges of dialogue are presumably meant to heighten the moody mystery. Does Elise know about time travel too? Does Robinson? Are they expecting Richard? No – as it turns out each is relying on the other to fill in a piece of the puzzle already begun in both their minds before Richard’s arrival at the Grand Hotel; Robinson having told Elise that one day she would meet a man who would ruin her career, and thus, her life. Presumably, Robinson has explained all of this to Elise to keep her chaste and true to her art. Also to ensure she remains his cash cow who keeps on giving.
Ignoring Robinson’s warning, that evening Richard crashes a dinner dance, taking Elise by the arm for a turn around the floor. Robinson intervenes once again, but this time Elise is sympathetic to Richard, allowing him several moments in private before returning to the dining hall alone. The next morning, Richard awakens rather cramped and numb from having slept all night on the wicker furniture on the front porch. He meets Arthur as a boy, playing with his ball inside the hotel’s lobby. No Richard registers as a guest, insisting on Room 416 to complete his preordained destiny. Richard coaxes Elise to entertain him for a walk around the hotel grounds. The pair is pursued by Robinson, who attempts to be their chaperone. Instead, Richard and Elise rent one of the hotel’s horse-drawn coaches, taking off for a blissful afternoon alone, culminating in a journey to the island’s not so distant lighthouse. Richard shows Elise the pocket watch given to him by her in 1972, but does not reveal to her its’ origins, only commenting that it was a gift.
Returning hours later to Elise’s suite, Richard takes her in his arms with passionate kisses. Robinson intrudes, ordering Richard from the room. But Elise admonishes her agent instead with course words, informing him that from now on, while he may continue to manage her career, her private affairs shall be orchestrated to her own liking and tastes. That evening, Richard attends the play Elise is starring in at the hotel. Sensing real love for the very first time in her life, Elise departs from the prepared speech of her character in the play to soliloquize her own true joy and love for Richard. During the play’s intermission Richard darts backstage just in time to see Elise posing for the portrait he fell in love with hanging inside the hotel’s historical room in 1972. As the play’s second act gets underway, Richard receives a letter from Robinson, imploring his immediate attendance at the gazebo. Leaving the theater before the performance is over Richard tried to explain to Robinson that he has no intention of interrupting Elise’s career; only to be a part of her life as her lover.
Although Robinson denies he has any affection for Elise he also refuses to allow Richard his chance at love. A pair of thugs hired by Robinson subdues Richard. They bind and gag him, leaving Richard unconscious inside the stables. Meanwhile, Robinson returns to Elise’s room. He lies to her about Richard already having checked out of the hotel, encouraging a hasty departure as the theatrical troop is preparing to leave for their next engagement in Boston. The next morning, Richard stirs and frees himself from his constraints. Regrettably, he is informed by the desk clerk that the thespians have already gone on ahead. Forlorn, Richard pouts on the hotel’s front porch, Elise materializing from the grounds directly behind him, and calling out his name. The two race toward one another and rekindle their passion on the hotel’s steps, returning to Richard’s room where, at last without Robinson’s intrusions, they are able to consummate their affair. Afterward, Richard and Elise share a chicken dinner cross-legged and half-dressed on the floor inside the suite.
Elise vows her first act of charity toward the man she has already decided will become her new husband is to buy him a new suit of clothes. Attempting to make light of his own appreciation for his attire, Richard inadvertently stumbles upon a stowaway penny from 1972 tucked in his pocket. The spell is broken. His body cannot remain in 1919 when his mind is aware he has traveled back in time from the present. As Elise looks on in horror Richard slowly dies in front of her; she regressing into a black hole in his own mind from which he can never reawaken. Try as he might, Richard’s attempts to return to 1919 come to not. After many days of self-imposed starvation and suffering from a decided lack of sleep, Richard dies in his suite at the Grand Hotel of a broken heart; his dreams of Elise resuscitated as his soul departs the room, entering a rather starkly vacant and slightly ominous gray-glowing view of heaven, with Elise patiently awaiting his return.
