Vietnam War veteran Cameron (Steve Railsback) is on the run from the law and ends up in this smalltown where he's hoping to keep a low profile, but the cops are already onto him, briefly capturing him and slapping the handcuffs on his wrists which necessitates him fleeing the diner he was eating in and into the surrounding countryside. While hightailing it through the trees he is stopped by a couple of workmen, but manages to overpower them, grabbing their toolbag and snapping the cuffs with a bolt cutter, but he still has to get away, ending up on a bridge. Is this vintage car stopping to give him a lift?
Nope, the driver kicks Cameron out and seemingly tries to run him over, which lands the fugitive in a whole heap of trouble, though not any that he could have predicted, but then, The Stunt Man was far from a predictable movie. Writer and director Richard Rush's film was a real labour of love, taking the best part of a decade to bring to the screen and then struggling to be seen when it was, that in spite of Academy Award nominations thrown its way. As it was playful and deliberately confusing - you, like the title character, would have trouble separating reality from fiction - there are many scenes which blur the lines between them both, and that is not something the mainstream audience was necessarily going to readily get on with.
The cult audience, on the other hand, recognised something in this which marked it out as special, and a lot of that was thanks to the lead actor. Peter O'Toole gives a brilliant performance as the egotistical director, even if he was not in the film enough and you do miss him, yet such was the force of his personality that you felt his influence as the parallels between his Eli Cross and the ubiquity of God were flirted with cheekily: the only thing you wonder about Railsback's stunt man is why he's on the run, whereas O'Toole's director throws up a host of questions. He was like a general sending a soldier on an unexplained suicide mission, or (more pretentiously) the Almighty forcing Man into a chaotic world only He knows the reasons behind.
With everyone in the film ranging between slightly eccentric and completely barmy The Stunt Man was, and remains, a difficult work to get a handle on, yet the audacity of many scenes and its fierce intelligence mean that you may not follow it completely, yet you do get a strong idea of what Rush was getting at, from the comic absurdities right up to the cosmic level it courts. The dialogue is witty and even the incidental detail is excellent, if bemusing (check out the weird dog food TV commercial which references bestiality or the Victorian toy which depicts the same), and the action sequences are spectacular. The rooftop chase in particular where Cameron, now recruited by Eli to replace the stuntman he accidentally killed - or did he? - is small masterpiece of wild imagery.
Mind you, it's never explained why the director needs them all to be performed in one take - surely a control freak like he is wouldn't take a chance on one thing going wrong to screw up the whole scene? Then again, Eli is so unfathomable to Cameron that we share his bafflement and eventual paranoia, so it could perhaps make sense that a director who never deals in small measures (how like a deity) would go that far in staging every sequence in his epic with that near-maniacal abandon. All in all, it's not perfect, it's too long, but it is like little else, in a good way, and O'Toole makes this film required viewing as he orchestrates the hapless title character's life in ways he barely takes in, both before the cameras and beyond as the sap gets romantically involved with Barbara Hershey's movie star who becomes his collaborator. Railsback's accustomed frazzled stylings only matches O'Toole to the extent that the stand off between their master and rebellious servant relationship verges on a bizarre, irreverent profundity. A cult classic. The seriously catchy score is from Dominic Frontiere.
Cult American director who never quite made the most of his talents, mainly due to circumstances beyond his control. He spent the 1960s working on exploitation films of increasing stature, some of which have become cult favourites, such as Hell's Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out and The Savage Seven, until he gained recognition with counterculture drama Getting Straight. The 1970s followed with one other film, buddy cop comedy Freebie and the Bean, until in 1980 The Stunt Man, which many consider his best work, was released. After that he had just one more credit, for unintentional laugh fest thriller The Color of Night. His fans wish Rush had enjoyed more creative opportunities.