-- Eli Cross, The Stunt Man
In a motion picture filled to the brim with these sorts of quotes, starring Peter O'Toole as a character who seems incapable of uttering a line that's anything but brilliant, those fifteen words stood out as unforgettable. Apparently I'm not alone, as that frequently referenced line seemed to be featured in a good 70% of the vintage reviews I stumbled upon during the course of my usual background research. If you're hopelessly unfamiliar with The Stunt Man, you're far from alone. This movie is the celluloid equivalent of the Residents, the world's most famous unknown band. As the final credits scrolled vertically across my set as my first viewing of The Stunt Man quickly came to a close, I sat stunned on my couch, frozen like a deer in headlights. I was fully aware that my rather limited talent as a writer couldn't possibly convey the enormity of The Stunt Man, and apparently the heads of a number of major studios were just as stymied. It was a total fluke that The Stunt Man was ever produced, and after director/co-writer Richard Rush toiled for years to bring his vision to fruition, the film was shelved at Fox for a full two years. The sinister saga of the making of The Stunt Man is so lengthy that it even inspired a feature-length documentary included on this limited edition DVD set, appropriately titled The Sinister Saga Of The Making Of 'The Stunt Man'. Despite taking home armfuls of awards and nominations shortly after its release, The Stunt Man has never been given passable treatment in any form, be it theatrically or on home video formats like VHS, Laserdisc, or the long-forgotten CED. Anchor Bay, who has in the past year alone taken higher-profile cult classics like The Wicker Man and Dario Argento's Suspiria and given them treatment wildly exceeding any reasonable expectations, has at long last done the same for The Stunt Man.
Steve Railsback stars as Cameron, a Vietnam veteran relentlessly pursued by the police for an undefined crime of some sort. He flees to a lonesome bridge where a crazed fellow tries to run him down as a helicopter lurches overhead. The driver is...or rather, was...a stunt man, and Cameron was caught in the midst of a scene of a World War I film helmed by famed director Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole). After Cameron crosses paths with production again, rescuing what seems like an elderly woman on the verge of drowning, Eli offers the desperate fugitive the opportunity to replace the stunt man he dispatched. That's not to say that Cameron can kick his feet up on the ottoman and relax. The local authorities are constantly hovering around the set, confident that the crew captured Cameron on film at some point. The film's leading lady, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey) is swooning for him, though may not be as faithful as Cameron naively expects. Most unpleasant is that each of the film's stunts is more dangerous than the one preceding it, and Eli Cross seems hellbent on capturing Cameron's death on film. Cameron is driven the point of total paranoia, unsure if he can trust anyone around him or even if he can rely on his own perceptions.
Some movies -- I hesitate to call them films -- attempt to outwit the audience, usually to poor effect. Red herrings tend to be blatantly obvious, and it doesn't require much thought to predict what beaten path mindless movies like Scream 2 will revisit yet again. The Stunt Man follows a wildly curvy course, the sort of film that slowly dupes the viewer into thinking his prediction is correct, then dunks his head in the toilet and giving him a swirlie. It's difficult to anticipate what will happen with each passing scene in the hyperkinetic, genre-defying The Stunt Man, and the meticulously planned bends in this celluloid puzzle are such that one's impressions can't possibly be fully shaped until at least a second viewing. One of the primary reasons that Rush had such a difficult time pushing The Stunt Man through the studio system is that a standard thirty-second spot can't possibly hope to provide a passable summary. Is it a comedy, a drama, or an action flick? The answer is...yes! Its flawless blend of multiple genres is one of The Stunt Man's innumerable assets. The script is effortlessly witty and clever, managing to be funny, thought-provoking, and deceptive, all the while advancing the plot forward. The cast is phenomenal, from the blinding brilliance of the Oscar-nominated performance from Peter O'Toole to the underappreciated Steve Railsback. Since every scene features Cameron in some capacity, there is no allowance for "meanwhile, back at the ranch" exposition, and Railback's confusion and astoundment mirrors our own. O'Toole is devilishly fun as manipulative puppet master Eli Cross, and the look of impish delight on his face as he soars across the set on a crane rig is priceless. The stunning Barbara Hershey's multidimensional role is equally well-executed, convincingly portraying an actress playing an actress who plays yet another character. Though Richard Rush isn't a director whose name spends a considerable amount of time on the tongues of film buffs, his work here is second-to-none. The innovative rack-focus technique stemmed from The Stunt Man and is just one of the many tools at Rush's disposal to muck with perception of reality. It'd be shameful to not give Dominic Frontiere's wonderful, bouncy score a mention, and it comes as little surprise that he walked away with an armful of awards and nominations afterwards. Several days have passed since I last watched The Stunt Man, and my mind is still racing. I'm simply not talented enough a writer to fully express how breathtakingly original or extraordinarily well-executed this film is.
