The Stunt Man

The Stunt Man

There’s a nice running gag that plays out again and again in The Stunt Man. The main character performs a sequence of increasingly preposterous death-defying feats and just as he’s about to make his escape he falls into the clutches of a horde of germanic soldiers. The director waits perhaps a beat too long to yell ‘Cut’ and our protagonist begins to doubt this is a movie after all and maybe this mob really is out to tear him to shreds. It serves as both a neat look inside the fevered mind of the main man and as a metaphor for the tricksiness of the film itself.

Cameron is a young loner on the run from the law who takes refuge in a beach town. His arrival causes the inadvertent death of the lead stunt driver on the set of a movie shooting in the area so the director, for his own warped reasons but also because he’s “fallen madly in love with the dark side of your nature” hires the new arrival to fill in for the dead man, even making him dye his hair and take on the man’s name.

Cameron is happy to go along with the charade as it keeps him out of the hands of the cops and since it pays $600 a stunt and he discovers he’s something of a natural, it’s easy money too. The problem is that as the film progresses and the director begins to dream up increasingly bizarre feats for him to perform Cameron starts to wonder whether he is being lined up for a fall, soon to go the same way as his predecessor.

Sure Cameron is a naive kid and might be unable to see the blurry line between fiction and reality but if he’s being pushed toward madness it’s in no small part due to the ever present director Eli Cross who gets Cameron between his teeth early and doesn’t let go.

Cross is portrayed by Peter O’Toole and he’s played with such scenery-chewing intensity it’s difficult to look anywhere else when he’s on screen. The style is manic and wildly egomaniacal but somehow, within O’Toole’s clipped and velvet tones, also controlled. He seems to be everywhere on set at once: in the helicopter above the action, within the crowd scenes, hiding behind a tricked out window but most often swooping down from the heavens on a crane that seems to have access to the entire town, lest Cameron gets the idea that his time is in any way his own.

The Stunt Man is something of a mixed bag and I’m not convinced that Steve Railsback who plays Cameron quite has the chops to carry off a leading role but it is a hell of a ride. O’Toole claims it was the cinematic work of which he was most proud. Surely all the endorsement you need.

The Stunt Man – directed by Richard Rush (1980)


In Short
A criminal on the lam stumbles across a film set and is offered a gig as the lead stunt man. He takes it as cover from the pursuing cops but it slowly looks like he has jumped from frying pan to fire.

Trailer here