Our review of The Stunt Man (Blu-ray), published June 6th, 2011, is also available.
If God could do the tricks that we can do, he'd be a happy man
I am not going even try and be objective here. I love this movie. There, I said it. My history with this movie goes back a number of years. I recall reading a review of The Stunt Man; it was probably written by Pauline Kael and found in one of her collections, and based upon her glowing recommendation I made it my mission to hunt down this movie. Upon viewing The Stunt Man, to say that I was blown away is an understatement. I have this intense memory of finding it unlike anything I had ever seen before. I remember how it challenged the way I thought of film and what it could do; what it meant and how it could communicate ideas, thoughts and emotions. I recall thinking that this movie wass the work of mad genius. If a film could live, breath, run around and shout to the heavens…well, The Stunt Man is that beast at the top of the mountain, shouting at the top of its lungs and beating its chest. In many ways, The Stunt Man changed the way I looked at art and its place in my life. All these years later, if anything I feel as strongly about The Stunt Man as I did in my youth, if not more so. I love this movie with all my heart and never miss a chance to try and turn other people onto it. Simply put, if you care about film at all, you have to love The Stunt Man.
Facts of the Case
Cameron (Steve Railsback—Lifeforce, Cockfighter) is a man with lots of baggage…first as a Vietnam veteran, then as a fugitive on the run, and now as a stunt man who is an actor who is in a movie. He has many things to worry about; the local police are constantly on the set thinking he is Lucky, the stunt man he has replaced. Cameron finds himself on the set as Lucky or Burt for one simple reason—Cameron may or may not have killed him by accident. Cameron (AKA Burt AKA Lucky) also has to keep his wits about him as he is learning on the job to become a stunt man while also trying to balance the love he finds in the arms of the film's self-absorbed leading lady, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey—Hoosiers, The Right Stuff). Still, the most pressing concern of all is the appearance that the movie's dictatorial director, Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole—My Favorite Year, Lord Jim) is trying to have him killed, all so he can get his one. Perfect. Shot. Are these fears real or are they part of some paranoid tapestry Cameron has allowed himself to fall into? What is real and what is fantasy? Who can this stranger trust and who must he run away from as he attempts to play the greatest part of his life as The Stunt Man.
So many things run through my mind when I think about The Stunt Man that I sometimes don't know where to begin. Since I have to start somewhere, let me tell you that The Stunt Man was produced in 1979 and released—or as Peter O'Toole notes in the commentary track, escaped—in 1980. As someone who looks to the 1970s as Hollywood's last golden age, I have always considered The Stunt Man as the movie that put a big exclamation mark on the period. For a decade that began with the antiwar antics of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, it only seems fitting that the last great movie from that time frame deals with a post-Vietnam America and the fantasy that is the cinema.
Looking at The Stunt Man for the first time, one is struck by the sheer visual exuberance of the filmmaking. At first blush, there is such kinetic energy to the piece that the more subtle details almost become lost. That is, until further viewing. In a movie that demands multiple viewings, these "lost" details appear with an almost coy sense of surprise, easily falling away like the layers of an onion. Indeed, watching this movie a second or even a third time is almost like watching it for the first time. This is a film that knows when to move and when to linger; when to zig and when to zag. There is a forward momentum to every frame and a sense of sheer audacity to every sequence. The Stunt Man is one of the most assured pieces of filmmaking that I have ever seen. Every frame has something important going on, but it is never a movie that goes over-the-top or out of control. There are few films that I can point to and not want to change a thing; The Stunt Man is one of those rare movies.
Next up on the list is the crisp and knowing humor of the writing. To find a film that possesses such wit, complexity, spice, and simplicity, all rolled into one delicious package, is enough to boggle the mind, especially when looking around at the detritus coming out of Hollywood today. The screenplay plays with many of the "Hollywood" formulas that we all know so well, yet it gives these tried and true setups a wicked twist that almost always holds something back from the audience, always leaving the viewer with a piece or two missing from the puzzle. It is not afraid to attack the notion of perception and reality in ways that always remains lively and entertaining. In fact, it is this subject that so fascinates director/co-writer Rush. This notion of "what is real and what is fantasy" is what this movie is all about. These questions make the journey all the more interesting, and trying to find the answers from the clues littered along the way is a big part of the fun. Yes, The Stunt Man is an action film. Yet, it is an action movie of the most subversive kind. It's an action movie that requires its audience's attention and hopefully causes everyone to think about their own surroundings. Tying into the screenplay, one of the best features of this set is the DVD-ROM option that lets you go back and read the text. I can live without the director's notes, but the words on paper carry as much weight as they do onscreen, and there is pleasure to be had from just speaking out loud some of the film's best dialogue.
