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DVD\Blu-ray of the week: 'The Stunt Man'

In the performance that won him the Best Actor Award from the National Society of Film Critics, Peter O'Toole, the movie director-hero of "The Stunt Man" (1980), describes paranoia as a "social disease," like syphilis. The perception is more timely (and timeless) than ever. It applies to movie sets, newsrooms, politics -- and to the daily comings-and-goings of our increasingly non-private life.

As an NSFC member, I voted for O'Toole three decades ago because he brilliantly embodied robust street wisdom and off-the-cuff elegance in the face of grubbiness and triviality.

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I love this performance -- and I love this movie, too.

The observation that paranoia is a "social disease" really belongs to Richard Rush, the producer-director-cowriter of "The Stunt Man."

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He spent a decade developing the techniques and finding the money he needed to turn Paul Brodeur's novel "The Stunt Man" into a unique entertainment - a super-charged, philosophic adventure-comedy.

In 1978, he finally persuaded Mel Simon Productions to finance the script. Once he made the film, however, he couldn't persuade the corporation that audiences would pay to see it. At that point, Rush, who had been healthy all of his 48 years, suffered a heart attack. ("It was a classic case," he told an interviewer. "I lost that round.")

Today's DVD\Blu-ray release of 'The Stunt Man' doubles your excitement with Rush's own account of this backlot saga, "The Sinister Saga of Making 'The Stunt Man.'"

If anyone wants to learn about the battles between creativity and corporate wisdom in movie-land, start here -- you don't even need to see "The Stunt Man" to appreciate "The Sinister Saga of Making 'The Stunt Man.'"In this one-of-a-kind "making of" doc, Rush details the creative challenges of grounding an illusion-vs.-reality fable and keeping it up-to-date as America changed in the years after Vietnam.

He also comes clean on the frustrating task of persuading businessmen that a film can find an audience while flouting convention. (Even when 20th Century Fox picked the film up for distribution, the studio disastrously rushed the movie's New York release and canceled wider openings.) Like "The Stunt Man" itself, this behind-the-scenes chronicle draws you into its twists and turns with a style that plays peekaboo with your perceptions. It's a great documentary about a great movie.

For those who've never had the pleasure, "The Stunt Man" begins when a fugitive named Cameron (Steve Railsback) accidentally causes the death of a stunt man on location, and the director (O'Toole as Eli Cross) talks him into taking the stunt man's place.

The through-the-looking-glass world of moviemaking is a great escape for Cameron (read it: Camera-on) until he suspects that the director would kill him, or anyone, if it would helped his film.

Rush uses Cameron's paranoia to explore the act of seeing itself: Rush has often said that Cameron views his life "as if he were peeking through a keyhole and getting a very partial look at the truth. Like all the rest of us, he makes up his version of the truth as he goes along. He invents enemies to test his strength, and gods to protect him from the enemies."

What's different about "The Sinister Saga of Making of 'The Stunt Man,'" is that Rush's enemies were real - and he had no gods to protect him from them. Yet the movie has the same humor and gamesmanship as "The Stunt Man." Both movies make the audience experience the uncertainty of the contemporary world in a visceral, often hilarious way. They make for a must-rent -- no, a must-buy.

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