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How tall is King Kong?
A region 2 DVD review of THE STUNT MAN by Camus

"Man's universal panic and paranoia, born out of an inability to control
his own destiny, to even understand the ground rules by which he is
supposed to play. In his fretful search for meaning, he accepts ritual,
invents purpose, creates enemies to test his strength against."

Richard Rush, director, The Stunt Man
Notes on the screenplay in reply to
Columbia's executives' opinions



Well, Rush certainly got to test his strength during the long and painful process of delivering a very special film to any audience at all. The above is taken from Rush's reaction to executives' script notes (you know the score, the ones that generally try to simplify complex ideas so the Peterson family in Idaho stand a chance of understanding and embracing the movie; these are the fictitious Petersons of Idaho you understand and bear in mind that Ike Peterson is only four years old). The Stunt Man resolutely resisted that kind of tampering (dumbing down as it's now alliteratively known) and it is an enormous bow to Rush's tenacity to grasp three things; one, those notes were dated May 1972; two, production – after many green lights changed back to a more reddish hue – wasn't started until 1978 and three, despite extraordinary reviews, the studio still refused to fully release the picture. It could have been the thinking man's blockbuster. Instead, it's the thinking man's could-have-been blockbuster if anyone with the power at the time had taken a teeny weeny chance. Even when Rush showed glowing review after glowing review and evidence of audience testing through the roof, the studio would not budge. Why?

They just couldn't figure out how to market it… Welcome to the 80s.

To me, The Stunt Man will always be the closing parentheses that brought the glorious Hollywood 70s to an end. And in some bravura style. It's as if the 70s had a party, got pissed and ended up at 5am with the screenplay for The Stunt Man. In a rather prescient fashion, the movie ushered in the 'Action 80s' by being regarded as something it wasn't – an action picture. There are explosions, wild stunts and all manner of what could be termed 'action' but the movie cannot be so easily pigeon holed. It is a romance, a road movie, a fugitive on the run picture, a crime thriller, an intellectual treatise on reality and fakery (that one didn't set the marketing division alight, I can assure you) and finally, it's also a damn funny comedy. In short, The Stunt Man is everything the 70s were, a conglomeration of genres, wrapped up in an insane, singular endeavour, a nod to all that was fine in Hollywood at that time. All that was about to die as Arnie, Sly and Bruce all stepped up to the plate. Hasta La Vista... The glories of the 70s gave way to the Austrian Oak (soon, one hopes, to be the ex-terminator Governer of California) who said "I'll be back," which was more than could be said of an era of original and creative Hollywood movies.

I was utterly hooked from The Stunt Man's first moments. On re-viewing, it suddenly hit me hard, so used am I to CG post production tinkering, that what you see on screen was what was carefully put there by Rush and his talented crew on the day. Cars leave shot the instant helicopters enter shot (it's almost eerie as these things were accomplished 'in camera' at the time of filming). Get George 'Green Screen' Lucas to try that. To be fair, if anyone could choreograph helicopters, it would be Lucas' mentor in the early days, a certain Francis Ford Coppola. "Why do you guys all sit on your helmets?" Rush's command of his mise-en-scene (my translation of that rather pretentious but fun phrase is the directorial canvas) is extraordinary and as precise as his screenplay (co-written with Lawrence B. Marcus and adapted from the original novel by Paul Brodeur).

This is how he sets up The Stunt Man.

A buzzard flies off a telegraph pole watched by an old mutt steadfastly licking its balls as a Police car tries to get by. Eventually the dog moves and as the Police car disappears, a helicopter swings into frame. Two linemen up a pole throw masking tape at the buzzard that then takes off and flies straight into the windscreen of the helicopter. Seen from his point of view, the unseen occupant takes a bite of an apple, asks to see the incident from the bird's own point of view and then discards the apple that bounces off roofs and lands on the Police car… There is only one sour note in this whole remarkable opening. It's either the line or the delivery (one of the cops says "Something just hit the roof." The other replies "So will the chief if we don't catch this Cameron guy…"). The second line delivery is almost theatrical calling attention to itself when it needed to be 'thrown away', like the apple, to maintain the effortless continuity of plot set up so far. Either that or it's a really contrived line – not made my mind up on that yet.

