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Peter O’Toole and Steve Railsback in The Stunt Man (Richard Rush, 1980)

Richard Rush’s death on April 8 prodded me to re-watch The Stunt Man, his magnum opus. His triumph converted my grief to elation. Topical yet timeless, Rush’s fearless movie about movie-making packs as much punch as it did four decades ago. Written in the early 1970s, made in the late 1970s, and minimally released in 1980, it may be cinema’s gutsiest, most scintillating celebration of big-screen magic. What a signal irony it would be if The Stunt Man, now on HBO Max, reaches its widest viewership on streaming. To understand why, see Rush’s “making of” documentary, The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man (the lead supplement on the 2011 Blu-ray), a horrifying account of movie-biz malfeasance. My favorite example: production company executives declared Seattle a “non-market” after Rush staged a smash test run there.

Rush casts Peter O’Toole as his bravura alter ego—a director named Eli Cross who turns the filming of a World War I adventure on a San Diego beach into an existential role-playing game. Handcuffed and pursued by cops, Cameron (Steve Railsback), a Vietnam vet with a shadowy past, stumbles into the filming of Eli’s riskiest stunt—a Duesenberg speeding over the side of a bridge into a river. After it goes fatally wrong, Eli persuades Cameron to take the dead driver’s place: “You shall be a stuntman, who is an actor, who is a character in a movie, who is an enemy soldier. Who’ll look for you amongst all those?”

Rush and screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus (Petulia) cunningly flesh out Paul Brodeur’s thin, abstract 1970 novel. As Rush argued to executives in his typed responses to Columbia Pictures’s script notes (Melvin Simon Productions ended up producing the film), The Stunt Man toys with “illusion and reality, not in the metaphysical sense the book suggested, thank God, but in the very practical sense that there are many sides to the things we see and believe, all of which are part of reality, depending on where you are standing.” The elusive, paranoid Cameron tells Eli something he learned in Vietnam: “You better figure the guy comin’ at you is trying to kill you.” As Rush told the studio suits in his notes (posted at Cinephilia & Beyond), “There is nothing mystical. Only the way you view things based on the information you’ve got.”

Rush said he wanted Cameron’s “nightmare adventure” to mirror “the nightmare uncertainty of our lives.” Rough-edged and wild-eyed, Cameron would have been hard to get behind were it not for the director’s nimble handling of the intensely enigmatic Railsback. Rush’s tilt-a-whirl camera and shifting focus join with his sinuous choreography and lickety-split pacing to plunge us headlong into the fugitive’s point of view. When our antihero tries to hitch a ride in the Duesenberg, the driver boots him out of the car in a tight two-shot, furiously shifts gears in an extreme close-up of his right hand, then speeds off in a wide shot, nearly decapitating Cameron with the passenger-seat door. From the moment Cameron eyeballs the Duesenberg speeding toward him to the climax that puts him behind the wheel of an identical car in the exact same spot, Rush’s shooting, cutting, and blocking mesh in a kinetic-mosaic style that enables us to experience Cameron’s confusion viscerally.

Rush adopts an equally fragmented and primal yet far more fluid style to convey Eli’s Olympian worldview. Eli has chosen to shoot a movie about World War I, “the ultimate romantic insanity,” at another example of romantic insanity, the Hotel del Coronado. Complete with turrets, gables, and rotunda, it resembles a loony Victorian wedding cake. Eli sends troops scrambling up and tumbling down the building’s sharply pitched roofs like the Kaiser’s own Keystone Kops in a slapstick ballet. Eli is the kind of flamboyant high-flier who believes that art must be provocative and iconoclastic. Like Rush, he’s the rare action director who marries the “decisive moment” of photojournalists like Henri Cartier-Bresson to the tour de force of movie sorcerers. In a sequence that puts a post-Vietnam absurdist spin on the “war to end war,” a German tank casually obliterates buildings as it chases Cameron through a raging street fight in a French town square. It follows him in and out of a wine café, leaving nothing but crushed masonry in its wake, before a biplane crashes in front of him and a baby carriage topples on top of him, unloading several baby… pigs. We ultimately see Cameron and the pigs in an overhead shot, as if from God’s point of view, or maybe Eli’s. On this set, there’s no difference.

In its own boisterous way, The Stunt Man achieves a delicate balance. For Cameron, what begins as a man crush on Eli turns into a persecution complex, and for Eli, what starts as a desperate solution to a production-killing problem evolves into a creative spur. Eli tells Cameron, “I’ve fallen madly in love with your dark side.” He draws on the scrambled psyche of his reluctant protegé to enrich a movie that depicts life during wartime as a mad jig in the face of death.

Rush uses every element of film to fuel Eli’s (and his own) far-out, reality-streaked fantasies. Dominic Frontiere’s score is like Kurt Weill played in a clown car, and cinematographer Mario Tosi’s images for the film-within-a-film evoke latter-day Goyas filtered through Mad magazine.

O’Toole nails the whimsy, ruthlessness, and poetry of a character who can be as insanely idealistic as Don Quixote or as regally manipulative as Don Corleone. Hellbent on capturing near-impossible images, Eli is also determined to function as his cast and crew’s ultimate benefactor. At the end, he explains to Cameron, “I couldn’t have you run around paranoid the rest of your life, thinking I was going to kill you.” O’Toole, like Rush, mixes the stylized and the spontaneous. His Eli changes in an instant from a dramatic artist lost in reverie to a fierce Old Testament deity, attacking a camera assistant for calling a premature “Cut!” as if the man had interrupted Genesis in the middle of Day Six.

Creation—in all its madness and exultation—is what The Stunt Man is about. Rush’s directorial vision is more encompassing than Eli’s: it’s Rush who convinces us that Cameron’s wounded psyche interlocks profoundly with Eli’s runaway creativity. Rush builds a multi-layered alternate reality out of material usually relegated to thrill rides. His ecstatic feat carries audiences to peaks of tragicomical transcendence, making 130 minutes fly by in a surge of invention and euphoria. No director ever lived up to his last name better than Rush did in The Stunt Man.

Michael Sragow, a Film Comment contributing editor, wrote Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon, 2008), edited two volumes of James Agee’s prose for the Library of America in 2005, and wrote and co-produced the 2019 documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers.