Blu-Ray Review: ‘The Stunt Man’

Richard Rush's classic expose of illusion and paranoia on a blockbuster film set finally comes to high-def.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

“I hereby order that no camera shall jam, and no cloud pass before the sun!”

                                                            – Peter O’Toole as Eli Cross in The Stunt Man


There’s a rule you learn in the movie industry: nobody wants to see a movie about the movie industry. The popular belief is that people who go to movies don’t want the illusion shattered. Well, The Stunt Man is all about the movie industry, and it’s all about shattering illusions. And building them up, for that matter. Richard Rush’s exceptional 1980 drama/comedy/thing takes the very concept that ruins most Hollywood insider flicks and spins it into gold. Every shot is a reveal, every character an unsolvable mystery. The result may be the best movie about movies ever made, and it finally came to Blu-Ray this week courtesy of Severin Films.

Steve Railsback stars as Cameron, a man running from the police when a car mysteriously tries to run him over… before flying off of a bridge. Then a helicopter drops down and Eli Cross (O’Toole) looks Cameron a look of utter curiosity. Cameron just ruined a stunt for Cross’s new anti-war picture. The police are sniffing around trying to blame the movie production for the tragic accident, so Cross does what he must to save his picture. He makes Cameron his new stunt man, claims that he's the old stunt man, and Railsback's down-to-earth outlaw soon barrels into a new world where reality warps on and off the screen, forcing our ersatz hero to question everything he’s ever conceived. He falls in love with a movie star (Hershey) but is completely unprepared to discover that she actually existed off-screen before he met her, and has made choices he hypocritically disapproves of. Meanwhile, Cross uses Cameron’s genuine nature – a rarity on any set – to make his war movie relevant in the post-Vietnam era. Cross will do anything to make his film, manipulating and cajoling his crew all the way, but Cameron begins to suspect that his director is capable and even eager to kill a stunt man, specifically Cameron, in order to get the perfect shot.

Cameron’s paranoia about his lover’s fidelity and his director’s intentions mirror our own daily foibles, in which we fret over whether the facades we build up around other people are structurally sound. We impose labels and subjective moralities on everyone we meet, and dare to express disappointment when they don’t live up to those standards. Director Richard Rush (Freebie and the Bean) forces these reversals on our hero with every passing moment, creating a degree of inner turbulence that threatens to drive him insane. But everyone in The Stunt Man is perfectly genuine, if hidden behind others' perceptions, from Railsback’s hapless hero to Hershey’s conflicted heroine, and Peter O’Toole (in an Oscar-nominated performance) dips in and out of the narrative on his magical crane, directing his crew the way he directs his movie: with love, scorn and a twisted sense of humor. O’Toole is the quintessential movie director, endlessly charismatic and inherently untrustworthy. It may be his best performance, which of course is saying an awful lot.

It’s difficult to talk about The Stunt Man at length without giving away its secrets, but Rush himself has no problem with that in his feature-length documentary The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man, an in-depth look at the film’s production and themes that’s as energetic as it is self-congratulatory. Looking at this release’s marquee special feature blurs the line between Rush and Cross himself, as the man’s ego informs his talent and vice versa. The Sinister Saga is but one of a bevy of special features on Severin’s set, most of them imported faithfully from Anchor Bay’s old, and still very fine two disc DVD release. Deleted scenes and interviews with the actors and director all make an appearance, along with a new Q & A from a relatively recent screening of the film at Los Angeles’s New Beverly Theater, and are a very impressive collection of relevant material indeed (something of a rarity on special editions these days). Weirdly, despite all these bonus features the film comes without any subtitle offerings, which I wasn’t aware was considered optional these days.

For an older film The Stunt Man looks damned fine in high definition. Grain and processed shots keep the movie from looking like it was shot yesterday, but a close eye for Rush’s original intentions and a lush production preserved in what must have been a very fine negative make the film look at least as good as it must have in the theaters. Audio options are available in the original 2.0 stereo track and a fresh 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround option, which opens the film up a bit but isn’t a revelation unto itself.

The Stunt Man never quite gets the acclaim it deserves, despite a slew of Oscar nominations and fond words from everybody who’s seen it. It was barely released in 1980, and its availability on home video has never been what you’d call high profile. It is, however, absolutely recommended for anybody with a deep love of film, or simply of life’s little idiosyncrasies.


Crave Online Rating (Film): 9.5/10

Crave Online Rating (Blu-Ray): 9/10