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Introduction
I first encountered The Stunt Man at the age of 12 when I was really beginning to understand some of the processes in making movies and I was keen to track down anything that was considered critically as a left field or, at least, out of the ordinary. A huge fan of Peter O’Toole ever since having seen Lawrence Of Arabia on TV one summer Sunday afternoon (we’ll leave his ill-advised appearance in Supergirl out of this, ok?), I managed to fish a copy of Richard Rush’s Oscar nominated movie out of a bargain bin.

Having seen the film several times in my youth, gradually wearing out the fuzzy tape inside that VHS casing, I can honestly say that I never really grasped a definite handle on why I liked it so much, nor could I, despite an inordinate number of attempts, articulate effectively enough to other people why they really had to watch it. The Stunt Man has always retained an elusive quality and it’s this which drew me back to it after a period of some 8 years since that tape gave up the ghost.

Stunt Man, The
Movie
Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a Vietnam veteran on the run. Eluding the local law enforcement agencies, the fugitive stumbles into a small seaside town where the shooting of a World War I movie is taking place. Following a fracas on the roadside in trying to thumb a lift in an antique automobile, Cameron is almost run down and evades a second hit n’ run attempt only to see the car take a wrong turn off the side of a bridge. The driver fails to emerge from the deep water for air.

Setting off once again, Cameron slips into the town centre, able to move freely among the throng of sightseers who have gathered specifically to watch the filming of a battle scene. Glimpsing an old lady swept into the sea, Cameron rushes to the rescue and discovers he’s just saved the leading lady Nina (Barbara Hershey) trying to test out the suitability of the ageing makeup she’ll be forced to wear during filming. She rapidly introduces him to the movie’s eccentric, bordering on the megalomaniac, English director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) who wishes a word or two with him concerning his involvement in the disappearance of his premier stunt man.

As the local constabulary arrive on the set wishing to complain about a corpse trapped inside a car at the bottom of the river, Cross surprisingly suggests that no such incident took place and persuades the chief of police that Cameron, still soaking wet from his watery heroics, is in fact the decidedly deceased crew member Bert.  Dubbing him ‘Lucky’, Cross invites Cameron to stay with the crew for the final three days of shooting, standing in as a stunt man to complete the remainder of the shoot.

Initially reluctant, Cameron realises that this is a wonderful way to avoid capture and so agrees with Eli’s objective. However, after falling in love with the movie’s leading lady, who has a catalogue of quirky character traits all of her own, and as the demands his director places on him become ever more dangerous, Cameron becomes pestered by a sense of paranoia that Eli may in fact be trying to prop up his troubled production in capturing his death on film…

Picking up from my original point, The Stunt Man preserves all the elements that simultaneously intrigued and infuriated me from day one. Taking Paul Brodeur’s existential novel of the same title about the, at times, arbitrarily subjective or illusory nature of perspective and making a mainstream Hollywood movie out of it is not standard operating procedure. Then again, Richard Rush is not your standard Hollywood director. Wilfully unsettling your audience does not necessarily a good movie make and yet Rush consistently is able to pull it off without being entirely obvious about doing it.

Stunt Man, The
Every scene features the enforced or inclined participation of Cameron. In this way, the audience is forced to experience the shifting sands of experience from his personal, perhaps paranoid, perspective. Nothing is what it seems because ‘truth’ from a single standpoint can never be trusted; never better is this demonstrated when Cameron finally imparts the nature of his crime that prompted his flight into this particular situation.

All of which puts enormous pressure on the actors to deliver. Railsback is unerringly intense (seemingly to subvert the true cause of his crime in the final reel) as the criminal trying to stay alive and stay out of jail. Barbara Hershey is magnetic as the film’s female focus. Both pale in comparison to a masterful turn by Peter O’Toole, eschewing simple scenery chewing for a performance much more akin to genuine madness. Nothing mannered or measured, this is the utilisation of an awesome talent to its full extent. With the exception of Beckett, and I contend it’s a close run thing, O’Toole has never been better, by turns pithy and pitiful, demonstrating what his career may have been had he spent more time in front of a camera than in front of the drinks cabinet.

In a conventional sense of the term, The Stunt Man is not an easy watch and it tends to polarise opinion in those who view it. That’s precisely the point in dramatising the futility in objectifying an entirely subjective experience and in doing so Rush has left a legacy that few Hollywood movies since have dared to attempt to scale.

Video
Anchor Bay have based a large part of their now considerable reputation on the quality of their remastering efforts and this is not a transfer destined to disappoint. Surprisingly sharp for a source approaching its’ 25th birthday, it’s also thankfully free from dust marks and scratches with vivid colours from director of photography Mario Tosi’s palette that are always well delineated without ever being subject to edge enhancement.

