Classic Film Review: The magic, the madness and the manipulation of the movies are laid bare for “The Stunt Man” (1980)

“The Stunt Man” was the first cult film I remember seeing.

Its storied pre-production history, years in the making, no studio wanting to distribute it until it won festival acclaim and played in Seattle (if I’m remembering the legend correctly) for three years prior to being picked up — didn’t keep it from eventually earning a decent enough release. But that agonizing creative process was a part of its lore by the time it hit a midnight showing at the Tanglewood Mall Cinema in Roanoke, Va., where I caught it with other public radio folks at the station where I was interning.

Long before Tarantino, this Richard Rush motion picture — made the old-fashioned way, on celluloid, on a shoestring, with a few big names getting it financed — was the ultimate movie-lover’s movie. Read the “trivia” on the film’s IMDb page to get a dose of the many actors lined up for it, the reason Steve Railsback of TV’s Manson Family mini-series “Helter Skelter” got the title role.

I’ve been on a lot of sets over the decades, and no movie more perfectly encapsulates the highly-competent chaos of film production on location. I dare say there are plenty of behind-the-camera-talents, many of whom I know, who were inspired by this movie, starry-eyed script supervisors and ADs and the like who just wanted to be a part of the impromptu family it takes to make a movie.

Watching it again for the first time in decades, a couple of things leapt out at me. The bravura opening, with a wanted man (Railsback) on the run, stumbling into a film shoot and ruining a shot that ended with a stuntman’s death — or at least disappearance — is notable for two things.

First, nobody played manic, wild-eyed and confused like Railsback. He not only played Charles Manson (in 1976), he went on to play “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” inspiration “Ed Gein.”

And second, man oh man can you tell this movie’s simple yet stunningly-dangerous camera helicopter sequences were shot three years before “Blue Thunder” and “Twilight Zone,” the film whose on-set accident killed Vic Morrow and two kids and changed what Hollywood was allowed to do with such aircraft. It’s as jaw-dropping to see these sequences — with film-within-a-film director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole,in rare form) glaring quizzically out of the seat in front of the bulky 35mm Metrocolor camera.

Movies just aren’t made with choppers doing all that stuff, with real biplanes as opposed to CGI recreations for “Devil’s Squadron,” the symbolic and seriously anachronistic WWI drama that Cross and his cast and crew decamped to Coronado, Flynn Springs, La Jolla, San Diego and Sacramento.

Yeah, they look just Franco-German enough to work, Cough cough.

Railsback is chased onto this set and blackmailed into taking over the job and identity of the stunt man his intervention supposedly killed. The charismatic Cross — you can see how bloodshot O’Toole’s eyes are in every closeup — doesn’t make it sound like that. It’s “your, ass, it’s just like mine. Maybe I can save them both.” He doesn’t lose three days of this location by having to admit he lost a stunt-man, the cops don’t catch our unnamed man-on-the-lam, nicknamed “Lucky,” because he’s now “Bert,” the blond driver who supposedly drowned in a stunt car.

Barbara Hershey plays Nina, the director’s muse, ridiculed by the set hairdresser for her “love the one you’re with” ways, which bewitch naive “Lucky.”

Veteran character actor Phillip Bruns, who briefly played Jerry Seinfeld’s dad, was never better as the unflappable-but-time-pressed producer. Allen Garfield, billed as Allen Goorwitz here, is the screenwriter Sam, perhaps the weakest character coupled to the weakest performance here.

And actor, stuntman and stunt coordinator Chuck Bails plays a version of himself, forced to train the star’s new double, eager to please his director and to keep his protege alive, a real man’s man at home in his own competent skin.

Visit any film set, and male or female, the stunt folks are the most laid back, “brass balls” being a trait that’s gender neutral. Ask Zoe Bell.

Over the course of those three days on this location, our stuntman-in-training is hurled into death-defying gags, long rooftop chases shot in long takes, airplane wing-walking and the like. “Lucky,” first scene to last, never seems to know what’s coming next. He’s in a stumbling panic the whole time.

One thing he figures out, though. He’s disposable to this director. He’s sure Eli is trying to kill him.

“You never heard of movie magic?” Eli purrs, setting up this ask or that “faked” bit of business. But what “Stunt Man” recreates better than most any film about making movies ever has is the mania to “get it on film,” “the madness” of making a movie. ‘

Other movies — “The Player,” “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” — have topped the set pieces in “The Stunt Man,” and found bigger laughs on the set. But none can touch this 45 year-old movie’s sense of fun, a love letter to making movies on the fly, glorying in the messiness of it all.

Rating: R, violence, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Chuck Bail, Allen Garfield, Phillip Bruns, John Garwood and Alex Rocco

Credits: Directed by Richard Rush, script by Lawrence B. Marcus and Richard Rush, based on the novel Paul Brodeur. A 20th Century Fox release on Tubi, Shout! TV, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 2:10

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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