‘I am your movie,’ chirps Barbara Hershey in Richard Rush’s -drama from 1980; a major flop at the time, but a rich and tricky text that demands repeat viewings. Paul Brodeu’s 1970 novel was developed by Arthur Penn and even Francois Truffaut, and has an off-beat art-house sensibility that doesn’t quite fit the title. By 1980, stunts were big business at the box office, and The Stunt Man lays claim to uncharted territory somewhere between Smokey and the Bandit and Last Year in Marienbad.
Rush could stage a physical stunt; his 1975 Freebie and the Bean was a wild ride, beloved by Stanley Kubrick amongst others. Here, the lithe Steve Railsback plays Cameron, a drifter with a criminal past who stumbles onto a film set presided over by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole). Eli’s commitment to his art is total, and he shields Cameron from the cops to give himself a play-thing, a man with no identity or rights who he can push into more and more dangerous situations. With a tame writer (the inimitable Allen Garfield) in his pocket, Cross concocts more and more dangerous scenes for his WWI fighter-plane masterpiece, constantly pulling at Cameron’s sense of reality until a final conclusion which might well be Eli Cross’s masterpiece, or Cameron’s murder, or both.
For a flop, The Stunt Man’s three Oscar nominations (actor, director and screenplay) suggest that there was some love for the result, which most audiences never got the chance to see. It stuck in my mind after seeing O’Toole promote it on the Russell Harty tv show in 1980; he’s at his best here, giving a barn-storming performance as an enigmatic but decidedly dangerous ego-maniac who terrorises his cast and crew in the manner of a genuine sociopath. The film inaccurately describes the world of movie stunts, which generally prize safety above all, and possibly relates more to a late-60’s kind of megalomaniac film-making; O’Toole based his performance on David Lean directing Lawrence of Arabia. Rush’s film is too woolly to be a straight-up thriller, with some lengthy dialogue scenes between Cameron and Nina (Hershey) that play into a sense of Cameron treading on Eli Cross’s toes. Cameron’s state-of-mind is the key here; is he paranoid, or is everyone actually out to get him?
Complete with an awesome score by Dominic Frontiere and a cool theme (Bits and Pieces) from the great Dusty Springfield, The Stunt Man has the high physical production values of a Bond film, but directed towards an Inception-level puzzle that keeps the stakes high and the questions coming. Is Cameron mad? Or Eli, or both? Is this a Vietnam movie, a religious allegory or a withering critique of the dangers of a film production? Whatever it is, it’s a brilliant, challenging film that really should have been a hit.
Link below for discs via Amnazon, but also the film seems to be viewable (for now) for free on Popcornflix at the link below.