Finally, there is the acting. Steve Railsback has never been better as the stranger in a strange land, and he gives the kind of performance that makes one wonder what happened to him after this movie. Sure, he starred in Lifeforce (okay, that is a backhanded slam) and there were a couple of "X-Files" episodes, but nothing since has shown his talent the way The Stunt Man did. Since the film is told from a perspective of subjective reality and he is pretty much in every scene, the success of the movie rests very much on his shoulders. It is a task he is more than up to. His performance walks the razor's edge, keeping everything off balance and allows the movie's numerous ambiguities to unfold at a break neck pace. As Nina Franklin, Barbara Hershey has never looked more beautiful than here. As an actress she walks a fine line between image and actor. Like the rest of the film, she brings up more questions than she provides answers. What is her relationship with director, leading man, and stunt man? Are the things she tells Cameron true? Can she be trusted? Judging from the supplemental material on these discs, Hershey is a thoughtful, intelligent woman who is very much the polar opposite of the vacuous and vapid actress she portrays here, and it's a testament to her performance that I bought her every second of onscreen. Support is turned in by an array of well recognized character actors from the period including Moe Green himself, Alex Rocco (The Godfather, A Bug's Life); Allen Garfield (Teachers, Dick Tracy); and as the stunt coordinator of the movie-within-the movie, real life stunt man, Chuck Bail, who gives one of the warmest performances in the film. This leaves one name to discuss: Peter O'Toole. Lawrence Of Arabia. The Ruling Class. Becket. I could go on, but it really is quite simple. In The Stunt Man, one of the greatest actors the screen has ever known gives one of his greatest performances. As Eli Cross, a pseudonym director Rush admits he used in his days of porn direction, O'Toole plays God. Like God, Cross is everywhere as he rides "Eli's Killer Crane" all over the set keeping a watchful eye on all his players. Also like God, Cross is merciful and kind when need be, but vengeful when circumstances require his wrath. O'Toole is clearly in his element with this film and his performance is one laced with gusto and bluster, but also need and longing. As the crown prince of the film-within-a-film, O'Toole has most of the good lines and not a chance for effect is lost. Railsback may be the heart and soul of The Stunt Man, but O'Toole pulls all the strings. It was 1980 and one of the three Oscar nominations The Stunt Man received was O'Toole for Best Actor. He lost to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. I suppose an argument could be made for both actors winning, but I do think O'Toole gave the more complete performance. Last time I checked, the man has received seven Academy Award nominations and has no Oscar to show for it. In the world of film, that is simply criminal.
I could go on about this movie all day, but at the risk of gushing so much I break a limb I'll start talking about this two-disc Limited Edition set from Anchor Bay.
For the first time on home video, The Stunt Man is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic display. The disc is also THX certified, though I really don't know what that means anymore. In the plus column, the image is solid throughout with little in the way of edge enhancement. Pixel distortion and shimmer is also held to a minimum. On the minus side, colors are a bloody mess. The overall image, especially in the first half of the film, is drab, dull, and washed out. Things do improve somewhat as the film moves forward, but hardly enough to bear a THX certification. I suppose one could chalk it up to its low budget origins and limited availability for source elements, but as it stands, the image for The Stunt Man is a bit of a disappointment.
There are several sound options available including a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix, a DTS 6.0 ES track, and a good old fashioned 2.0 Dolby Surround choice. Frankly, I think the 2.0 Surround option is your best bet. The DTS is vibrant but at the expense of dialogue out of the center, the 5.1 Dolby Digital fares a little better but still muddles conversation, while I found the 2.0 provides the best mix of the three. With the 2.0, dialogue was clear, Dominic Frontiere's brilliant score is allowed to open up and breathe, and sound effects do not overpower everything else.
To paraphrase a bit, in the commentary Richard Rush comments how he only makes a movie every 10 years or so and has decided to keep working on this one. Well, at least he has a great movie to keep working on with The Stunt Man. I mean, does anybody really want to see The Color of Night in a special limited edition? [Editor's Note: I know that was a rhetorical question, but I feel the need to offer an emphatic "Hell no!"] That question leads us to the goodies.
