Categories
British Comedy

School for Scoundrels

Film - School For Scoundrels - Into Film

As an ex-academic, BBC comedy writer, and member of The Savile Club, Stephen Potter had ample opportunity to observe all the ways British culture provided to “win without cheating”: the perfectly timed cough when your golf opponent is about to tee off, the lightly dismissive remark that flusters a fellow diner in the midst of his lengthy anecdote, the artful humblebrag that reduces listeners to simpering admiration. It’s all part of what we now call “gamesmanship”, a neologism Potter popularized in 1947 in the first of several best-selling parodies of self-help books. In 1960, Hal Chester, Patricia Moyes, Frank Tarloff, and Peter Ustinov (the latter two uncredited) fashioned Potter’s works into the script for a quintessentially British comedy: School for Scoundrels.

The plot: Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael, made for these sorts of roles) is the ineffectual inheritor of his father’s company. Though Henry is ostensibly the boss, his employees do not respect him, and neither for that matter does anyone else. His life as a polite doormat takes a sudden turn when something very good literally falls into his path: the utterly lovely and charming April Smith (a winsome Janette Scott). But he soon has a romantic rival in the form of ultra-smooth cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas, made for those sorts of roles), who dazzles April and consistently gets the better of Henry. In desperation, Henry enrolls in a “School of Lifemanship” overseen by Headmaster S. Potter (ahem). This cynical, crafty instructor (Alastair Sim, always a joy) teaches Henry gamesmanship, oneupmanship, and woomanship. Thus fortified, he returns to seek revenge on Raymond and win April’s heart.

A British Cinema Blog | William hartnell, Sims, Scoundrel

The director’s credit for this little comic gem reads Robert Hamer, who made the hilarious Kind Hearts and Coronets as well as a trend-setting noirish kitchen sink drama I recommended, It Always Rains on Sunday. Unfortunately, by 1960 his alcoholism was out of control and he was fired in the middle of this film. He never directed again and died a few years later. Hal Chester and Cyril Frankel are said to have to directed the remaining scenes.

Having three directors would ruin most movies. But the professionalism and experience of the cast shines through despite at all, with all the leads doing well, especially Terry-Thomas in perhaps the best performance of his career. The talented supporting players include many staples of British comedy such as John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques, Irene Handl, Dennis Price, and Peter Jones.

The other enormous virtue is the mordant script which sets up numerous funny scenes in which characters find ingenious ways to get the edge on each other. The humor is sometimes farcical and at other times subtle, a mix that may not be to all tastes but that I found most pleasing. If not at the level of the most lauded British post-war comedies, School for Scoundrels still delivers many laughs as well as a surprisingly sweet romantic resolution.

p.s. Janette Scott is the daughter of British television legend Dame Thora Hird.

Categories
British Comedy

I’m All Right Jack

I'm All Right Jack (1959) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

The hit British comedies of the 1950s and 1960s don’t age consistently well. Just about everything from Ealing Studios holds up today, but outside of that, it’s hit or miss. I don’t doubt that the The Knack…and How to Get it and the comedy-drama Billy Liar made audiences roar with laughter at the time (at least to the extent British audiences ever roar with laughter), but for me at least, they don’t generate more than the occasional smile. In contrast, I laughed out loud repeatedly while watching the film that was number one at the British box office in 1959: I’m All Right Jack.

Based on Alan Hackney’s comic novel, the film stars Ian Carmichael effectively playing (what else?) a well-meaning innocent baffled by the people and world around him. His Stanley Windrush is a kind but rather useless upper-class chap who longs for a meaningful job after his father (Miles Malleson) retires to a nudist colony. Following a series of amusingly disastrous job enquiries, Stanley’s uncle and two old army friends (Charming rogues Dennis Price, Richard Attenborough, and Terry-Thomas) get him a factory job. His Aunt Dolly (that acting treasure, Dame Margaret Rutherford) is none too keen on Stanley mingling with the working class, but he enthusiastically plows forward nonetheless. His work ethic at the factory, far from being appreciated, generates a furious reaction from shop steward Fred Kite (Peter Sellers) and his fellow work-to-rule layabouts. Stanley is not sure he’s cut out for life in a unionized workplace, until he meets Fred’s curvaceous daughter Cynthia (Liz Fraser) who toils in the plant as (cough) a spindle polisher. Hilarious machinations by slimy corporate executives, soft-headed labor activists, and a romantically inclined Stanley ensue.

