Recently I received a list of movies to watch from a friend and fellow blogger whose DVD library exceeds mine in both quantity and quality, so I had to pay attention. I had heard of most of the movies on the list, a wide-ranging collection of both American and foreign titles, but I'm ashamed to say that I had never gotten around to watching most of them. So, armed with a Netflix account and a part-time job that leaves me most afternoons free, I decided to work my way through the list (which is in no particular order) systematically.
Our first film is The Stunt Man (1980), directed by Richard Rush. Although I'd certainly heard of the film before, all I really new going in was that it was best known for a performance by Peter O'Toole as an egomaniacal movie director and that Richard Rush didn't direct another movie for 14 years (Color of Night) after its release. We start with Cameron (Steve Railsback), a drifter being pursued by the police through the California countryside. A lengthy chase scene culminates in Cameron causing the death of a driver who had tried to run him down. That driver, we soon find out, was a stunt player on a film directed by Eli Cross (O'Toole) in a nearby seaside town. Cross, whose production is being menanced by the comical local sheriff (Alex Rocco), agrees to shelter Cameron from the cops if he'll take the stunt man's place on the film. Cameron, given a makeover to disguise his looks, soon falls for the film's leading lady (a charming and sexy Barbara Hershey) before becoming convinced that Cross will try to kill him by replicating the stunt that killed the first stunt man.
The plot summary really doesn't do justice to the antic tone of The Stunt Man, or to the way Rush tries to meld reality and scenes from the movie being shot (a WWI story with an incomprehensible plot). But The Stunt Man has more on its mind than just a satire of the movie business. Cameron is a Vietnam vet who'll describe his experiences in country to anyone willing to listen, only no one seems to care. In the late 1970's that was of course true, but we return to this theme so much that I think Rush is striving to make some connection between Cameron's skill as a stuntman and his wartime experience that doesn't really come off. It doesn't help that Cameron (whose backstory we finally get in a late monologue) doesn't seem to need or want very much or that Railsback is an inexpressive actor that I quickly got tired of watching.
The character of Eli Cross must have seemed irresistible to Rush. Cross is a demigod to his cast and crew the way someone like David Lean or Elia Kazan must have been and the way no director is today. Much is made of how Cross has an all-encompassing view of what's going on both in front of and behind the camera on his set; he swoops in on choppers or cranes to comment on the action. O'Toole is impeccably pompous and probably deserved his Oscar nomination, but the conception of the film production is one reason I think The Stunt Man hasn't aged well. Never mind the fact that all the lavish battle scenes Cross shoots would be done with CGI today, the idea that even the most highly regarded film director would be so ignorant of financial or time constraints seriously dates the movie. The ending of The Stunt Man is also seriously muddled; as Cameron fights for his life while trying to replicate the stunt that killed his predecessor, it isn't at all clear why Eli - who seems to be having a wonderfully good time - would want to harm him.
The Stunt Man feels like a late product of the celebrated "golden age" of 1970's cinema, but it has too much going on (veterans, Hollywood, a love story, comedy, drama, etc.) to be a truly coherent work of art and at the same time too little going on in its main character. I certainly don't regret seeing it, but I'm glad it's off my list.