The film gained a considerable amount of controversy upon its release, being branded "a sick film made by sick people for sick people" by its own distributor, Rank Organisation, and was given an X rating in the United States. The film was also shown under the title Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession before being shelved by the distributor. It went unreleased on home video in the United States until 2005 when the rights were purchased by The Criterion Collection for a DVD release.
In Cold War Vienna, Milena (Russell), a young American woman in her twenties, is rushed to the emergency room after apparently overdosing. With her is Alex Linden (Garfunkel), an American psychiatrist who lives in the city as a teacher. Through myriad fragmented flashbacks, the narrative depicts the story of their romance, which ultimately amounts to an unhealthy obsession on the part of Alex.
Through these developments, Milena is revealed to suffer from depression while still being married to a much older man, Stefan (Elliott), whom she occasionally crosses the border to see during the course of her affair with Alex. Though Linden initially enjoys her free-spirited ways, he grows tired of, and embittered at, her lifestyle, which includes impulsive promiscuity and heavy drinking. Through spying on Milena, Alex becomes emotionally strained, and eventually tries to control her – leading to horrifying results, due in large part to very bad timing.
Throughout, at the hospital where doctors and nurses fight to save Milena's life, an investigator, Netusil (Keitel), comes to realise that there may be more to her case than a simple suicide attempt. He probes, and once the truth lies brutally clear, tries to corner Alex into a confession of the possible crimes involved with Milena's accident.
Finally it is revealed that, because of the rage developed due to the promiscuous behaviour of Milena, Alex raped her when she was unconscious. Later, Stefan arrives and reveals that Milena has survived and is out of danger. Alex returns to America where, some time later, he sees Milena getting out of a taxi. He shouts to her but she ignores him.Art Garfunkel as Alex Linden
Theresa Russell as Milena Flaherty
Harvey Keitel as Inspector Netusil
Denholm Elliott as Stefan Vognic
Daniel Massey as Foppish Man
Dana Gillespie as Amy Miller
William Hootkins as Colonel Taylor
Eugene Lipinski as Hospital Policeman
George Roubicek as Policeman #1
Stefan Gryff as Policeman #2
Sevilla Delofski as Czech Receptionist
Robert Walker as Konrad
Gertan Klauber as Ambulance Man
Ania Marson as Dr. Schneider
Lex van Delden as Young Doctor
The film was one of the series of movies greenlit by Tony Williams at the Rank Organisation, who were increasing their production output. Rank made eight films over two years, being mostly conservative choices such as the remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Bad Timing was the most unusual of the slate of films. While Art Garfunkel was making the film, his girlfriend, Laurie Bird, committed suicide in New York.
Bad Timing was first shown at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 1980, and premiered in London on 10 April 1980.
The film was later shown at the Toronto International Film Festival on 12 September 1980, and was screened in New York City on 22 September, with a theatrical release in the United States on 25 October 1980.
The film received mixed reviews. Some found it brilliant; others, tasteless. At the UK premiere, film critic David Robinson in The Times praised Nicolas Roeg as "a director of panache and individuality, and with an ability to fascinate and compel the attention", and wrote about the unusual editing and the carefully staged scenes: "In other hands all this might only be deception and distraction, but through these fragmented elements Roeg and his ingenious writer Yale Udoff creates a perfectly coherent and intriguing central narrative and relationship." Its UK distributor, Rank, were appalled by what they saw; one executive called it "a sick film made by sick people for sick people". In response, they removed the Rank logo from all UK prints of the film. John Coleman in the New Statesman gave it a very bad review: "[it has] an overall style which plays merry hell with chronology".
On review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a score of 60% from a total of five critical submissions, with an average rating of 6.9 out of 10, indicating a "fresh" score on the site's Tomatometer. The site's audience poll holds a score of 77% from a total of 3,823 ratings at an average of 3.7 out of 5, indicating that general audiences have "liked it".
The film received the Toronto Festival of Festivals's highest honour, the People's Choice Award, in 1980, as well as the London Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.
The film's title was used by musician Jim O'Rourke for his album Bad Timing, the first in a trilogy of albums which O'Rourke named after films Nicolas Roeg had made during the nineteen-eighties – the other two being Eureka (taken from Eureka) and Insignificance (taken from Insignificance). The film was also a partial inspiration for The Glove's 1983 album Blue Sunshine, a side project of The Cure's Robert Smith and Siouxsie & the Banshees' Steve Severin. Also, according to Smith, the song "Piggy in the Mirror" from The Cure's 1984 album The Top was also inspired by the film.
The film received only a limited release in the US, showing for a brief period in theaters. The notoriety and poor box office returns, led to the film not receiving a home video release in the United States. However, the television rights were acquired by the Los Angeles-based pay cable network "Z Channel" and aired in heavy rotation, allowing the film to obtain cult status in the 1980s. Fragments of the film were featured on "Z Channel: Magnificent Obsession" documentary, which for years was the only way for Americans to see the film.
On 20 September 2005 the film was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. This was the first time that the film received official home video release in the United States.