Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
It is established in The Stunt Man’s kinetic opening reel that Cameron, the film’s central character, is on the run from the police. They manage to handcuff him in a diner; he manages a narrow escape. Punctuating most every shot in this sequence is a helicopter in the horizon.
Cameron escapes to a bridge, thumbs down, oddly, a Dusenberg. The driver slows, kicks Cameron as he attempts to enter the car, turns around and drives manically back towards him. He dodges the car, looks up and it’s gone. Beside him the helicopter lowers. Inside is a middle-aged man staring at him and a camera. Cameron, realizing all this action has been filmed, meets the height of his paranoia and flees.
Inadvertently, and in a stunning act of cinematic trickery, Cameron came upon a movie set, interrupting the action in mid-scene. His action caused the death of the driver — a stunt man — and a future meeting with Eli Cross, Peter O’Toole as the film’s movie-within-a-movie director, yields Cameron as a replacement in an effort to disguise the death of his former stunt man.
The Stunt Man is an action picture infused, at heart, with moments of ironic humor and wit. The film is an exercise in psychology; firstly, it traces Cameron’s search for definable truth, secondly for the viewer to do the same in the film’s context.
The Stunt Man is based on Paul Brodeur’s novel of the same name, and in construction makes for a better film than book. Director Richard Rush, in love with the text, scribed the screenplay in the early 70s, and for much of the decade found difficulty impressing producers. During this time Rush gave up his option for One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (and “the rest is history”). Rush was known for modest though successful works of softcore exploitation (Thunder Alley, ’67, and Psych-Out, ’68). His ambition to produce The Stunt Man did not translate. Initially backed by a fledgling Columbia Pictures, Rush’s project, more cerebral and confusing than his past works, was guaranteed no hefty return.
The picture was greenlighted in 1977, filmed the next year, and sat upon until its meager release in 1980. Fox distributed the film, and reasoned its delayed release by stating that marketing the film, like watching it, was a difficult task. Before receiving its three Oscar nominations, The Stunt Man was exhibited in a mere handful of theaters in Dallas, Seattle, and Los Angeles.
Ironic in discussing this film’s unpopularity is the fact that it received exceptional reviews. Critics loved this film. Knowledge of Rush’s passion and effort in transporting this concept from book to screen offers a bias, and miraculously the result exceeds such expectations. Additionally, upon being picked up by Fox, The Stunt Man was exhibited in nearly a dozen theaters in Los Angeles. At the beginning of its brief tenure it was the most popular film in the heart of the world’s largest film industry.
Anchor Bay’s limited edition DVD includes a documentary of the film. The menu is brilliant. It cycles Dominic Frontiere’s famous score as quotes taken from its ecstatic reviews slide across the screen. Watching this image one ponders why The Stunt Man was not more successful, why massive critical praise did not free it from the trap of elongated obscurity.
The film received no Oscars, though earned a Golden Globe for Frontiere’s rousing, Felliniesque score and Best Picture commendations at the Dallas and Montreal film festivals. Despite this sort of reception — which is rare of this magnitude for any film — The Stunt Man has not maintained the lasting acclaim associated with its boiling initial reception. It has been cited numerously as one of the best films of the 80s. Less speculative is the claim that it is one of the decade’s most mysteriously obscure.
Rush directs with consistency, frequenting jump cuts and deep focal transitions. Cameron is played with brooding intensity by Steve Railsback, who suffers fair criticism for echoing too-closely his famous portrayal of Charles Manson (in the TV film Helter Skelter). Peter O’Toole reels as the film’s egomaniacal director. He deliberately (and harshly) embarrasses his lead actress to elicit a similar emotion in her character, and lies to Cameron over the real danger of his stunts. Cross will capture his towering vision on film, even if it spells death for those involved.
Gathering solely from this film it is evident Rush is confident and prepared at its helm. He possesses the qualities of any auteur: a distinct style and the ability to conform his elements into a singular, cohesive work. Rush’s only film since 1980’s The Stunt Man is 1994’s reprehensible Color of Night.
The central gimmick of The Stunt Man is evident in at random throughout the film, as the distinction between the film’s reality (Cameron’s trouble) and its fantasy (Eli Cross’ film) becomes increasingly inapparent in its duration.
Cameron, still on the run, makes way towards a beach, around it a crowd watching an ensuing battle (the setup is a scene for Cross’ film). A WWI biplane careens over the land, penetrating many of the scrambling soldiers below with bullets, filling the horizon with bombs and smoke. Cameron, along with the onlookers, watches with fright as the smoke clears and reveals a beach saturated with blood and dismembered bodies. The onlookers scream, the director yells cut and the actors excavate their supposed dismembered body parts beneath the sand. One, decapitated, humorously lifts his separated, prop head and then his own, buried beneath the sand. This scene is a trompe l’oeil of sorts, as it is edited and, moreover, treated as a film. During it the cameras and crew are unseen; our perceptions subjected to the fabricated reality of the action and not its construction.
In a later scene Cameron, in soldier getup, is on the run from WWI soldiers (in an obvious parody of the opening scene). He is trapped on the roof of the Hotel del Coronado (also the setting for 1959’s Some Like it Hot), completely surrounded. One manages to slice his cheek with the butt of a rifle. Cameron, amidst capture in every direction, thumbs his wound and climbs a flagpole. Its anchor snaps and he falls stories, through a canopy and into a skylight, onto a couple engaged in sex. He is carried through a crowd of scantily clad prostitutes and mustached men and stripped.
Immediately in front of him is a camera and Eli Cross, smiling. Shocked, Cameron stares dumbly as a crewmember fingers the wound on his face and pulls it off. It was a latex mechanism.
Tricks such as these abound in The Stunt Man. Though their cause is to depict Cross’ ability to manipulate his actors emotions — to conjure real fear and real sorrow — the film functions secondarily to do the same for viewers. Such is the central basis of film, and furthermore the indomitable triumph of The Stunt Man. Many films deal with the psychology of crafting fictions and the manipulative quality of film; few are as successful as this. Though Cameron is Eli Cross’ most frequented puppet, viewers may share a similar sense of being played with.
Even relaying the plot, exposing the mechanism of The Stunt Man employs the very spirit of the film. The film doesn’t merely pull strings, orchestrating its audience’s response; it violates conventional behaviors. Certain reactions seem obvious (laughing at its jokes or sympathizing with Cameron’s fabricated danger), though oftentimes they come to be inappropriate. In a later scene, Cameron dangles from the wing of a plane about to crash. The action is treated as real, though the scene culminates by revealing the magic of the stunt. The plane is attached to a crane, close above the ground, and Cameron is equipped with several noticeable wires.
In retrospect, it can be given a number of generic labels (Action, Drama, Satire — pick one), each non-encompassing. In whole The Stunt Man, in its uniqueness, only suffers from being capsuled.