Ever since the silents, Hollywood has been in love with itself. From Charlie Chaplin to Billy Wilder to Robert Altman, the movies occasionally, but not irregularly, pointed its cameras inward for that "insider’s glimpse" of the cogs and gears meshing within the dream factory. Beware the magician willing to reveal his secrets; the result is an illusion twice removed. With few exceptions, movies about Hollywood stretched from showy glamour pieces ("Hollywood Canteen") to acidic diatribes ("S.O.B.," "Sunset Hollywood," the best and still champ in my opinion) to musical/comedy romps ("Singin’ In the Rain," "The Errand Boy"). Few delved into the single defining irony of show business: reconciling the reality of artifice.
For the few who saw it in a theater, Richard Rush’s 1980 film "The Stunt Man" wowed with a fresh perspective on the battle between appearance and actuality on a movie set. Over the years, the film has gained notoriety and a generation later, many of the film’s fans now work in the industry themselves. (At a recent signing to celebrate the DVD’s release, directors Jan De Bont and John Singleton were seen standing in line to get Richard Rush’s autograph on their copy, while co-star Alex Rocco dropped by just to say hello.) Leave it to Anchor Bay to bring back another cult film from obscurity. "The Stunt Man" has just been released on DVD in two flavors: a standard single disc "Special Edition" and an authorative two-disc "Limited Edition" set. Two decades later, "The Stunt Man" still packs a mean punch.
In the film, Steve Railsback (probably best remembered as Charles Manson in the 70’s TV movie "Helter Skelter") plays Cameron, a Vietnam vet on the run from the law. While crossing a bridge high above a river, he is almost run down by the seemingly crazy driver of a classic Duesenberg. The car crashes over the side and…disappears as if it never was there! Cameron discovers he has stumbled on a movie location set and his interference resulted in the death of the stunt man behind the wheel during a pivotal shot. Maniacal director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole, in an Oscar-nominated performance) convinces Cameron to take over the identity of the deceased, so that Cameron can evade capture and Eli can finish his film. Cameron slowly begins to realize that the blurring between reality and illusion isn’t always confined to the happenings on screen and suspects Cross’ intentions in taking him in. Complications arise when he falls for leading lady Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), who toys with his heart as surehandedly as Eli messes with his mind. Soon, Cameron is convinced that Eli’s liking for Cameron has a far more sinister motive: capturing an actual death on film – his death.
Adapted from a novel by Paul Brodeur, Rush (with co-screenwriter Lawrence Marcus) always keeps the viewer guessing with what is real and what is effect. The centerpiece of Rush’s trickery is O’Toole himself. Like a deus ex machina (Rush himself refers to this allusion in the documentary), Cross descends from the heavens in a camera-fitted helicopter, making for one grand entrance. Cross needles Cameron about how he will transform him from fugitive to stunt man. Frequently, Cross uses a metaphor about King Kong ("How tall was King Kong? Three foot six.") as a Greek chorus, both to persuade Cameron of his control and convince us of his unrelenting egotism. Lest we get too comfy with Eli’s overconfidence, we learn that he nearly killed a cameraman who missed a crucial shot. Perhaps the most telling moment of how Cross manipulates for the sake of his art comes when he instructs Nina, just before a scene where her character emotes shame, by telling her about how her visiting parents "accidentally" witnessed some of the rushes where she’s nude.
The film has endured over the years and for good reason. It’s one of those movies that revels in playing the audience like a piano, as Hitchcock once remarked. In many ways, the film also foresaw our culture’s current insatiable hunger for privileged access to Hollywood and its participants. (Coincidence or not, the entertainment news program "Entertainment Tonight" premiered the year following "Stunt Man’s" release.) The question that some people might ask now when watching those "inside peeks" programs (like the shamelessly promotional HBO’s "First Look" shows) is the same query that Rush posed twenty years ago with "The Stunt Man:" are we seeing what we want to see or what they (i.e. director, actor, take your pick) want us to see?
