Richard Rush’s Indestructible Stunt Man

 

Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man is a cult classic whose reputation precedes it.  Before having seen the film, I felt I had an insight into what to expect – a cool look at the world of motion pictures.  This movie, produced at the end of the 70’s (it was completed in 1979, but became an 80’s hit, straddling the border between two decades) has more to do with perception than violence for violence’s sake.  Not that I don’t appreciate thrilling stunts or death defying leaps – The Stunt Man has these to spare – but also reveals the motivations behind a lifestyle choice.  Consequently, for the confrontational stunt man of Rush’s flick, ground level events prove equally dangerous as any tightrope.

The Stunt Man deals with a Vietnam vet who, in an attempt to escape the police, wanders onto a movie set.  Cameron (a young Steve Railsback) is offered sanctuary by tyrannical director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), who is shooting a World War I epic.  Cameron – befittingly renamed “Lucky” – seamlessly replaces the previous stunt man, whose death he accidentally caused.  What follows is a series of unlikely and sometimes hilarious escapades for this man on the run, whose paranoia grows as Eli demands increasingly risky stunts; Cameron is convinced that Eli is endangering his life.  Suspicions also run high in his love affair with the film’s leading lady, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey).  After Cameron learns that Nina had slept with Eli years earlier, his distrust of the maniacal director escalates.

Unlike other stunt films of its day (Stunt Rock, Hooper), The Stunt Man does not exploit the stunt world, but uses it as a backdrop to frame the story.  What makes The Stunt Man a film ahead of its time however, are the in-jokes poked at the nature of filmmaking.  Stock characters easy enough to ridicule include the megalomaniac director, the needy actress, the cocky “new kid on the block” – but what we learn through the consistent POV of our hero, is that the movie-making world hinges on illusion.  By the final stunt, Cameron is convinced that Eli is trying to kill him, and for the audience, this paranoia is not unfounded.  Nonetheless, there is a constant self awareness in The Stunt Man that suspends our disbelief.  Rush adeptly breaks through the fourth wall – that pesky “invisible screen separating audience from actor”,  as critic Vincent Canby described it– to make us believe we are watching a real story unfold, in the midst of a fictional one.  One of the best lines in the movie – when Eli first encounters fugitive Cameron – bears witness to this “film within a film” when he states, “People like to believe in things, and policemen are just people, or so I’m told.” The fact that the great Peter O’Toole delivers this persuasive truth, among several others, is just one of many reasons to watch The Stunt Man.

Peter O’Toole, wearing the most amazing shirt in the film

Special Features:

This two disc DVD released by Severin films hauls in a whack of special features.  In addition to deleted scenes, theatrical trailers and Severin trailers, there are four exclusive new featurettes.  These featurettes will undoubtedly please fans and provide access to the stories behind the film – these include; The Maverick Career of Richard Rush, Peter O’Toole Recounts The Stunt Man, Devil’s Squadron (with Steve Railsback and Alex Rocco), and Barbara Hershey on Nina Franklin. There is also a feature length documentary on the making of the film aptly titled The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man, which was first available on the original Anchor Bay Entertainment disc. This documentary starring a particularly endearing (albeit cornball) Richard Rush, includes interviews with Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey and down-to-earth Chuck Bail.  Bail was the film’s stunt coordinator, so it only makes sense that he appears on The Stunt Man’s audio commentary too, along with Alex Rocco and Sharon Farrell.

- Melissa Howard

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Melissa Howard is a barmaid, blogger, concert reviewer and all round film fanatic.  Hailing from the Hammer, she has spent the past decade in Montreal where she most recently worked her first Fantasia International Film Festival.

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Melissa Howard

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