This brilliant and provocative film has the dubious distinction of sitting on the shelf (like that other good recent release, The Great Santini) with the label "commercially unviable." Lawrence B. Marcus's screenplay is based on Paul Brodeur's 1970 novel of the same title. The movie presents a fast-paced, revealing, and thoroughly engaging look at the movie business. Propelled by the excellent music of Dominic Frontiere and the expert cinematography of Mario Tosi, The Stunt Man is a beguiling work of art which lingers in the mind long after its closing credits.
Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a Vietnam veteran who is being pursued by the police and the FBI. During his flights from the law, he is involved in a strange episode where he apparently causes the death of another man. Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole), a charismatic and authoritarian film director who is making a movie about World War I, offers him work as a stunt man. Cameron soon discovers that the dead man was his predecessor in the job. For a while, the young fugitive is safe from discovery by the police; instead he is at the mercy of the director an obsessed genius who senses that Cameron possesses the feral drive and madness to make his film something extraordinary.
Director Richard Rush thrusts us into the mad mad world of moviemaking, focusing closely on the impact Eli Cross has upon Nina (Barbara Hershey), his screenplay writer (Allen Goorwitz), his chief stunt man (Chuck Bail), and a lusty makeup woman (Sharon Ferrell). We see the hectic last three days of production from Cameron's point of view. He is a walking paranoid who finds a home in Nina's arms. But does she really love him or is he playing a roll orchestrated by Cross? In several daring stunt scenes, Cameron proves his pluck and death-defying courage. But he is afraid that Cross wants to kill him in the sequence where he plunges off a bridge in a car and is forced to pull himself out underwater at the last moment. The nerve-wracking tension of the film is unbearable and it all emanates from the appearance-reality theme which dominates The Stunt Man from beginning to end.
Peter O'Toole's performance is a tour de force as he manipulates people like they were pawns in a complicated chess game. He is at once fatherly and demonic. Steve Railsback (seen as Manson in the TV version of "Helter Skelter") exudes brute force as Cameron, and Barbara Hershey is lovely and mysterious as Nina. This movie deserves our applause. It effectively portrays the movie business as macabre.