To grasp the unique power of The Stunt Man, one need merely examine the impact that it had on the career of Richard Rush, who cowrote, produced, and directed the picture. The Stunt Man curried enough favor for Rush to earn twin Oscar nominations, for direction and screenwriting—but the movie also flopped so badly that it helped derail Rush’s filmmaking career. He didn’t step behind the camera again for 14 years, and his would-be comeback was the notorious bomb Color of Night (1994), an execrable erotic thriller starring Bruce Willis. That’s The Stunt Man in a nutshell: It’s simultaneously a pretentious misfire and a visionary masterpiece. The same extremes that make The Stunt Man beguiling and memorable also make the movie deeply frustrating. Continuing this duality, The Stunt Man is both a dark mystery/thriller and a vicious satire about Hollywood filmmaking. Rush’s movie is not for everyone, but it’s a singular experience.
Based on a novel by Paul Brodeur and adapted for the screen by Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus, The Stunt Man takes place almost exclusively in and around the opulent location shoot for a World War I-themed action movie. At the beginning of the picture, mystery man Cameron (Steve Railsback) flees the police and stumbles onto the shoot at the same moment a stunt man dies in a helicopter crash. The director of the movie-within-the movie, Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), senses a unique opportunity. A domineering and manipulative sociopath, Eli discovers that Cameron feels responsible for the accident, so he offers to let Cameron assume the stunt man’s identity, thereby hiding from the police. Energizing the Faustian metaphor that runs through the film, Eli uses blackmail to leverage Cameron’s soul. The director goads Cameron into performing a series of dangerous stunts, leading inevitably toward a gag so risky that Cameron becomes convinced Eli is willing to kill Cameron for a spectacular scene.
As all of this is unfolding, Cameron becomes romantically involved with the leading lady of the movie-within-the-movie, Nina (Barbara Hershey). Yet Eli’s thirst for control extends to Nina, as well, and the psychological abuse that Eli heaps upon Nina is horrific.
The Stunt Man is a flamboyant piece of work, with Rush aiming for fireworks on every level. The story is frenetic and grandiose. The performances are unrelentingly intense. The camerawork is wild, because Rush and cinematographer Mario Tosi employ crowded compositions, operatic movements, and rich colors to create a larger-than-life style. Even the music, by Dominic Frontiere, virtually screams. Given the voluptuousness of Rush’s cinematic attack, it’s surprising that the most resonant moments in The Stunt Man are intimate. Specifically, the movie’s best scene involves Cross’ ultimate humiliation of Nina, because O’Toole’s Oscar-nominated performance reaches a peak of sadism at the same time Hershey incarnates vulnerability.
To a certain degree, Railsback is the odd man out, partially because the nature of the story requires his character to be a cipher, and partially because it’s hard to shake the indelible link between Railsback and Charles Manson, whom the actor unforgettably portrayed in the TV movie Helter Skelter (1976). Yet this, too, works in Rush’s favor—the title character of The Stunt Man seems more like a pawn on a chessboard than a human being. Fitting its title, The Stunt Man offers impressive stunt work, particularly a long foot chase across the rooftop of a beautiful hotel. And that reflects another strange irony—for all of its quasi-literary aspirations, The Stunt Man is fundamentally an action movie. Which begs the question—is The Stunt Man a confused endeavor at war with itself, or a brilliant fusion of disparate elements? Yes.
The Stunt Man: GROOVY