The Stunt Man: Limited Edition on DVD
When The Stunt Man was released in 1980, it had been sitting on the shelf for more than a year. Hollywood couldn't decide what to do with it. More important, they probably couldn't figure out how to promote it. Not exactly a comedy or a drama or an action film, it was one of a kind—an unpredictable ride from beginning to end. In this movie about making movies, director Richard Rush invokes a key element of the best films: Nothing is quite what it seems. As Shrek might say, The Stunt Man is like an onion: It has layers.
The story begins conventionally enough. When a fugitive from the law inadvertently stumbles onto a movie location, his world is turned upside down. While he's quite possibly the cause of a fatal on-set accident, he's nonetheless recruited by the director to fill in for the unfortunate victim, a stunt man named Bert. The fugitive then becomes Bert for the remainder of the shoot. No one (not even the audience) knows if the new "Bert" is wanted for serial murder or petty theft, but the director doesn't care; "Bert" provides the movie crew with a convenient cover for the real accident, buying time with the local authorities, who are only too eager to close the location down.
From here the story takes off in directions I will not divulge. But The Stunt Man is brilliant—solidly written, full of surprises, and performed to near perfection. Peter O'Toole, who plays the Svengali-like director Eli Cross, received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for one of the meatiest roles of his career. He didn't win (some guy named DeNiro did, for his role in a little flick called Raging Bull), but that takes nothing away from his efforts. As the title character, Steve Railsback also hit a career high. And Barbara Hershey is . . . well, I fell in love with Hershey when I first saw The Stunt Man in its original theatrical release, so I decline comment as a prejudiced party.
This two-disc Limited Edition also includes an extended documentary—The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man. Running almost as long as the film at 114 minutes, it is an exhaustive (some might say exhausting) look at the inside story of the problems director Rush (who narrates) had in getting The Stunt Man produced, shot, and released. It's a bit too clever with show-off trick shots and is more than a little self-congratulatory, but those are failures easily forgiven; Rush's pride in his movie is justified.
Those who don't feel the need for quite this much detail can content themselves with the standard release ($19.98), which includes an excellent audio commentary (by Rush, O'Toole, Railsback, Hershey, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell, and Chuck Bail), trailers, two deleted scenes, production and advertising art, and DVD-ROM features that include the complete screenplay. These extras are also included in the Limited Edition.
A brief comment on the film's R rating: take it seriously. It's for language, sexuality (including some partial nudity), and a short but graphic scene of extreme film violence.
My old pan&scan laserdisc of The Stunt Man, dating from the early '80s, was an audio-video disaster. In stark contrast, the anamorphic transfer on this DVD is as good as this film has ever looked on home video. The color is natural, the image is reasonably (though not to-die-for) sharp and detailed, and edge enhancement is not an issue. But it's not without obvious flaws. Some of the opening title scenes look alarmingly hazy and grainy, and a number of other early shots show mosquito noise and other digital artifacts in scenes with large blocks of solid color, particularly the sky. But after the first 15 minutes, most of these flaws dipped below my distraction threshold—or perhaps I was simply enjoying the movie too much to notice.
The sound on the theatrical release of The Stunt Man was in glorious mono, but for this release, Anchor Bay has remixed the film not only in surround sound but in Dolby Digital Surround EX and DTS-ES, no less. But don't get too worked up—while I had to forego full 6.1- or 7.1-channel playback, on my 5.1-channel system the mix had notable lacks of deep bass, high treble, dynamic range, directional specificity, and surround activity. And composer Dominic Frontiere's superb, Golden Globe–winning score was not particularly well-recorded in the first place. But the soundtrack was at least listenable, rarely distracting in a negative way, and the dialogue sounded mostly clear and natural—in short, typical 1970s sound with a thin coat of new paint.
Don't pop The Stunt Man in your DVD player expecting great audio and video. But if you're in the mood for a great movie, none of that will matter. You won't be disappointed.