Carry On Blogging!: Carry On Faces in Different Places: I'm All Right Jack

In the 1950s, Peter Sellers was a radio star from The Goon Show, but had only played small parts in movies (e.g., The Lavender Hill Mob). At the decade’s close his cinematic career suddenly went into orbit with the release of The Mouse That Roared and I’m All Right Jack. Verbally and visually, he’s as funny as you would expect here, but he also creates a complete character. His Fred Kite is forceful and confident outside the home but lost and helpless within it, with a wife (Irene Handl) and daughter who run rings around him. Sellers also appears as Sir John in a funny opening bit unrelated to the main story, presaging a number of other films in which he skillfully played multiple parts.

I'm All Right Jack review – Philip French on the Boulting brothers' biting  state-of-the-nation satire | DVD and video reviews | The Guardian

This light-hearted film was made by the Boulton Brothers, and is a million miles from their famously nasty 1947 noir Brighton Rock (my recommendation here). Beginning in the 1950s, they made a series of popular comedies lampooning the British Establishment (e.g., academia, the military, the legal profession). The brothers were committed socialists, but clearly not of the pious and scowling sort: I’m All Right Jack satirizes trade unions as effectively as any movie in British cinema history (not that management is spared a skewering). With lines like “We can’t concede the principal that a worker should be fired for incompetence, that’s victimization” this film feels a bit like a precursor to Monty Python’s immortal People’s Front of Judea. The Boultons were particularly gifted at overtly lionizing institutions while implicitly making them ridiculous, as in the sequences here that mime the self-serious “British industry leads the way!” style narration used in newsreels of the period.

p.s. This is actually a sort of sequel to Private’s Progress, a prior Boulton Brothers adaptation of Alan Hackney’s writings in which Carmichael, Price, Thomas, Malleson, and Attenborough all played the same characters. It’s an entertaining flick, but I’m All Right Jack surpasses it.

Categories
Comedy Drama

The Front

Front, The (1976) -- (Movie Clip) Make It A Firing Squad

Hollywood has always been fascinated with itself, so it’s not surprising how many movies address the “blacklisting” of suspected communists in the 1950s (Guilty by Suspicion, Trumbo, and Hail, Caesar! to name only a few). Among the best of these is a 1976 film made by a director (Martin Ritt), screenwriter (Walter Bernstein), and actors (Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough) who were blacklisted themselves: The Front.

The plot: An underachieving, improvident, but essentially decent nobody named Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is approached by an old friend (Michael Murphy) who can no longer sell his scripts because he’s been blacklisted. Howard agrees to front the scripts as if they were his own in exchange for a 10% take. Howard gets cockier as “his” scripts are well received and result in romantic attention from a television producer (Andrea Marcovicci). Seeking more glory and more cash, he recklessly volunteers to take on fronting scripts from even more blacklisted writers. Meanwhile, Prince forms a friendship with Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), a once big star whose career is declining based on some extremely tenuous connections to communists in the past. As the feds start investigating the increasingly famous Howard Prince, lives, careers, and morals, are imperiled.

The film is simultaneously a comedy and a drama. Most of the comedy comes from Allen, who plays within his usual range and is amusing doing so. The drama comes mainly from Zero Mostel, in a performance with psychic weight. Hecky is not a serious man. He likes to make people laugh. He only flirted with communism to impress a woman he was lusting after. Yet the feds treat his alleged subversiveness with deadly seriousness, resulting in him being ground to pieces bit by humiliating bit.

The Front (1976) Martin Ritt | Twenty Four Frames

In a solid supporting cast, I would single Herschel Bernardi out for praise. Bernardi isn’t much-remembered today, but he was a very fine actor who was the best thing about Blake Edwards’ superb television show Peter Gunn (recommended here). He has a lighter role here as the producer of the show for which Prince writes. As a man who wants to stand up for what’s right but can’t quite do it, he’s believable and appealing.

Mixing comedy and serious drama effectively takes directorial skill, and Ritt, a real pro, is up to the task. Walter Bernstein’s polished script is an asset in this regard even though his portrayal of blacklisted writers is unrealistically saintly (though one appreciates the origin of his bias!).

