Thirty years ago this week, the second greatest film of the 1980s (behind Raging Bull and ahead of Red Dawn) was released in theaters—and promptly flopped. It’s called The Stunt Man, and was an anomaly in a decade when the film business was marked by slick blockbusters that required audience to have only the brain power sufficient to chew popcorn. Directed and written by Richard Rush, and starring legendary drinker and occasional actor Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man is an intelligent and entertaining “meditation on” the art of filmmaking and the contest between illusion and reality.
The protagonist of the film, the eponymous stunt man, is Cameron (played by Steve Railsback, who portrayed Charles Manson in the 1976 TV adaptation of Helter Skelter), a Vietnam veteran on the run from the law. After running onto the set of a World War One epic and causing a stunt to go awry, which results in the death of the stunt man, Cameron strikes a bargain with the film’s megalomaniacal director, Eli Cross (O’Toole): He will take the deceased stunt man’s place, and Cross will protect him from the authorities. Unfortunately, this film’s set seems to be a Hell-on-Earth—the movie they’re making is called Devil’s Squadron, after all—and Cross is Lucifer incarnate.
The Stunt Man is a dizzying swirl of sequences that, to Cameron and the viewer, appear to be real and dangerous, but then turn out to be fake, but then loop back to being real and terrifying…until Cross enters the frame riding in his looming, all-seeing director’s crane, yelling “Cut!” These appearances by Cross do nothing to ease Cameron’s paranoia, however, as he realizes that he’s trapped in a prison of smoke and mirrors, of which the devious and twisted Cross is the warden.
In a way, The Stunt Man acts as a bridge between the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s and the action flicks of the 1980s. The stunt sequences that Cross forces Cameron to go through are spectacular, especially a chase scene on the rooftop of a hotel and one scene on a biplane.
The constant loop-de-loop between what’s reality and what’s illusion causes Cameron to become slightly unhinged; he’s convinced that Cross wants to murder him and immortalize his death on celluloid, but he can’t go to the police because he’s a wanted man, and the circumstances that he thinks are going to kill him turn out to be carefully controlled stunts, put together by the tools from the director’s bag of tricks. Neither Cameron nor the viewer knows what the hell Cross is up to, or whether or not he’s just a reckless eccentric or something more sinister.
O’Toole drew inspiration for his performance as Cross from his experiences with David Lean while filming Lawrence of Arabia, a real World War One epic directed by a real filmmaker-as-magician. It is appropriate, then, that O’Toole delivers the summation of what the film is about: “If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.”
Watching The Stunt Man is like watching a great magic trick, and you can’t wait to see what will be pulled out of the hat next.