Typical of Anchor Bay Entertainment, the video quality is excellent… under the circumstances. The THX-certified transfer presents the film in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The source print looks very clean with few blemishes. Colors are solid, but rarely vibrant. Mario Tosi’s cinematography definitely has that rough, non-glitzy 1970’s feel to it. Fleshtones, on the other hand, appear very strong and natural. The image exhibits some edge enhancement, but otherwise the picture is always crisp and clear. I noticed some digital artifacts in some scenes with diffusion, but for a film that did not undergo restoration and probably lay forgotten in a salt mine for the last twenty years, Anchor Bay Entertainment and Rush have done a terrific job of preserving the film for a new generation.
Originally released in mono, the DVD sports three remixes of the soundtrack: Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES and matrixed Dolby Surround. Both the Dolby Digital and DTS discrete tracks offer a wide front soundstage to showcase Dominic Frontiere’s quasi 1930s (yet still very 1970s) score. The surrounds don’t consistently chime in, but the occasional car drive-by, helicopter hover and plane fly-by make for an increased three-dimensional feel to the sound. The dialogue, however, sounds relatively flat compared to the sound effects and music. A few times, I had to adjust my center channel levels to get the dialogue somewhat balanced with the rest of the soundtrack. For those interested in reading these distinctions, I give the DTS track a very slight edge over the Dolby Digital discrete track. The fatter bandwidth of the DTS track (754 kps compared to DD’s 448 kbs) does allow for better resolution of low-level ambience and occasionally richer music playback, but not to the point that the Dolby Digital discrete sounded thin by comparison.
The special edition starts with the menus. An animated clapboard enters the frame when accessing the different sections. Once underway, the next stop on the special features express is the commentary track by Richard Rush and several of the film’s principals including Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Peter O"Toole and Alex Rocco. Rush goes over scenes in detail, explicating the symbolism (he even invokes the late film critic Pauline Kael when talking about the raven in the opening shot) or addressing criticism on how he manipulated certain scenes (the beach battle apparently displeased a few critics). The stars ring in intermittently with observations about the filming or how they approached their role. (Rush and Chuck Bail heckle Railsback slightly during the love scene.) No one will walk away from the commentary with a renewed outlook on life or even the movie, but listening what filmmakers and stars have to say about their actions from two decades ago is, to me, always more interesting in having some pontificate six months after the premiere.
Two deleted scenes and three theatrical trailers are included, all in anamorphic widescreen. The first, "Sand Pile," shows Cross in a mound of sand trying to work out a problem. With his childish interaction with Allen Goorwitz’s beleaguered screenwriter becomes an apt metaphor for Cross’ petulance and frankly I’m surprised it didn’t make the final cut. The other, entitled "Police Station," has Cross and his cohorts at the local precinct creating all manners of mayhem to evade suspicion about the accident from the local sheriff (Alex Rocco). Frenetic and chaotic, this scene deserved its spot on the cutting room floor. The trailers (a teaser, theatrical and theatrical with Spanish narration) emphasize the action elements and cash in a little on O’Toole’s presence, but in many ways show how difficult it was to sell the film.
The galleries consist of photos from the film, publicity shots and behind the scenes glimpses of Rush and the stars on the set. The production and advertising art runs from quick production sketches about stunt planning to embryonic and final designs for the posters and marketing materials. (The devil running camera still ranks as one of my favorite film logos.)
The second disc houses a feature-length documentary about the film. Written, produced, directed and narrated by Richard Rush, "The Sinister Saga of Making ‘The Stunt Man’" reads like the ultimate post-modern in-joke – a behind the scenes look at a movie about looking behind the scenes, both directed by the same man. Unfortunately, the documentary has a self-conscious attitude which, like the film, distracts and mesmerizes. Obviously, Rush is going for a logical extension of the film’s themes, but at a certain point the facts should be more interesting than the vehicle delivering it. Just having O’Toole, Railsback and Hershey give new interviews is magic enough; the extra layer of unreality (i.e. having Rush talk into the camera or the constant manipulation of the point of view) is unnecessary.
Made with care and a lot of love, Anchor Bay deserves praise for re-introducing "The Stunt Man" to a new generation of film lovers weaned on computer fakery. Highly recommended…as a movie and a DVD tribute to it.