Despite being mercilessly panned by the critics of their day, Somewhere in Time isn’t quite the disaster it ought to have been, especially because of its many narrative misfires. Producer, Steven Deutsch, who had fallen in love with the novel, was bitterly disappointed when the movie failed to find its audience in 1980, believing he had somehow personally let down the author and his work. Indeed, Somewhere in Time was seemingly the wrong movie for its generation; the 1970’s cynicism overriding its’ rather featherweight, if ethereal charm. Even after a sneak preview in Toronto, and another in Los Angeles played to favorable audience receptions, the film did not catch fire to becoming a sleeper hit; perhaps because the critics were too quick to pounce on Somewhere in Time with their scathingly negative reviews, eviscerating everything from the movie’s acting to its schmaltzy score and whimsical narrative. In retrospect, some of what was then written about Somewhere in Time rings true.
Our protagonist’s motivation to time travel is utterly weak; the romance between Elise and Richard delayed for much too long. We don’t even see Jane Seymour – except in a portrait – for more than 45 minutes. As the movie’s total runtime is only 103 min. this really doesn’t leave much room to convince the audience Elise and Richard are soul mates separated by a period of roughly eighty years. There’s also some very wonky storytelling at play herein – even if one suspends disbelief in its faux sci-fi precepts. For example, why is it Richard has no memory of living a past life when Elise – as the old woman – clearly remembers him with renewed affection? Also, Robinson’s motives for keeping Elise all to himself – desiring to manage her personal life, but denying her love of any kind – even his own – makes Robinson nothing better than a martinet and/or autocrat. He’s not a villain; just a sponge, clinging to Elise for his own livelihood.
The scenes played for comedy – Richard’s aforementioned narrow escape from Maude and Rollo’s suite, and the subsequent skulking about and ridicule he endures backstage by the temperamental theater folk - are distractions, unnecessarily delaying our first ‘chance encounter’ between these two great lovers destined to spend eternity together. In the final analysis, Somewhere in Time is something of a blip rather than a touchstone in movie romance. While I don’t necessarily agree with some of the more derisive reviews (Vincent Canby referring to Christopher Reeve as a helium-filled canary, or Roger Ebert’s diatribe about ‘the mumbo jumbo time travel’ making the audience not care about these characters at all), I cannot deny there is something decidedly remiss about Somewhere in Time’s potency as a gushing romance for the ages. It isn’t that, at all. It might not even be one for the moment, though in the years that have followed since a ‘society’ of fans has come to embrace Somewhere in Time as a cult classic. My opinion? It’s more camp than cult, but not entirely dismissible as crap.
Universal Home Video has given Somewhere in Time a considerable upgrade. There’s virtually no comparison between the abysmal image quality on Universal’s previously issued DVD and this new rendering in 1080p. While tonality and color remain highly suspect (flesh tones waffle from very orange to pastel pink), the image is decidedly brighter and imbued with a more richly varied palette of hues. At times, Isidore Mankofsky’s cinematography uses diffusion and color filters, and other gimmicky affects, to suggest a sepia-tinted period look. In retrospect, these effects are sometimes distracting. But this hi-def disc remains faithful to these artistic faux pas.
At the start of the movie, film grain seems heavier than normal, particularly during the scene where old Elise, having returned from Richard’s cast party to her suite at the Grand Hotel late at night, parts the curtains to look out at the lighthouse. The view from between these curtains is severely marred with a digitized gritty appearance. There’s also a movie flub to consider. While the insert of the lighthouse is shot late at night, the reverse shot of Elise peering beyond the window features noon day sunlight streaming across her face as she takes her place in a rocking chair. Honestly, how could anyone have missed that?!?
The DTS 2.0 mono is remarkably aggressive and rather wonderful, particularly in extolling the virtues of John Barry’s memorable underscore. Extras are all imported from Universal’s SE DVD, and include an audio commentary from director Jeannot Szwarc that is fairly interesting if hardly comprehensive; also a wonderful making of featurette that, regrettably, has not been remastered and looks fairly atrocious; a brief featurette on INSITE – the grass roots publication dedicated to keeping Somewhere in Time alive for fans; vintage stills and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: if you love Somewhere in Time then this Blu-ray rectifies a goodly number of sins committed by previous incarnations on home video. It isn’t perfect. Then again, so few Blu-rays are!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)