This Distracted Globe random header image

The Stunt Man (1980)

June 6th, 2007 · 4 Comments

The Stunt Man poster 1.jpg

Surrounded by police at a truck stop, a drifter named Cameron (Steve Railsback) eludes capture. On a deserted bridge, he hitches a ride from a man in a Duesenberg, but the driver throws Cameron out, turns the car around and tries to run him over. When the drifter looks up, the Duesenberg has plunged into a river. A helicopter then appears and Cameron runs off.

His disorientation continues as he stumbles onto the set of a World War I movie. Egomaniacal director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) arrives by helicopter. He blames himself for the accident at the river, which has claimed the life of the stunt man. Eli spots Cameron, and offers him contract work as a stunt man, promising him it’ll be the last place the police will look for him. “People like to believe in things, and policemen are just people. Or so I’m told.”

The stunt coordinator asks Cameron if he’s done any stuntwork. “I got out of Nam in one piece, that’s a hell of a stunt.” The tightly wound vet makes an impression on Eli, who’s desperately trying to figure out what his war movie is about. Cameron begins an affair with the leading lady, Nina (Barbara Hershey) but becomes increasingly paranoid, unable to distinguish reality from art. He becomes convinced Eli plans to kill him on camera.

The Stunt Man pic 1.jpg

After spending the ’60s directing drive-in fare for AIP, director Richard Rush scored a hit with his first studio feature, Getting Straight in 1970. Columbia Pictures offered him a novel called The Stunt Man by Paul Brodeur. Rush thought it had problems, but was intrigued by the way it blurred reality and illusion. After Lawrence Marcus took a pass at it, Rush adapted a screenplay, but neither Columbia nor any other studio were interested.

Rush spent seven years securing independent financing, another two years hustling to find a distributor. Going the festival route and marketing the film himself, Rush compiled a portfolio of raves from critics, and built buzz, playing the film to packed houses in Los Angeles and Seattle. Finally, 20th Century Fox agreed to distribute the picture.

It became a critical sensation. Pauline Kael exclaimed that the movie was “a virtuoso piece of kinetic filmmaking” while many others, including Gene Siskel, pronounced it one of the year’s best films. It received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Rush, and Best Actor for O’Toole, who quipped that “The film wasn’t released, it escaped.”

The Stunt Man pic 2.jpg

O’Toole apparently based Eli Cross on David Lean, and is great fun to watch parade through this. If nothing else, the film defies convention. It aspires to action, comedy, romance, mystery, farce, and most noticeably, art. No two people are likely to walk away agreeing what exactly this is. My take: The Stunt Man is a mess, too full of itself and bloated with its own genius to bother with the audience. I’ll go as far to say that I hated it.

The blurring of real and make believe doesn’t work because the “reality” Rush trots out is ridiculous. The ease with which Cameron escapes the cops, the way Cross shoots stunt sequences in one continuous take, or that his leading lady has sex with a fugitive turned stuntman are laughable. No one would be making a big budget World War I movie, even in 1978. Even if they did, the director wouldn’t be swinging from a crane at all hours.

The carnival music by Dominic Frontiere is some of the most annoying of all time, while the film looks scuffed and amateur. Steve Railsback – who starred in Helter Skelter and seems to channel Charles Manson in all his performances – has zero charisma and is wrong for a part Jeff Bridges and Martin Sheen expressed interest in. Instead of intelligence or seduction, weirdness pervades the film, which I only recommend for those who enjoy deconstructing their cinema over a latte.

The Stunt Man pic 3.jpg

“I will come out and say this: I don’t get it,” admits Needcoffee. They sort of recommend the film though.

Not Coming To A Theater Near You calls The Stunt Man “an action picture infused, at heart, with moments of ironic humor and wit.”

“It’s as if the 70s had a party, got pissed and ended up at 5am with the screenplay for The Stunt Man,” raves The DVD Outsider.

Tags: Based on novel · Black comedy · Cult favorite · Paranoia

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Jun 14, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    THE STUNT MAN is probably in my top 50 of all time. But, I can honestly say that I’m not surprised by your reaction. It takes a few viewings to really get into it, as it is a very different style of film.

    Peter O’Toole’s performance is one of my favorites. And you didn’t like the score??? That is one of my favorites. I even have the record of it, and listen to it quite often.

    Give it ten years, and watch it again.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jun 15, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    I started blogging about movies so that in ten years, I’ll be able to remember all of these flicks I’m renting, the plots, and what I liked or didn’t like about them.

    Repo Man was one I thought was incredibly dumb, but I have a feeling it might improve with age. Perhaps The Stunt Man will too. Some cult classics seem to have that effect.

    Thanks for your comment, and the add, Moviezzz!

  • 3 Victor Vacendak // May 15, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Glad to know I wasn’t the only one who found this film obnoxious and poorly-aged.

  • 4 Steve W // Jul 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Digging through your vaults, was sorry to see that you trashed this one–one of my very favorite movies, having seen it in my impressionable late teens. I’d say the film is much more playful, quick-witted, and self-deflating than you give it credit for (it moves too quickly and has too many satirical curlicues to be “bloated by its own genius”). Yes, it’s fanciful–stunt sequences are not really shot that way. (But really, actresses having affairs with bad-boy crew members is “laughable”? Happens all the time.) The whole movie pretty obviously takes place in a slightly skewed, deliberately disorienting, magical-realist movie-movie universe. It’s meant to be dizzying, and getting hung up on how much time Eli spends in a crane kind of misses the point. I guess you either give into the spell of this one or you don’t. I do think some of the high-flying action sequences are pretty wonderful, and O’Toole’s performance is for the ages.

Leave a Comment