The sheer physical audacity of setting up everything in this polished jigsaw of a style was intoxicating to me. Not only that but within the next minute, the main character is revealed staring at the lead actress in a TV commercial – but you don't know that yet. This is thundering narrative with barely a pause for breath. Like all great movies, The Stunt Man rewards you with repeated viewings. The film then settles into a much more familiar but still effortlessly entertaining 'guy on the run' scenario. We do not find out why he is on the run for another two hours (and that revelation is so perfect, given 25 years to come up with a better one, I have failed miserably). In a nutshell, Vietnam vet Cameron, in full beard and 'tache disguise mode, is chased from a diner and while on the run is almost run down by a Dusenberg on a deserted bridge. As he gets up to see what happened after he threw a metal bolt at the windscreen in self protection, he (and we) realise that the car must have gone over and sunk. Screwing up Cameron's perceptions of what just happened even more is Peter O'Toole as Eli Cross, a maverick movie director who stares at Cameron from the helicopter in another of those gorgeous shots that screams of having taken an entire morning to capture on film.

Taking flight, Cameron arrives at a beach (reality verses ersatz nicely planted in frame as an artist tries to depict the ocean as its reality envelops the picture he's painting). The crew is in full epic mode as first world war planes strafe the soldiers on the beach. As the smoke clears, bloodied and mutilated bodies lay gasping their last. The onlookers react in some horror as the soldiers writhe in their own intestines until of course we hear the word 'cut!' This scene is the DNA of The Stunt Man. What is real is always under question, what is fake is always around the corner until Cameron, now in hiding as a stuntman and the inadverdant inspiration to O'Toole's Machiavellian movie director Eli Cross, falls for Nina. Played by the always superb Barbara Hershey (but why oh why the relatively recent Collagen treatment?), Nina is the movie's innocent, the fairy tale princess that Cameron gets to woo. How different (and unfailingly more profound) would her relationship with Cameron have been if one hugely beloved scene had not been cut out (it's in the "Making of" principal extra). It makes Nina a woman, a real flesh and blood human being whose love for Cameron has wrecked a relationship that she feels honour bound to sever with grace. Apparently, the Petersons of Idaho (Ike wasn't home) objected to their leading lady sexually breaking up with another man. Wasn't she supposed to be pure, goddamnit? What is it about the movies in the US that have crippled mass audience expectations so thoroughly that they can only be spoon-fed pre-digested pap? Such a shame.

Each supporting role is a minor joy. Alex Rocco, as the put-upon police chief being unsubtly manipulated, spends the entire movie on frustration factor 9.9. Allen Gorowitz plays the movie within a movie's harassed writer. He shares a close relationship with the crew (I believe this is rare) and is invited to participate even when some raggedy Vietnam vet has become the director's favourite off whom he now bounces ideas. Then there's Chuck Bail as the master stunt man who has to show (and throw) Cameron the literal ropes. Every scene with this genial Texan is a particular delight. He becomes Cameron's yardstick between movie fakery and reality. In stunt work, reality is pretty crucial – just watch the rooftop scene and witness one of the stunt men as a German soldier slipping down a roof in slow motion. You can just about make out when his right ankle really did crack. Ouch.

The Stunt Man plays so deftly with reality/illusion that it's almost inevitable that a sizeable chunk of its audience will throw up their hands and scream 'Enough! Is Eli really out to kill Cameron?' This is answered (as it should be) in the closing moments. We have become so used to the fugitive's name that we are bowled over by the pun as Cameron is strapped into the ill-fated Dusenberg for the final stunt. He is asked if he can see the 'camera on', a phrase underlined by Rocco's 'Camera on?' Cameron takes this as his last chance (even he believes the police chief now knows who he is) and drives off thinking he is leaving the world of illusion behind… Alas, no. The finale is as rug pulling as you might expect and as satisfying as you could hope for.

The Stunt Man was an anomaly in Hollywood – it was a studio picture that challenged and continues to challenge audiences. That's usually left to the independents. As a bizarre but true postscript, while writing the last paragraphs of this review, I had the television on in front of me parked on BBC 1 as the DVD player stood down. I literally thought at that precise moment "I wonder if The Stunt Man has elements in common with Rush's earlier work (his money spinning buddy cop picture Freebie and the Bean made a small fortune and was partly responsible for The Stunt Man getting a green light). The BBC announcer then said "And now James Caan and Alan Arkin as a pair of unconventional cops trying to keep a crime boss alive in time for a trial in the 70's film Freebie and the Bean..." I swear this is true. And there all the elements were:

Alex Rocco as a cop frustrated by all and sundry; Chuck Bail as a Cadillac salesman who's mistaken for an assassin; and most obviously the style of the score. I have left mentioning Dominic Frontiere's contribution to The Stunt Man until last because, like all great scores, his work threaded the needle that stitched this sublime movie together. We have the main carnival theme, Eli's action theme and the love theme. Each is repeated and re-orchestrated throughout the movie and each is note perfect. I cannot praise the aptness of the score too highly.

sound and vision

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic, the picture quality of this Region 2 Anchor Bay effort is not as good as the boasts of a new transfer lead us to believe. The picture has noticeable grain throughout, especially in the lighter areas and the colours feel like they've been ever so slightly desaturated. Yes, a late 70s negative can fade (believe me, I'm cutting early 70s film right now and it looks carbon dated) but take a look at Jaws's re-issue. But then Jaws made a squillion pounds and The Stunt Man, tuppence halfpenny – so there is still room for a very rich fan to smarten the neg up a bit and re-release but fans of this extraordinary work should not hold their breath.

