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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Apr. 26, 2010 | 1:23 AM

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“It’s better tonight than it’s ever been,” was Barbara Hershey’s response after watching Friday night’s TCM Fest screening of Richard Rush’s 1980 film “The Stunt Man.”  Director Rush, also in attendance, agreed.  “Damn right, for me too,” Rush said.  Co-star Steve Railsback was also on hand, and it was striking how much affection all three seem to have for the film to this day.  To hear Rush tell it, some of this may stem from the film’s difficult birth.  A full ten years passed before the completed Stunt Man script made it to the screen, and it was only picked up for distribution by Fox after a brave theatre owner in Seattle took a chance on it and played it for a year.  The film does’t fit easily into any genre category, and Rush as director takes it on faith that the audience will be able to follow The Stunt Man’s film within a film plotline. 

The movie features an incredible stunt set piece on the roof on the historic Hotel de Coronado in San Diego, and also features a stunning performance by Peter 0’Toole as an egomaniacal director modeled loosely after David Lean.  An anecdote Rush told after the screening suggests that O’Toole may have had other directors in mind as well.  O’Toole was always professional on set, and had a habit of checking in with Rush each day for approval after he’d gotten into costume.  Rush checked out the actor’s wardrobe, and enthusiastically approved it.  It was only later in the day that he realized that O’Toole had managed to mimic what Rush was wearing down to the last belt buckle.  For more pure undiluted Richard Rush, check out the making of documentary “The Sinister Saga of Makng The Stunt Man”, available on DVD.

As far as rarities go, 1948’s “No Orchids For Miss Blandish” was high on the list for the TCM fest, surpassed only by Saturday’s screening of “The Story of Temple Drake” (more on Temple Drake in our Day 3 recap).  Coincidentally, both films feature nearly identical performances by Jack La Rue as the main thug, and both may have been based on William Faulkner’s novel, Sanctuary, although ‘No Orchids” is more of an unofficial adaptation.  What really drew the crowd for this film is what a scandal the film created in the UK upon its initial release.  Bruce Goldstein from New York’s Fillm Forum introduced the film and provided a laundry list of quotes from the British press of the day.  Critic Dilys Powell assiged it a rating of “D for Disgusting”, while C.A. Lejune wrote that “it had all the morals of an alley cat and the fragrance of a sewer.”  Both of these attacks pale in comparison though to another paper which declared the film “thoroughly un-British.” 

Today the film registers as more of a curiosity than anything else.  One of the earliest British attempts at Film Noir, “No Orchids” boats an almost entirely British cast for a ganster tale set in New York.  Actor Tim Roth was also on hand for the screening, no stranger to the crime film genre himself.  After first marvelling that he felt like he could have been cast in one of the roles, he defended the film as a love letter from the Brits to an American genre they adored.  “I"m sorry we weren’t very good at Film Noir,” Roth said.  ‘But we did love you!”

One of the things TCM has been pushing hard at this festival is the importance of film preservation.  The midnight screening on Friday of 1963’s “The Day of the Triffids” provided a shining example of what a damaged film can look like when it’s restored to its former glory. Michael Hyatt, one the main architects of the restoration, was on hand for the screening to give the audience a glimpse into the painstaking process of bringing a film back to life.  In the case of “Triffids”, the film had literally been cleaned in dirty water, resulting in countless specks of dust that grafted themselves to the film.

For those who think that everything has gone digital these days, think again.  Hyatt used a modified jeweler’s scope and the sharpest needles he could find to remove every individual speck of dust from “Triffids”.  At the rate he worked he was able to get through about three seconds of footage a day, and the film’s complete restoration took close to four years.  A midnight screening crowd who had doubtless been watching movies all day started to get a little restless as Hyatt explained his process, but few complaints were heard after the film’s newly pristine technicolor images unspooled. 

As for the film itself, it’s still a potent reminder that if you go blind from looking directly at a meteor shower, it’s really tough to avoid killer plants that are trying to eat you.

NEXT: TCM FEST DAY 3: Joan Crawford’s Home Movies, A Woman’s Face, and The Story of Temple Drake.

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