Yes, there is a sense of slight grain in certain aerial sequences with the blue of the sky looking a bit scratchy in places and this isn’t helped by Rush’s repeated practice of keeping one element behind another in the same frame and zooming between the two. However, the deep blacks easily compensate this and effective shadow detail as ably demonstrated in those key night time film within a film moments.

Stunt Man, The
Audio
It’s certainly surprising, yet nonetheless less welcome for those so equipped, that a DTS ES track can be found at the head of the audio options. During the frequent quiet periods in the movie I have to profess that the dialogue seemed to be set a little low in the mix and with little other ambient noise, perhaps a thematic device used to highlight how isolated Lucky really is, speech can seem eerily confined to the centre of the soundstage.

That said, whenever there’s an opportunity to illustrate channel separation, the DTS track far transcends the movie’s stereo source as the four corners capture all the hustle and bustle of the movie set crew marvellously well with the aerial sequences involving the World War I aircraft by far the standout sonic sequences on offer.

Accompanying this is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Lacking some of the clarity of its DTS cousin (particularly with regard to the whirring of helicopter rotors) but sharing the unusually subdued nature of the central dialogue delivery, it’s a decent enough presentation and definitely a lot better than any film of this age should expect to sound in a home cinema scenario.

A two channel stereo track completes the trio of available audio alternatives. For viewers without a surround set up, this track actually enhances the diction of the dialogue in splitting speech across both channels and holds up pretty well without being overpowered in the crowded action sequences.

Extras
Kicking off the extras slate is an Audio Commentary featuring director Richard Rush with contributions from O’Toole, Hershey, Railsback and actor/1st assistant director/stunt co-ordinator Chuck Bail. Rather than being recorded in a group the commentary cuts and pastes excerpts from each of the above and edits them together. As is often the case with these kind of exercise, it works better at some points than at others but once you get past Rush’s overly technical input there are some interesting anecdotes about just what went on in the background on set.

Obsequiously labelled as a ‘featurette’ on the packaging, The Sinister Saga Of The Making Of The Stunt Man is anything but. With a duration of 115 minutes, just 10 minutes shy of the feature running time(!), this is a documentary for which the word ‘comprehensive’ is just about adequate. Written, produced, directed and presented by Richard Rush himself, it’s an acerbic, insightful and eventful programmed that covers every aspect of the movie from the outset in 1973 through the eventual production (including a deleted scene and contributions from the three principals) until the Oscar campaign of 1980. Akin to William Goldman’s authoritative book Adventures In The Screen Trade in laying bare the foibles, insecurities and egos that dominate movie making in Hollywood, it’s an invaluable guide to just how complicated getting a movie from funding through to exhibition really can be.

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Of course, with Rush so heavily involved, this is in no way an impartial affair; nicely referencing and echoing the themes of the film it’s describing. Rush’s somewhat self-congratulatory grandstand finish at the conclusion of the programme, in which he provides onscreen excerpts from just about every piece of written praise surrounding the film’s hesitant release, grates somewhat but maybe one can forgive his glee at getting one over the studio executives who tried to bury his film.

Given that Rush personally oversaw this DVD release, it’s puzzling that he doesn’t appear in the section where 2 Deleted Scenes are also included. While it’s easy to see why these extraneous scenes were excised, lacking an optional commentary or at least an introduction from Rush, it’s perplexing to see quite where in the narrative these ‘Sand Pile’ and ‘Police Station’ sequences were originally intended to be placed.

Original Production and Advertising Art is also included which highlights the evolution of the movie’s famous cover design featuring director Eli Cross as a devil behind a camera lens.

Two further Stills Galleries complement the above as ‘Production Stills’ and ‘Behind The Scenes’ options with plenty of shots in front of and behind the camera.

Three Trailers are also available; one as a teaser, one for the U.S./U.K. markets and one for the Spanish market which is wonderfully wacky.

Finally, for those with access to a DVD-Rom, the screenplay, accompanied by notes from the director, is incorporated into the special features.

All of the above can be accessed by a series of menus, some animated with excerpts from the movie, all carrying loops of Dominic Frontiere’s bubbly score.

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Overall
Once again Anchor Bay must be applauded in bringing the best audio and visual presentation to less than mainstream movies. The image is a testament to all the restoration undertaken, unusually afforded even a cult hit such as this, and the inclusion of a DTS track is not really necessary but an illustration of how Anchor Bay are willing to go the extra mile to provide technically the best discs around.

Add to this some thought-provoking, not to mention specially commissioned extra features and it soon becomes clear that come Oscar night 2003 Peter O’Toole would have no better lifetime achievement than this presentation of his work on The Stunt Man.


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