Download: David Warner: Time After Time
David Warner was the quintessential “working actor.” In a film and television career that began in 1962 with an uncredited role as ‘Sailor painting ship’ in We Joined The Navy to his final work as a voice actor in the animated series Teen Titans Go!, Warner amassed an astonishing 228 credits.
Going through his resume, you will find everything from the high-toned to out-and-out schlock. At the high end, we have everything from Tom Jones, Morgan!, The Fixer, Straw Dogs, The Omen, Holocaust, Time Bandits, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Twin Peaks, The Larry Sanders Show, Titanic, Scream 2, Penny Dreadful, Wallander, to Mary Poppins Returns. On the low end we have Airport ‘79, My Best Friend is a Vampire, Mortal Passions, Naked Souls, and (dear god!) Inner Sanctum II.
As much fun as it would be to talk about all of the good stuff and some of the bad stuff, the movie I really want to focus on is the one which served as my introduction to David Warner: The time travel/serial killer thriller/historical fiction/romantic comedy/fish out of water tale (whew!) mash up Time After Time from 1979. I first saw the film in the early days of HBO (when you actually knew that the acronym stood for Home Box Office).
Directed by Nicholas Meyer (who later helmed Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan). Time After Time finds a 19th century pre-author fame H.G. Wells (a wonderfully against type Malcolm McDowell) traveling in the time machine that would later become the basis for his first novel, into 1979 San Francisco to track down his friend John Leslie Stevenson who, as it turns out, just happens to be “Jack the Ripper.”
Wells tracks down Jack with the assistance of a smitten bank employee named Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen, whose remarkably sweet and somewhat daffy performance holds the whole film together) who recently changed out some old English coins for a tall, flaxen-haired and deceptively formidable traveler from London. That man, of course, is Jack, and he is played by David Warner.
In many ways, Time After Time, with its head-spinning mixture of genres, is a real oddity. It is old fashioned in its telling, progressive in its (for the time) social views, and has laughable special effects. It’s also a movie about a time-traveling serial killer who murders prostitutes that somehow scored a PG rating (damned if I’ll ever understand the ratings system). There’s really no reason it should work. How do you make a movie about this subject matter so winningly charming and yet so genuinely threatening? The relationship between McDowell and Steenburgen answers the first part of the question, but the second part of that query is answered by the effortlessly chilling performance of David Warner as the most famous unknown serial killer this side of San Francisco’s own Zodiac killer.
Even when Warner is first fully seen in the film, there seems something a little too cold about him despite his impeccable manners, as he visits Wells 1893 London home for a dinner party. When the coppers suddenly close in to apprehend John/Jack at the Wells house, the Ripper sneaks off into Wells’ basement and takes advantage of the time machine that the soon to be famous author unveiled to his guests after they arrived.
Wells follows Jack into the future and tracks him down fairly quickly. Upon entering Jack’s hotel room, Wells soon discovers that his vision of a more utopian future is quickly put to rest as Jack hands him the remote control to the television and has his former friend flip the channels. To Wells’ shock and dismay, he finds that the world may have changed, but humanity hasn’t. Every station he turns to showcases one sequence of violence after another. Wells then turns to Jack who then explains that here, in this ultra-violent future, he is truly home. Then Warner delivers the money line:
“Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Here, I’m an amateur.”
Warner delivers the line with a psychopathic casualness that positively freezes the spine. He then goes on to explain (with great prescience) the ease in which one can purchase firearms and how killing has become much more efficient. As he already implied, he can barely keep up with the mayhem of modern life, but he is surely going to try.
Having rewatched Time After Time last night, two things struck me: How well it holds up in most aspects, but in particular, how David Warner did so much with so little screen time. Which if you think of it, was the M.O. for his entire career. Warner never scored many leads, and even in larger productions, he was often billed no better than third (as is the case with Time After Time), and more often much further down the list of end-screen credits.
Just like his Jack the Ripper, Warner was a ruthlessly efficient actor on screen. Even when not playing a killer, he absolutely slayed his scenes. The quality of the productions he was involved in may have varied wildly, but David Warner’s work never did. He was always great no matter what he was in. Every time after time.
David Warner died on July 24, 2022. He was 80 years old.