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The Stunt Man


Lights, camera, paranoia!

Rod Lott June 6th, 2011

One of the most lauded films of the 1970s didn't actually come out until 1980.

thestuntman

That's because Hollywood didn't know what to do with "The Stunt Man," a visionary work that jumps genres as often as it does planes of reality. It did no business, but remains a cult classic with the added bonus of near-universal critical acclaim.

A disillusioned Vietnam veteran-cum-fugitive, Cameron (Steve Railsback), flees from Johnny Law and right onto the film set of a combat picture being directed by the megalomaniacal Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole). The filmmaker agrees to let Cameron hide out during their three days on location, so long as he'll perform stunts like the one he ruined.

One hair-dye disguise later, Cameron is learning the literal ropes, jumping across rooftops to dancing atop the wings of a biplane. As he falls for the leading lady, Nina (Barbara Hershey), his paranoia grows amid the sets — where reality and fantasy switch on and off with shouts of "Action!" and "Cut!" — to the point where he believes Eli is plotting to kill him with the final stunt, in which Cameron is to drive a car off a bridge.

First-time viewers likely will be as taken aback as the protagonist, as "The Stunt Man" is not cast from the cut-and-dry mold. It follows no traditional story structure. It's subversive, audacious and unpredictable. It's definitely about something, although we may be unsure what that something is at first. Its tone is such that many viewers may not realize it's largely a thumbed-nose comedy with its middle finger extended at itself.

With his satiric stamp pressed into every frame, Richard Rush's work is one of those rare pictures that needs to be seen twice — not because it doesn't make sense the first time around, but because the viewing experience is a completely different one the second. At first, I wasn't even sure whether I liked it; I had to let it sink in for several days before making my decision that I did. It's so ballsy for its time, I'm quite surprised AMPAS rewarded it with three Oscar nominations. Ever the outsider, however, it went home with none. It's more maverick than masterpiece.

O'Toole clearly relishes his role, but his screen time does not amount to much. The movie belongs to Railsback, who's often disturbing in his part, carrying over some of that bottled-and-then-shaken intensity from portraying Charles Manson in "Helter Skelter." He gets a great confession/freakout scene, but more memorable is a cut that jumps from Railsback about to sail through the air at a stunt's end to his O face as he enjoys a Hershey in bed; it's right up there with Stanley Kubrick's bone-to-spaceship free-fall edit in "2001: A Space Odyssey," perhaps cinema's most famous transition in history.

Severin's labeling of the package as the "Ultimate Edition" is not empty hype; the disc could not be more complete, shy of a home visit from Hershey. Rush and company headline a full audio commentary, but allow me to instead direct you to Rush's feature-length documentary, "The Sinister Saga of Making of 'The Stunt Man,'" for a revealing look that will deepen your appreciation and understanding of the picture.

A homemade effort shot on video, "Sinister Saga" is hosted by Rush himself, acting as some sort of Hollywood magician as he tells his story — one almost as long as the film he discusses! Full of self-deprecating, no-bullshit charm, he details its decade-long development, dishes on various elements, shares bits from the cutting-room floor and really digs into its teasing themes. Although he way overdoses on the chromakey effects, it's something I'd love to see him do for his overdue "Stunt Man" follow-up, 1994's notorious "Color of Night," reportedly a tortured experience. (How torturous? Rush has yet to make another feature.)

He touches on "Color" only briefly in a 34-minute interview that covers his entire career, including churning out exploitation fare for AIP and fighting with the Legion of Decency Seal, to making a minor 007 spoof called "A Man Called Dagger" moving his camera into capturing the counterculture. Oh, and having one heart attack.

Other features vary from roughly 15 to 20 minutes in length, like an interview with a wasted-away O'Toole; another with a still-beautiful Hershey; a sit-down between pals Railsback and Alex Rocco; and Rush, Railsback and Hershey at a Q-and-A screening at the New Beverly. Even those who will find the insidery "Stunt Man" less than enthralling have to admit Severin has gone the extra mile in putting together this package. —Rod Lott


 
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