The Front was underappreciated by critics at the time and to a lesser extent that’s still true today. Many felt that unrelentingly grim, hard-hitting drama was the only appropriate tone for stories about the blacklist. But if the people who actually went through it can appreciate the absurdity of it, can find black humor in the mockery of it, perhaps these critics can stop getting their undies in a wad over The Front being entertaining, rather than merely earnest, eat your peas moral instruction.

p.s. Look fast for Danny Aiello as a fruit seller who into gambling on the side, or perhaps the other way around.

Categories
Action/Adventure Comedy Foreign Language

Ernest & Celestine

I received some nice notes from parents who enjoyed watching my recommendation A Cat in Paris with their kids (as well as from some non-parents who enjoyed it just for themselves). So I return this week to the same terrain with another absolutely charming French-language animated film that was re-dubbed for American audiences: Ernest & Célestine (French/Belgian title Ernest et Celestine).

Based on the popular illustrated children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, the film relates the tale of two communities that fear and distrust each other. Above ground live the bears, who tell their little children about the mouse tooth fairy who will leave them a coin under their pillow in exchange for a lost tooth, but in their hearts loathe mice (except of course when they want to eat them). Below ground live the mice, who steal the bear teeth to compensate for the loss of their precious incisors. A soulful young mouse named Celestine rebels against a mandated career in dentistry, dreaming instead of becoming an artist. Meanwhile, a ne’er do well bear named Ernest is struggling to make ends meet. Fate brings this mis-matched pair together in a daring robbery spree that advances both of their goals, but also puts the police forces of both worlds on their track.

The film has multiple laugh out loud moments, but mainly it’s a sweet 79 minute smile fest. The joy of friendship and the thrill of rebelling against unfairness take center stage. The animation is marvelous, particularly the surge of color that erupts as Ernest and Celestine’s friendship grows concurrent with the coming of spring.

Although its heroes are a pair of robbers, the film is highly moral. Their victims are an avaricious married couple for whom we feel no sympathy (He sells little bears sugary candy and she sells them replacement teeth after their originals rot away). Even more importantly, the film sends a wonderful message about the power of friendship and understanding to overcome prejudice between groups.

As with a Cat in Paris, the dubbers of the American version did not spare expense in picking the voice actors: Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Forest Whitaker and Jeffrey Wright all essay their parts with gusto. Also on hand is a rising 12-year old talent, namely a pre-Interstellar Mackenzie Foy, who voices our heroine. At the other end of life’s journey, with sadness I note that this was my beloved Bacall‘s last film.

This warm and entertaining movie deservedly carried off a boatload of awards. It’s superlative viewing for the whole family.

Categories
Comedy Documentaries and Books

Three Oscar Snubs

Rather than focus on a single film, I am going to commend to you to three fine movies that the Motion Picture Academy snubbed by failing to recognize Oscar-worthy work.

Comic performances are massively undervalued by Oscar voters, who just don’t seem to appreciate what the legendary English actor Edmund Kean allegedly said when terminally ill: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard”. Exhibit A this week is Steve Martin’s brilliant performance in All of Me, in which he plays a man whose body is partially taken over by the spirit of deceased harridan (a quite funny Lily Tomlin). Martin’s matchless comic gifts make this movie a joy to watch. This clip is one of the highlights because it lets Martin demonstrate his flair for hilarious physical comedy. It’s appalling that he didn’t even garner a Best Actor Oscar Nomination. Shame on you, Academy philistines!

The next snub comes from another funny Steve Martin movie, Bowfinger, but this time it’s Eddie Murphy who was robbed at Oscar time. Murphy plays both an arrogant, psychologically unstable movie star (first clip) and his meek, errand boy brother (second clip). Hang your head Oscar, this was a Peter Sellers-like multi-character tour de force and you didn’t even nominate Murphy for his comic genius.

In addition to comic performances, the Oscars also have a blind spot regarding movies about African-Americans. Perhaps the most inexcusable snub in Oscar history is that the powerful, moving documentary Hoop Dreams not only didn’t get nominated for Best Picture — it wasn’t even nominated for best documentary! The entire nomination committee should have publicly committed seppuku to atone for their sins. My review of this magnificent film is right here.

Categories
Comedy Horror/Suspense

House on Haunted Hill

Producer/director William Castle was part film maker and part carnival barker, being famous for gimmicks such as placing nurses in theater lobbies ostensibly to aid any viewers who were overcome with fright, wiring seats to give mild shocks when a monstrous “Tingler” came on the screen, and, for this week’s film, pioneering “Emergo” technology which released a skeleton on a wire to sail over the audience. In 1959, he made what I consider his best film as a director: House on Haunted Hill.