Video: This DVD release from Anchor Bay marks the first time that The Stunt Man has been presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on home video. Though not obvious from the quality of the first reel, 95% of the anamorphic image looks more than respectable. My initial reaction was that multiple sources seemed to have been used, though the packaging states that the film was transferred from original negative materials. Its highly variable appearance is much along the same lines of other highly sought-after films from Anchor Bay, particularly The Wicker Man. What flaws are presents are easily overlooked. The Stunt Man isn't mired in a swarm of specks, nor are there any visible tears or damage on the source material. The presence of grain varies from 'scarcely noticeable' to 'peering through cheesecloth', though the heaviest grain is, aside from a few scattered seconds, only an issue in the early and final moments of the film. Colors, despite my total lack of a point of reference, seem to be an accurate reproduction of the typically drab late '70s palette. Certain shots appear fairly soft, perhaps an unavoidable side effect of the digital remastering, though never to the point of becoming a blurry, indistinguishable mess. Detail is nothing awe-inspiring, but still more than passable, all things considered. Anchor Bay went to extensive time, effort, and expense to ensure that the visual presentation of The Stunt Man would be of the highest possible quality, and there's little doubt in my mind that this disc is reflective of that, despite its inconsistencies.
Audio: Purists may be mildly disappointed by The Stunt Man's lack of its theatrical mono soundtrack. I'm not in that camp, which I suppose is hypocritical given my rabid devotion to films being presented in their original aspect ratio on DVD. In any event, the audio options available on this disc are DTS ES, Dolby Digital Surround EX, and Dolby Stereo Surround. Though my somewhat limited setup doesn't enable me to make use of the DTS track or the center rear matrix, The Stunt Man sports a typically strong remix from Crest National, lacking the forced use of surrounds that lesser companies seem to prefer. There are few panning effects from the front speakers to the rears, but the surround channels effectively accentuate Dominic Frontiere's Golden Globe-winning score, as well as adding resonance and strength to assorted sound effects. Stereo separation is superb, unlike some remixes that feel like a mono track spread across five channels. The excellent score and various sound effects sound rich and vibrant, not weathered by the past twenty years in the slightest, though the dialogue doesn't fare quite so well. That's not to say that dialogue is battered, drowning in hiss and warbling, but it doesn't falls short of the vibrant, buoyant quality of other audio elements. On the upside, dialogue isn't overwhelmed by other portions of the mix, nor is it difficult to discern after some extremely minor volume tweaking. This remix is a truly impressive effort, joining Jaws in that upper echelon of 5.1 remixes from an original monaural source.
Supplements: The feature-length commentary brings together Richard Rush, Barbara Hershey, Steve Railsback, Charles Bail, Peter O'Toole, Sharon Ferrell, and Alex Rocco, making for one of the largest assemblages of participants in a commentary track that I've had the pleasure to experience. Obviously getting everyone into a single small room would be no small feat, so one batch of participants were recorded together while others were done individually. The editing isn't entirely seamless, and with this many people chatting, it's occasionally a chore to remember who it is that's speaking at any given time. Still, the end result is informative and nearly as entertaining as the feature itself. Literally every aspect of production is covered in some capacity, ranging from thematic discussions to wacky on-set anecdotes. Two deleted scenes are presented in anamorphic widescreen, and despite the age and obscurity of the source material, this footage is in surprisingly decent condition. Other supplements on the first DVD of the limited edition are a gallery of promotional material, a screenplay, and additional production notes on the DVD-ROM portion of the disc.
The Sinister Saga Of The Making Of 'The Stunt Man' has been given an individual release, as well as making up the second disc of this limited edition set. The feature-length documentary, after making the rounds at a number of film festivals, kicks off with testimonials from such famed personalities as François Truffaut, Pauline Kael, and...Regis Philbin? The first ten minutes or so border on unwatchable, as Richard Rush makes extensive use of every cheesy bit of video manipulation available on a seventeen year old Amiga. In the back of my mind, I had this image of Josh from Tapeheads gleefully fiddling with an array of knobs and switches as if this were a 1983 Cyndi Lauper video rather than a documentary that's presumably intended to be taken seriously. I muttered "what the hell...?" every thirty seconds or so for the first fifteen minutes of Sinister Saga. Yup, once for the terrible morph from The Stunt Man poster art to Rush, several times as text bounced around the screen Powerpoint-style, yet again with the generous use of stock Adobe Premiere plugins like the ubiquitous page curl, and twice consecutively when one shot appears in Rush's eye (poorly aliased, of course). By the time that the intercutting of interviews from Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback began cutting off comments mid-sentence, I was sorely tempted to whack the 'STOP' button repeatedly. Aside from one deleted scene, the first seventeen minutes are a total waste. After that point, Rush's eccentricities are actually endearing, and the rampant goofiness on and around his Cessna 414 inspired intentional laughs. Despite having already heard Rush speak at length about production on the commentary, the amount of overlap isn't excessive, and Sinister Saga doesn't place its emphasis on what happened while the cameras were rolling. Although several of the participants in the commentary appear again in this documentary, this is truly Rush's show, and O'Toole, Hershey, and Railsback spend little time on-screen.
Conclusion: The Stunt Man is a strange, wonderful film that bears multiple viewings, and its amazing release from Anchor Bay very much lends itself to a purchase with a phenomenal collection of extras. The documentary is longer than the vast majority of the movies I own on DVD, and the difference between some online retailers for the single disc edition and the two-disc set is a paltry $7. Available from Bestprices.com for under the twenty dollar mark, this excellent movie, a collection of high-quality supplemental material, and an insanely high replay value is well worth the risk of a sight-unseen purchase. Highly recommended.