The ‘70s were the age of the blockbuster with an A-level. Big, sprawling glossily shot films like 2001 (1969), Apocalypse Now (1978), combining lavish set pieces with Big Things to say about the world. It was mainstream Hollywood’s adolescence, as Tinseltown went off on a gap decade to explore new ideas, experiment with editing, send its laundry home once a month and, naturally, celebrate their individuality by becoming as self-importantly po-faced as every other army greatcoat-wearing campus oaf. A sense of humour was considered unnecessary by cinema’s new sixth form. You won’t find much to laugh at in 2001 (a terrible gag about a zero gravity khazi and the muted appearance of Leonard Rossiter being the nearest thing you get to a grin). Fortunately one smartarse blockbuster snuck in at the very end of the decade, a fat and frantic paranoid adventure that had its cake of weighty seriousness iced with a fusillade of sly swipes at the very intellectual Hollywood sub-culture it sprang from.
Steve Railsback is a down-at-heel Vietnam vet who escapes from police custody and goes on the run. The first sanctuary he comes upon is the set of a hysterical World War One film being directed by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), a fruitily tyrannical director who expounds on big themes as a huge beach invasion is shot. Cross is under investigation by the FBI after one of his stuntmen drowned in a vintage car, Railsback’s not exactly in a hurry to go anywhere, so he’s offered the job of replacing – in fact impersonating – the dead stuntman to cover both their arses. Throw in a tentative romance with the film’s female lead Barbara Hershey and the stage is set for two hours of wilfully disorientating fun. O’Toole and Hershey are at it behind Railsback’s back – or are they? The director is a megalomaniac with the crew united against him – or is he? The cops seem to be rather easily fooled – or are they?
You see what kind of a film this is (or do you?) Director Richard Rush’s pet project languished in development hell for a decade. So did Cross’s. O’Toole once turned up on set as Cross, wearing exactly the same outfit as Rush. Such practical joking among film crews is the source of many a paranoid moment for Railsback, and the audience. That beach battle scene is enjoyed by watching holidaymakers, politely applauding at every exploding biplane until the smoke clears to reveal what at first looks like real, horrific carnage. The good-natured rough and tumble of Railsback’s stunt supervisor often looks scarily like a real attempt to kill him. And looming large is the final stunt, a re-run of the car-off-bridge scene that killed the original stuntman. The stunt scenes are all immaculate, centring round a lengthy rooftop chase under biplane attack, which leads to Railsback falling through a skylight into a slightly too authentic-looking continental brothel. Shot both as it would be seen in the film and in ‘behind the scenes’ mode, these are as satisfyingly sumptuous as anything from a contemporary ‘war is hell’ picture, with added cheek to boot. Even when people are just talking, Rush lays on the unsettling details. Scenery is shifted in and out of shot behind actors. Things are done with reflections in glass. Smoke rings hover into the foreground just as Railsback mimes firing a gun in the background. These aren’t lazy borrowings from the Hollywood Boys’ Book of How to Make a Classic Film. It really doesn’t look quite like anything else.
So far it sounds like a mix of action chestnuts and cold, tricksy Chinese box folderol, but the performances give it plenty of wallop in the heart department. Railsback is a refreshingly unsympathetic lead. The audience have to be on his side because they see everything through his eyes, but it’s an uneasy alliance. The precise details of his crime are kept secret for ages, and when they do come out, it’s in a storm of clumsy wailing violence even Rhett Butler couldn’t ameliorate by dusting himself off and smouldering into the lens. Hershey is great too, not taking any crap from anyone and keeping her own motives very secret. O’Toole, naturally, steals the show, spouting self-justifying claptrap like a first language and having a whale of a time both in and out of character, either hovering in a chopper or following Railsback around in his rather nifty crane-mounted camera chair. The film won critical plaudits and Oscar nominations galore, so how come Richard Rush never made another film until limp Bruce Willis psycho-sauce affair Color of Night (1994)? And how come The Stunt Man never makes it into the mutually agreed pantheon of clever blockbusters with your Deer Hunters, Apocalypse Nows and Mean Streetses? Maybe because it doesn’t fit in. Maybe because it’s too ‘zany’, not pompous enough. Or maybe because, if critics included its tightly-coiled demolition of egotistical Hollywood pseuds among their other exhibits, it might lead them to ask what exactly is supposed to be so great and enlightening and true about Marlon Brando chatting fart about a snail in the dark? And that sort of thing would never do.