Cameron (Steve Railsback) is on the run for manslaughter. He blunders onto a film set, causing an accident that results in the death of a stuntman. The film’s autocratic director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) gives him a bargain: he will hide Cameron as long as he pretends to be the deceased stuntman. That way, Cameron can hide for the authorities and Cross gets the money men off his back and can finish his film, a World War II epic. As filmmaking continues, Cameron falls in love with the leading lady, Nina (Barbara Hershey). But how far will Cross go in the pursuit of his art?
The date above is that of copyright, but it’s misleading: The Stunt Man, a dream project for Richard Rush, was filmed in 1978 but didn’t get a cinema release until 1980, to considerable acclaim. It received three Oscar nominations, all deserved, for O’Toole, Rush, and screenwriter Laurence B. Marcus (adapting a novel by Paul Brodeur). Since then it has amassed a considerable cult following. It’s a film that you have to applaud for its sheer ambition even if it doesn’t all come off: Marcus and Rush play sophisticated games with illusion and reality, which are intentionally hard to tell apart. The film climaxes in a very dangerous stunt where both stuntman and director call each other’s bluff. O’Toole gives one of his finest performances as the flamboyant, godlike director, making the most of Marcus’ densely witty dialogue. This performance inevitably overshadows Railsback and Hershey, but both are fine. Rush’s direction is capable of handling large-scale action set pieces and more intimate, comic moments. Other pluses are Mario Tosi’s camerawork and Dominic Frontiere’s score. It’s a film that possibly needs more than one viewing to get the most out of it.
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Rush is a somewhat erratic talent, maker of some rather patchy films (Psych-Out, Hell’s Angels On Wheels, Getting Straight and Freebie And The Bean among them) while spending nine years developing The Stunt Man. He’s only made one film since, the Bruce Willis turkey The Color Of Night. It’s hard to imagine a major studio giving houseroom to such a quirky, personal and hard-to-categorise picture as The Stunt Man nowadays. Rush can’t really be rated as more than an interesting though minor director – but in this film he went for broke, with remarkable results.
Anchor Bay’s two-disc release of The Stunt Man has an anamorphic picture. There are three soundtracks: Dolby digital 5.1 EX, DTS-ES 6.1 and Dolby surround. I’m not convinced of the necessity of remixing soundtracks recorded and mixed with mono in mind into more up-to-date sound formats. I listened to the DD5.1 mix, which beefs up the score and introduces some directional effects. Inevitably, the track has less dynamic range and impact than something recorded on modern equipment and designed for multi-channel reproduction from the outset. You particularly have to wonder at Anchor Bay’s priorities: spending money on inessential remixes while neglecting such basics as subtitles. The hard of hearing and non-English speakers will be at a disadvantage.
Extras on disc one: director’s introduction, commentary by Rush, O’Toole, Railsback, Hershey and fellow cast-members Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell and Chuck Bail, plus trailers, and a stills gallery. The complete screenplay with director notes is accessible via a DVD-ROM drive. Disc two features a 115-minute making-of documentary directed by Rush, The Sinister Saga Of Making.