Disc One has a couple of deleted scenes that are in decent shape as well as original production and advertising artwork and a still gallery. In addition, there is the aforementioned DVD-ROM feature with the screenplay. The crown jewel of the extras though is a fairly freewheeling and informative commentary track featuring Rush, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell, Chuck Bail, and Peter O'Toole. It sounds like Rush recorded separate sessions with the various co-stars in different groupings and O'Toole separate with everything being edited together. While it does not have the cohesion of a Criterion style yack track, it is pretty lively, has few gaps, contains quite a few smiles, and more than enough information.
Disc Two contains the feature-length documentary "The Sinister Saga of Making "The Stunt Man." This documentary is also available on its own as a stand alone disc from Anchor Bay, although I can't imagine anyone who does not know the film proper wanting to buy it on its own. The documentary is directed, written, and narrated by Orson Welles. Just kidding. Actually, Richard Rush did the honors, although watching this feature one does get an idea about where Rush's ego is. At a running length of 114 minutes, this is a intensive look at all things Stunt Man. To be honest, things do not start off well. The word "pretentious" popped into my mind about a dozen times in the first few minutes. "Overbearing" was another that kept jumping to the front. "Self-aggrandizing" got a nod once or twice. Then something strange happened about 10 minutes into its running time: Rush stopped showing off and things got interesting. One of the highlights, and something I found very interesting, is the story Rush tells about the time when the film is finished and he is trying to find a distributor for the movie. It was the beginning of the '80s and Hollywood had begun to change. In years past, greed was what you had to factor in, but now greed was a secondary concern. What had become important then was ego. Who wanted a great film when no one at the studios could take credit? It is a disturbing insider view of what the Hollywood system was becoming and what is certainly in full force today. So, on its own and once its gets down to production and release of The Stunt Man, this feature is worth its weight in gold. It, as is the rest of the package, is deserving of both your time and your money.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unless I'm giving off some strange subtext that I am completely unaware of, the causal reader has probably figured out that I don't have a lot of problems with this movie or the special content provided for it. Outside of the issues mentioned above in regard to the audio and the video, everything is pretty much goodness and light in my world as it relates to The Stunt Man. In fact, the only issue I have with the release is the way Anchor Bay has indeed released this movie. There are not one, not two, but three editions of The Stunt Man on the market now. One is the movie-only edition, next up is the documentary-only disc, and finally there is the limited edition double disc on trial here. While not as confusing as Universal and its six different versions of Jurassic Park several months ago, the question has to be asked: Why? I am a big believer in taking your best effort and going with that, but multiple editions only confuse and irritate the average consumer, and to my mind dilute the effectiveness of that company's marketing. I found my copy of The Stunt Man in its limited edition form for under 20 bucks at my local Best Buy. For my dollar, it's a lot of bang for the buck. It's simple and it has everything I need. That is my 2 cents on the issue. Your mileage may vary.
It is one of the great cinematic crimes of all time that this movie never got the mass adoration I think it so clearly deserves. In the past 21 years, The Stunt Man has become a well considered cult film. From my perspective, it is one of the best American films of the past 30 years. Maybe my crack about Orson Welles earlier was not so out of place. With The Stunt Man, director Richard Rush has his masterpiece. It may be an underseen and misunderstood masterpiece, yet here it stands, after all these years, still screaming at the heavens.
I can't thank my favorite of all DVD companies enough. Anchor Bay has shown a strong and proven commitment to these little seen gems and minor classics over the years. They lavish respect and care on these films where many other studios would just throw out a bare bones insult and be done with it. It is also nice to see that when given a chance with a truly great film, they take their best shot to knock one out of the park. Is the DVD version of The Stunt Man perfect? Due to the faults in the video and to a lesser degree with the audio, no, it isn't. Should this hold anyone back from picking this disc up? No way. I can't recommend this film highly enough. Take the time and give The Stunt Man his time in the sun. I think you will be glad you did.
Not guilty! While I may have a qualm or two with both video and audio these are not enough to detract from a truly brilliant film presented with enough extras to make repeat viewing more than worthwhile. Thank you Anchor Bay, and thank you Richard Rush.
Case dismissed. Now I need to go ask the bird his version.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Director Richard Rush, Actors Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell and Chuck Bail
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