The Stunt Man (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Although The Stunt Man was nominated for three significant Oscars in 1980, it has faded into oblivion. Richard Rush, the writer /director, was nominated for his screenplay as well as for the prestigious Best Director statuette. It seems strange to look on the list of nominees for best Director that year: Martin Scorcese, Robert Redford, David Lynch, Roman Polanski and ..... Richard Rush? Who the hell is Richard Rush?

Who, indeed.

After his struggle to bring this film to fruition, and after all the awards it earned, he basically slipped back into the obscurity whence he emerged. His next film came 14 years later, the notorious Color of Night, the film that is best-remembered for featured plenty of nudity from Jane March and Bruce Willis. In my opinion, Color of Night was a good watch, and while not without its faults, is a watchable erotic thriller from the Basic Instinct school. On the other hand, not many people agree with me on that film, and the IMDb score is only 4.8. (Leonard Maltin rated it NO stars, after giving The Stuntman 4/4. How's that for a fall from grace?

Back to the topic, The Stunt Man is one of the few films to use surrealism effectively.  


Several anonymous extras are topless (and there is a brief full-frontal) in a brothel scene in the film within a film

Barbara Hershey is topless in a sex scene.

Barbara Hershey shows her bottom in a lengthy scene in the film-within-a-film. Her breasts come into view briefly.

Our hero is an escaped felon whose flight from the police is interrupted with un unexplainable encounter on a bridge with a seemingly insane man driving a classic Duesenberg. He causes the man to drive off the bridge. A helicopter appears, then disappears. WTF?

The explanation is that he stumbled upon some people filming a movie. He accidentally killed the hero's stunt double. The director, seen in the chopper, has no intention of turning the kid in to the police. Mr Director (Peter O'Toole) has a film to do, and he's behind schedule. The runaway is the same height and weight as the star, so he's the new stunt double. It works like the Santa Clause - if you kill the stunt double, you have to take his place. Actually, the director figures out that the kid is the escaped felon, and offers him an escape. The director simply tells the police that the stunt double didn't die, and that the felon is the same guy. (By the way, the dead man is played by the felon's real-life brother).

So why did the director harbor an escaped felon? Well, on the surface it's just because he can't afford to stop filming, and he knows the kid can't turn him down. But the kid thinks it must be something else - he gradually becomes obsessed with the notion that the director, in his quest for realism, intends to kill the stunt man for real, and film it. His fear becomes heightened when he is put through dangerous stunt after stunt and we, seeing through his POV, think that this is the moment of his death - only to see the camera pull back in long distance to reveal that the stunt is safe, and the stunt director is congratulating him on another job well done.

As we watch the movie within the movie, we never really know what is happening for "real" in our movie and what is a stunt in the inside movie. In pulling off this succession of false deaths, The Stunt Man does for movie magic what Penn and Teller do for stage magic - showing that's its even more fun if you know how it's done.

The dramatic tension comes from the ever-escalating degree of paranoia, because our hero becomes more and more obsessed with the idea that he is to be murdered, to the point where he plans to do the stunts wrong and require an instant rewrite. Therefore, the film ends up alternating between three levels of reality - the distortion of the hero's paranoia, the reality within the war film O'Toole is filming, and genuine reality. As audience members, we often lose track of what is real. Are the German soldiers, extras being played by cops, coming over to him to arrest him, to stab him as in the WW1 script, or to congratulate him on a great stunt? 

I don't normally like that kind of film, but this one pulls it off with panache.

The genius of the movie, besides the charmingly over-the-top concept, resides in an equally charming over-the-top characterization from O'Toole (who else would you hire to play "charmingly over-the-top"?), and some very witty dialogue, or rather monologues from the O'Toole character on the nature of the movies. 

I think you will find this movie very similar in many ways to that Michael Douglas movie, "The Game". If you liked that one, you'll probably like this as well.

The DVD also includes a full-length movie made in 2000 about the making of this unique film. That film is also rated quite high, and is also sold as a stand-alone. (It was shown at the 20th anniversary of The Stunt Man)

A must-see, if only because there is nothing else quite like it. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • complete screenplay and director's notes

  • two deleted scenes

  • director's commentary

  • Disk 2 - "The Sinister Saga of the Making of the Stunt Man" - a 114 minute film, also by Richard Rush, with comments by the three stars.

Tuna's comments in yellow

The Stunt Man (1980) stars Steve Railsback as a fugitive who stumbles into a movie set just as their top stunt man dies, and is hired as the new stunt man. He agrees because it is a great place to hide from the police. Peter O'Toole is the director of what is supposed to be the story of a WW1 pilot who bails out behind enemy lines, so the movie within the movie parallels Railsback's predicament. It doesn't take long for Railsback to fall for the leading lady, Barbara Hershey. He also begins to suspect that O'Toole, rather than trying to help him, is actually planning on killing him to get it on film, and has no idea at all whom to trust.

According to co-writer/director Richard Rush, it is a story about perception, and paranoia caused by our limited perspective. The entire film is shot from Railsback's point of view. It is certainly unique, which won it lots of critical acclaim when it was released. The special edition due for release next week includes an excellent transfer with a feature length commentary, and a second DVD containing a "making of" special. 

It is unique, intelligent, and very well made.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: four stars(!?). Maltin 4/4, 5/5

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. Six articles on file

  • Nominated for three major Oscars (best director, best screenplay, best actor)

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.3 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Excellent, offbeat film. The limited edition DVD, with two feature length films and more, is a B or more - a complete lesson in the making of a pretty darned good film. (Tuna says B-)

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