Set at the historic Ennis House in Los Angeles, the film’s agreeably silly plot features menacing millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) who has offered a disparate cast of characters $10,000 to spend one night surrounded by ghosties and ghoulies. The event is allegedly a party for his current, faithless, wife Annabelle (Carol Ohlmart), who herself fears sharing the fate of her mysteriously deceased predecessors. The guests are a mousy secretary in Loren’s company (Carolyn Craig), a handsome test pilot (Richard Long), a stuffy psychiatrist (Alan Marshal), a money-hungry newspaper columnist (Ruth Bridgers) and the alcoholic survivor of some of the people who have been murdered in the house (Elisha Cook Jr.). The closing credits also include another cast member, in typical Castle tongue-in-cheek style: a skeleton appearing as “himself”.

I first saw this film on television when I was about 5 years old, and it gave me nightmares for months. I could not appreciate then what I can now, namely that Castle always served his horror with side dishes of corn and ham. There are certainly creepy moments and shocks in the film, but there is also campy fun, much of it courtesy of old hands Price and Cook. It’s also progressively amusing over the course of the film that the majority of Carolyn Craig’s dialogue becomes “Eeeeeeeekkkk!!!!!!!”.

House on Haunted Hill is spooky fun in the best Castle tradition. I recommend it for strong entertainment value and as the high point of the movies Castle made himself.

I say “by himself” because Castle was later associated with one of the greatest horror films in Hollywood history, albeit with an assist. Not long before he died, Castle purchased the rights to Rosemary’s Baby and brought the project to Robert Evans at Paramount. Evans wisely agreed to let Castle produce the film only if Roman Polanski helmed the project, and a classic film was born.

p.s. In case you are wondering, here is the fun-loving Castle’s “Emergo” gimmick in action.

An audience reacts to “Emergo”
Categories
Comedy Romance

When Harry Met Sally

I recommended Steve Martin’s effort to make a Woody Allen movie (L.A. Story); let me now recommend Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s attempt to do the same: When Harry Met Sally.

In one of the signature romantic comedies of the 1980s, college students Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) meet not-so-cute on a long drive east. He is slovenly, self-involved and a bit of a sexist pig. She is uptight, judgmental and a million miles from being in touch with her feelings. They grate on each other during the road trip and forget about each afterwards, until a chance meeting some years later. Harry, chastened by a messy divorce, has become less smug and more likable to Sally. Sally in contrast thinks she has found enduring love with Joe (Steven Ford), making romance with Harry out of the question. With the possibility of a sexual relationship out of the way (or is it?), they can develop (or can they?) something neither of them has had before: A platonic, intimate friendship with a member of the opposite sex.

The extremely positive audience reaction to this funny, warm film was a surprise to its makers in 1989, but When Harry Met Sally is now widely considered a treasure of the genre. The leads create appealing, funny characters (much on set ad libbing helped enormously, making an amusing script even moreso). Strong supporting work by the two best friend foil characters is another asset (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher), not least because Ephron’s script is perceptive and honest about how men and women talk about each other when the other sex isn’t around.

As a director, Reiner — on whose dating experiences this film is partly based — wisely puts significant faith in his actors, which is richly rewarded. In preparing for the film he interviewed long-standing couples about their marriages, and adapted these stories into charming inserts in which the mysteries of love are explained by those for whom it all worked out in the end.

This film mirrors Woody Allen’s magnificent Annie Hall so closely in plot, location, themes – even the opening credits and music – that it’s hard not to compare the two films. Annie Hall has more big laughs and although Crystal and Ryan are good they are simply not performers at the level of Allen and Keaton. As for comedic tone, Annie Hall has some bite whereas When Harry Met Sally — consistent with the dominant style of its era — is punch-pulling fluff; viewer preferences for style of humor will make one or the other movie a more rewarding experience, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

But in one respect, the more recent film leaves Annie Hall in the dust. Allen’s film is made entirely from his male point of view, but the Ephron-scripted When Harry Met Sally is more gender-balanced in its take on heterosexual romance and also develops its female characters more fully. The result is a winning date movie, whether it’s a first date or a 30th anniversary.