The re-jigged stereo soundtrack bumped up to DTS is sterling, clear and unfussy. It doesn't have stand out sub-woofer moments but it does allow the lower frequencies to accompany the entire soundtrack without any showy moments. The rear speakers faithfully render the front's output (which is standard operating procedure for an older stereo movie).

extra features

Commentary by Director and Actors: Richard Rush, Barbara Hershey, Alex Rocco, Peter O'Toole (interview re-edit methinks), Steve Railsback, Sharon Farrell,  (Cameron's hairdresser in the movie) and Chuck Bail. The commentary is a mixed bag, edited from interviews and real time commentaries, scene specific. It's informative and always compelling but it is a bit of a cut and paste job. It's noteworthy for the huge respect that each of the principal creatives still has (the DVD was mastered in 2002) for a then 22 year old movie.

Deleted Scenes: Police Station is raucous, smart and very much in keeping with the insanity that grips a crew in production (springing out their arrested lead actor with a theatrical performance worthy of Geilgud). Sand Pile underlines the director/writer relationship between O'Toole and Gorowitz. The real deleted scene treat is featured in the primary extra of this DVD… Coming soon to a sentence near you.

Production Stills, Behind-the-Scenes Stills, Production and Advertising Art and Trailers (3): All present and correct (who do you know buys DVDs for their production stills, even as fine and comprehensive as these are)?

Screenplay and Director's Notes (DVD-ROM): I read the first few pages of this utterly fascinating inclusion convinced that this was enough to get the flavour of them and then stunned myself by reaching page 70 with no apparent effort. Let me reiterate. The Stunt Man was made with an achingly dense amount of thought.

And to the doozy of the extras… on its own separate disc…

The Sinister Saga of The Stunt Man
Made in 1999/2000, and just shy of two hours (note to DVD packaging folks, an extra two hours long is not a featurette), this is an extraordinary documentary for a number of reasons both broadly farcical and intimately human.

Richard Rush is a hugely attractive compere, competent pilot and guide to the making of this (his own) movie. His ego is suitably large (all Hollywood directors' egos are ego-tested before they get to call 'Action!' It's known as the 'Ego-Testicle'. Note: No it isn't. I made that up) but – a big, colossal butt – there is a sense that if anyone could crow about Hollywood the way in which Rush does, then it's almost the absolute and correct way a director could gain some sort of ground after his creative efforts were snubbed for so long. It really was the 'too many notes' criticisms of the movie and here is Rush to tell us the whole shebang.

Yes, it's indulgent but tell me how a creative force defends his creative decisions without being indulgent. Rush comes across as a straight shooter (naturally) and is a commanding presence in defence of his own movie. The stuff one learns about movie making is considerable and for this alone, the documentary is worth its weight in bold.

But the style?

Someone just invented Final Cut Pro (version 1.0) and I just bet the whole thing was post produced on a system that promised limitless effects and green screen/morphing animations etc. It is a product of its time as much as a Russ Abbot title sequence could be. It's shameless in its shoddy digital artifacted compositing but (another big butt) the intelligence and intellectual ideas espoused are so powerful and germane that you tend to forget the twee and the crass. This is – without resort to hyperbole – the best underhanded look at the Hollywood creative process I've yet to see. I do have to get past Rush's assertion that when Hollywood execs were greedy he could deal. Now that the ego has landed, his troubles are more difficult to articulate. It's like Oliver Hardy criticizing his bosses for being overweight. But no matter.

This is a cracking look behind the scenes and should be embraced by anyone who gives a defecation about the difference between movies and art...


Great movie, intellectually stimulating (with explosions, go figure) and a nice selection of extras which make this Anchor Bay release pretty definitive. Bra-frickin'-Vo.

The Stunt Man

USA 1980
130 mins
Richard Rush
Peter O'Toole
Steve Railsback
Barbara Hershey
Allen Gorowitz
Alex Rocco
Chuck Bail

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
Cast and director commentary
Deleted scenes
Stills galleries
Screenplay and director's notes
The Sinister Saga of The Stunt Man documentary
release date
Out now
review posted
22 February 2006

See all of Camus's reviews