The Stunt Man (1980):

Richard Rush begins with a freeze frame, then unleashes a montage version of Touch of Evil's single-take opening: the buzzard-dog-car-helicopter-apple-diner chain sets up the rapid rhythm and the agility of the gags. Technical marvels pile on, Steve Railsback is a fugitive who's nearly run over on a bridge; the car plunges into the water below, the bewildered man spots the camera mounted on a helicopter; handheld scrambling mixes with puckish setups to reveal he's stumbled onto somebody's mise en scène. Railsback ambles over to the beach where the WWI epic is being shot, Dusty Springfield croons "nothing is what it seems" as the blue sky gets reproduced on a canvas in the midst of the gawking crowd -- blood is ink, a battlefield turns into slapstick, leading lady Barbara Hershey is first seen beneath layers of old-age latex. Artifice takes over, but who's in the director's chair? Peter O'Toole is the wicked maestro, arriving back on earth via a low-angle shot with evocations of Cervantes and Carroll; the stuntman has drowned, the police are after Railsback, so sanctuary in the studio is offered in exchange for daredevil services. O'Toole supplies splendid comic malevolence, ethereal and mercurial, a deity levitating on the crane and manipulating one and all for the sake of the the all-important shot; Wings is corrected by having Railsback do the Charleston on the wing of his tailspinning plane, and Rush cuts from the stunt being finished to the hero cumming atop Hershey. (The crew directs a spotlight on the smooching couple: "It's only an establishing shot!") The film's meta-position is between Day for Night and Passion, or perhaps between the '70s and the '80s; in any case, the slippery illusionist paraphernalia is an Oktoberfest for the prankster of Freebie and the Bean -- Railsback enacts a crucial ice-cream parlor freakout amid paint and mirrors, while screenwriter Allen Garfield suggests Marat/Sade for one scene before coming up with a risqué bit of business. Itself a naughty bronzed contraption, the movie tinges the joy of its wizardry with hints of cosmic chaos, with Rush positing the screenplay as fate and the camera as god, and then dissipating them all with a sleigh-of-hand of pink smoke. With Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell, Chuck Bail, and Adam Roarke.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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