Categories
Comedy Drama

Everything Must Go

Raymond Carver penned a bleak, oblique, short story about an alcoholic husband whose possessions are scattered all over his front lawn, which leads passersby to assume mistakenly that he is conducting a yard sale. First time writer/director Dan Rush spun this unusual premise into a more extended story and turned it into a fine independent movie that too few people noticed: Everything Must Go.

The plot: The life of salesman Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is collapsing around him. His drunken misbehavior on a business trip leads to him being sued and fired. Returning home, he finds that his long-suffering wife has left him, locking him out of the house and having all his possessions dumped onto the front lawn on her way out. With his credit cards cancelled and his bank account locked, Nick only has the cash in his pocket, which he spends on cases of beer. He settles into his recliner and begins living amidst the wreckage on his front lawn, gulping Pabst Blue Ribbon, watching his neighbors, and interacting with a series of visitors to his new home.

Among the best moments in this film is one that could have been a disaster. A bike-riding teenage African-American boy (Christopher C.J. Wallace) engages with Nick beginning about 15 minutes in. When this scene started, I cringed thinking “Oh no, not another soulful, wise, Black character who helps a lost Caucasian protagonist find meaning again”. But Rush is too talented a writer to fall into that cliché. Instead we get a well-rounded, well-acted Black character named Kenny Loftus, a mass of undirected talent and low self-confidence whose weaknesses and strengths interlock perfectly with Nick’s.

Nick’s relationship with Kenny and with a pregnant, perhaps abandoned woman who is moving in across the street (Rebecca Hall) are the emotional heart of the movie, supplemented by Nick’s interactions with his AA sponsor (Michael Peña) and encounter with a woman he knew in high school (Laura Dern). With so much focus on the central character’s relationships and not much action in the story, this film lives or dies with Ferrell, and he rings true every time. Of course he is funny at the funny moments, but his vulnerability in the story’s painful moments is also achingly well-done. He turns Nick into a character that the audience roots for not because he will ever be a superhero, but because we just don’t want such a good-hearted but flawed human being to go on destroying himself.

The film’s second half has some structural flaws. A number of movies employ plot symmetry in which a character’s evolution is illustrated by having a series of encounters from the first half of the movie replayed in altered form in the second half. Sometimes this works (e.g., A Clockwork Orange), but here it feels forced, particularly Nick’s encounter near the end of the film with the boss who fired him in the first scene. Rush also gives in a bit too much to sentimentality in how he wraps up some of the relationships in the movie.

But the originality of the premise, the honest moments and the strong performances make Everything Must Go a promising debut for writer/director Dan Rush. I hope we see more from him.

I also hope we will see more dramatic performances from Will Ferrell. One of the foundational injustices of how people judge movies is the widespread lack of appreciation that giving a good comic performance is as hard or harder as giving a good dramatic performance. When a comedic actor crosses over to a dramatic role and does well at it, most people say “I didn’t realize s/he could act” when they should say “Maybe being a comic actor takes more acting ability than I realize”. Will Ferrell, like Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray et al. have been good actors all along, we just don’t seem to notice it when we are laughing so hard.

Categories
Comedy Romance

The Mating Season

If I told you I was going to recommend a funny 1951 movie about class differences, you would naturally expect something British. But The Mating Season shows that post-war Americans too could also mine the comic possibilities of people from different economic strata rubbing shoulders.

The plot of this mistitled little gem: Ellen McNulty (Thelma Ritter) is a widow whose hamburger stand has gone bankrupt. She embarks on a long journey to visit her son Val, whom she and her hardworking husband were able to put through college. Val is a low level white collar manager (John Lund) trying to impress the big boss so that he can get ahead. After Val meets cute with the ravishing Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney), daughter of a wealthy ambassador, the two fall in love and a wedding is quickly arranged, coincidentally on the day that Ellen is to arrive. Before you can say “screwball comedy” the young bride mistakes her dowdy, working class new mother-in-law for a maid, and the mother decides to play along, moving in to the new couple’s apartment!

This is a film about how working class people can be both proud of their origins yet ashamed of them at the same time, particularly as conveyed through Lund’s character. Val both loves his mother and is embarrassed of her (His chemistry with Ritter is so natural it’s hard to believe they weren’t actually mother and son). Similarly, he both despises his rich, crummy boss yet also can’t resist the impulse to tug his forelock in front of him.

