In 1972, college theater student Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve), is celebrating the debut of his new play when a strange elderly woman (Susan French) approaches and places a pocket watch in his hand, saying, “Come back to me.” That night, she dies in her sleep. Eight years later, Richard is a success and living in Chicago. Troubled by writer’s block, he travels to a resort called the Grand Hotel, where he notices a historic photo of an early 20th Century actress. He discovers she is the same woman who gave him the pocket watch.
Visiting her former housekeeper-companion, Laura Roberts (Teresa Wright), he notices a music box that plays a movement of the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, by Rachmaninoff--his favorite piece. He also discovers a book on time travel by his former college professor, Doctor Gerard Finney (George Voskovec). Richard becomes obsessed with the idea of travelling back in time to meet Elise. He seeks out Doctor Finney, who believes it can be done through hypnosis, though at great personal risk. But Richard dresses in an early 20th Century suit and wills himself to 1912 with tape-recorded suggestions. It fails at first, but he finds a guest book from 1912 with his signature in it.
The next time, he succeeds and finds Elise (Jane Seymour) walking by the lake. She says, “Is it you?” Her manager, William Robinson (Christopher Plummer) sends him away, but he convinces her to join him in a stroll. During a boat-ride, he hums Rachmaninoff, though Elise doesn’t recognize the tune because it hasn’t been written yet. She admits that Robinson predicted she would meet a man who would change her life, and she should be afraid. He shows her the pocket watch she will give him in 1972.
He attends her play and she recites an ad-libbed romantic monologue as she makes eye contact with him. During intermission, she poses for a photograph and her smile at seeing him is captured on film. He would see the picture 68 years later. But Robinson wants him to leave her alone, lest she be distracted from her deserved stardom. When Richard says he will stand by her all her life, Robinson has him locked up and tells Elise he has left her. She doesn’t believe it. The next morning, Richard manages to free himself. The acting troupe has left, but she appears and goes to his room, where they make love. But in the pocket of his vest, he finds a 1979 penny, which breaks the spell. She screams as he is pulled away into the future. He is unable to return to 1912, dies in despair, and they unite in the afterlife.
This extraordinarily romantic film, directed by Jeannot Szwarc, was based on the screenplay by Richard Matheson adapting his 1975 novel Bid Time Return. You might remember Richard Matheson from a couple of projects like The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, and The Thing. Also, the screenplays for House of Usher, Master of the World, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and the Pit and the Pendulum, not to mention nearly as many Twilight Zone scripts as Rod Serling. The score, with Rachmaninoff prominent, was by John Barry. You may remember John Barry from the scores of Born Free, The Horse Whisperer, Zulu, The Ipcress File, The Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves, Chaplin, and about half of the James Bond movies. Though the music for Somewhere in Time is often called his best work.
The film did not please critics and did not perform well at the box office. An actors strike prevented it from being publicized, and it came out in competition with The Blues Brothers. But in Hong Kong, it was such a hit that it ran for eighteen months, and it did receive Saturn Awards for costume, music, and fantasy. The Grand Hotel still has Somewhere in Time weekends, including an Edwardian costume-ball. When Christopher Reeve was filming Somewhere in Time, a theater nearby was showing Superman. When the sound went out halfway through the film, he stood up next to Jane Seymour and recited all his lines from memory. Reeves’s agent thought the movie was such a come-down after Superman that he would not let Reeves know he had been offered the job, and the producer secretly sent him a copy of the script.
Extras in the background at the Grand Hotel took poses from impressionist paintings. Jane Seymour and Reeves would sometimes sneak off in his private plane and fly to Toronto or somewhere. John Barry’s sad music was composed shortly after his parents died. The book on which the script was based, Bid Time Return, was declared the best fantasy novel of 1976 at the World Fantasy Awards. Reeves died one year later than Susan French, who played the elderly Elise. The film is thought to have inspired the end of James Cameron’s Titanic. There is no hint as to why the time-travel worked. Richard does it the same way that John Carter went to Barsoom, by wishing very hard. Science-fiction fans may scoff, but romantics don’t care. They have Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, period costumes, John Barry, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.