Being a cause célèbre is not the best guarantee of long-term quality or interest. When director Richard Rush and producer Melvin Simon rallied the movie-going public to The Stunt Man because the studios didn’t think it would interest audiences, the resulting support assured a sympathetic crowd. Nearly forty years after that campaign, however, we have only the movie to go by. In fact, their story about Cameron (Steve Railsback), a Vietnam vet on the run who ends up working as a stunt man on a film directed by maniacal Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), doesn’t age very well. Inventive, breathless, it nonetheless starts to sputter about half way through and never fully regains its zip.
Set during a movie shoot, there is inevitably a great deal of posturing about reality and illusion but, aside from revealing a few tricks of the trade, The Stunt Man is not really a film about film making in the way, say, Day for Night or 8 1/2 are. Instead, it centers on the not very attractive Cameron’s efforts to stay alive and to grapple with the tyrannical, charming Cross. And unfortunately, we simply don’t care whether or not Cameron gets caught by the police or if his life is endangered by the stunts he performs because he’s such a tightly wrapped package played by an unappealing, inexpressive actor. With a single, strained grimace throughout, Cameron/Railsback bounces, pinball-like, from one close call to another, quickly exhausting whatever charm sheer velocity might generate.
O’Toole is another matter. Nobody can beat him at stomping and yelling, but his real class shows through in the quieter moments. At the end, when Cross explains to Cameron why he has been treating him the way he has, O’Toole imparts understated dignity to everything he says, without losing Cross’s nearly psychotic edge. O’Toole knows how to be larger than life, but he also knows the grace of simplicity. (He apparently modeled his performance as Cross on David Lean, which is interesting in itself.)
Rush and cinematographer Mario Tosi provide some flash, but their showiness can’t overcome the repetitive gags. At first, as Cameron rushes from one hair-raising encounter to another, Stunt has manic humor. When there is nothing to add but variations on the same jokes, however, no amount of running or frantic cutting can keep us engaged. The love story between Cameron and the lead of the film-within-the-film (Barbara Hershey), presumably meant to develop the situation, is so formulaic, it’s like being asked to care about kissing clichés. Instead of compensating for the monotonous jokes, their scenes together add to the tedium.
Inevitably, there is a climactic action sequence and a final shouting match between Cameron and Cross. The inevitability is the problem: for all the attempts to dazzle and bewilder, far too much of The Stunt Man is mechanically predictable. As the machine runs down, the conceits wear thin. Frenzy, repeated too often, is just tiresome.