The Stunt Man (1980) – A Review

The Stunt Man Peter O'Toole
Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man

The Stunt Man is based on a 1970 novel by Paul Brodeur.  Director/writer Richard Rush was preparing to make the film adaptation back in 1971. However, after having trouble generating interest by any studio for the project, he finally secured independent financing and finally was able to film the movie in 1978.

Then it sat on the shelf for two years with no one interested in releasing it, It wasn’t until Rush started showing it at film festivals which finally secured it a distributor – Twentieth Century-Fox. This is probably what prompted Peter O’Toole’s famous quote saying “this film didn’t get released, it escaped.”

Upon its release the film was praised by many notable critics and would earn three Academy Award nominations for Peter O’Toole, the screenplay and its director. The Stunt Man would become a beloved ‘cult’ film as the years would pass. But somehow Rush wouldn’t direct another film for fourteen years and that would be the notoriously reviled Color of Night in 1994.

Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a Vietnam vet who is on-the-run from the police. Getting cornered by cops he manages to escape and stumbles into the filming of a movie stunt. A car crashes off a bridge and the driver drowns. Witnessing the whole thing is the films director Eli Cross (O’Toole). The two make a deal that Cross will hide Cameron from the police if he takes his now lead dead stuntman’s place and be willing to perform all the dangerous stunts that he needs in order to finish his movie.

Peter O'Toole Steve Railsback The Stunt Man
O’Toole and Railsback

Settling into the movie-making business Cameron falls for the leading lady Nina (Barbara Hershey). He then starts to suspect Cross may be a bit unhinged, willing to go to any lengths to finish his movie and that he’s gearing up to have Cameron perform a stunt that will kill him while the cameras are rolling.

While potentially sounding seemingly like a simple premise, The Stunt Man is at times a hypnotic exploration involving the treatment of Vietnam vets and the blurred lines between reality and the fantasy of movie-making with power mad personalities controlling it all.

There’s much more going on than simply gags involving an amateur stuntman getting thrown in front of the cameras trying to do death-defying stunts and not getting himself killed. There’s a psychological mind game being played between the director and his stuntman.

There’s a lot to like in the movie. Fans have a high admiration for it with some calling it a ‘masterpiece’, but I never loved it as much as I wanted to. I never felt the madness on the fictional movie set gradually escalating enough leading up to the paranoia of Cameron in the climax. I suppose there is meant to be a symbolic connection between Cameron’s war experiences and his working on set – both physically and mentally straining him to the point of snapping.

Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man

The movie kind of drifts at times into supporting characters that I didn’t find very interesting. And Railsback as the lead I thought was somewhat forgettable. Still, O’Toole is fun to watch. I don’t think he’s as great with this performance as others do and I much prefer his later performance in My Favorite Year, but things liven up everytime he drops onto the scene in his bouncy directors chair and he tries to control everything and everyone around him.

It’s an interesting film with plenty of metaphors, symbolism and surrealism going on. I’ve been told multiple viewings will make one appreciate it even more and you’ll discover more subtle nuances sprinkled throughout it. Perhaps one day I’ll revisit again.


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1 Response

  1. Nick Hughes says:

    I love this movie. O'Toole is fantastic and he gets some great lines to have fun with but repeated viewings have shown Cameron's descent into paranoia. He can never be sure who's on his side and who isn't. The stunt co-ordinator, the scriptwriter and the leading actor all cosy up to Cameron at some point to give him some advice about surviving an Eli Cross movie set, only to show up later at Cross' right hand and seemingly selling out Cameron. Cameron also can't trust Hershey as much as he wants to either. Richard Rush had a good explanation for the basis of Cameron's relationship with her "imagine you're going out with this amazing girl and things couldn't be going better, then one day she tells you she once had a relationship with your best friend before she knew you, it's that level of paranoia." Subtle, but gnawing at you from within.

    I also really like Dominic Frontiere's score for The Stuntman. In short, it deserves it's place as a cult film and well worth a rewatch.

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