The movie is also wise about how wealth makes some people generous and turns others into snobs. I don’t know if it was in the filmmaker’s minds or not, but it’s also intriguing to watch in terms of gender roles: Even though Val has little money and Maggie is rich, they both assume he will be the sole provider and the couple end up in debt as a result.

But despite all that, this isn’t A Place in the Sun; the film’s accent is on laughs rather than dark drama and The Mating Season is delightful on those terms. Miriam Hopkins is hilariously over-dramatic as Tierney’s pampered and entitled mother, and Ritter, as she showed in so many other films (including my recommendation Pickup on South Street), can deliver a wisecrack out of the side of her mouth with the best of them. She was so good at being a character actor that Hollywood didn’t seem able to see her in any other light: Despite being the star here, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Roger Ebert used to point out how few Hollywood films take work and household budgets seriously. In the movies, single mom cocktail waitresses have huge apartments in Manhattan, architects are obligated only to look at a drafting board in their den in the evening rather than go into an office, and no one is ever shown paying their electric bill or doing their taxes. The Mating Season is a welcome exception to this rule, as Ellen works out how to deal with her failing hamburger stand, hitchhikes to save on travel expenses, scrambles for the money to pay her bills (including having to work for two days as an office temp for “Mr. Pinchbottom”), finds affordable-but-tatty lodgings and otherwise scrimps and saves. Throughout Ellen’s struggles, the film appropriately portrays as noble her and her husband’s ability to have afforded college for their son despite their modest means, rather than being condescending toward the aspirations that millions of post-war working class Americans shared.

Director Mitchell Leisen was not a consistently strong artist, but he was good enough when, as here, he had a strong script from which to work. The Mating Season’s is by Walter Reisch, Richard Breen and Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator). In addition to some memorable zingers, the trio’s script also has some funny 1950s style sexual innuendo. This team went on to win an Academy Award for screenwriting together two years later for Titanic, but they could just as deservedly won for The Mating Season.

The Mating Season is American in style, but stands shoulder to shoulder with all the Ealing Studio comedies that alternated between having the audience laugh about class differences and nod their heads in recognition of the truths we so often don’t openly discuss.

Categories
Action/Adventure Comedy Drama

The Stunt Man

If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.

The late Peter O’Toole signed on to many over the top, unconventional films (no small number of them when he was intoxicated). This resulted in him headlining some legendary stinkers (e.g., Caligula). But it also landed him plum roles in off-beat masterworks such as The Ruling Class (recommended here) and The Stunt Man.

The film was released to only a handful of theaters in 1980 (In O’Toole’s words, “it wasn’t released, it escaped”) because the studios had no faith in it. Some critics found the film pretentious, manipulative and tiresome, yet it ended up on other critic’s best of the year lists and landed three Oscar nominations. Over time it has attracted a cult following, which it very much deserves, despite its flaws.

The Stunt Man is a film that messes with the minds of the characters — and with the audience’s as well — by relentlessly mixing movie fantasy with reality. The unreality is embedded in the plot from the first. An alienated Viet Nam veteran named Cameron (Steve Railsback) is wanted for an unknown crime and flees the police, only to find himself in what seems to be World War I. But it’s actually a war movie being directed by Eli Cross (O’Toole). Cameron has a run in with a man he thinks is trying to kill him, but who turns out to be a stunt man shooting a scene. The stunt man dies, and Cameron may or may not be responsible: only the film shot of the event by Cross could reveal the truth. As the police close in, Cross makes Cameron a bizarre offer: to hide within the movie company as a replacement stunt man so that Cross can complete the movie! Cameron agrees, and from then on is manipulated, tricked and exploited while simultaneously trying to romance the lovely starlet Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), who seems to have genuine feelings for him…or is that just a manipulation too?

Yes, it’s one hell of a set up. But then again, the script is adapted from a novel in which all the lead characters are insane. The writer/director was Richard Rush, an eccentric, talented but ultimately unsuccessful Hollywood figure whose erratic career path is probably worth a novel of its own. If everyone has one great movie in him, this is Rush’s, and he went for broke, mixing black comedy, action, romance, suspense and satire with largely successful results.

The best thing about the film is Peter O’Toole, who turns in another of his unrestrained, arch performances as Eli Cross. His part is written to be larger than life, and he plays it to the hilt. They say the best roles for British actors are kings and drunks. O’Toole played many of both in his career, and was in real life a King among Drunks. It wasn’t happenstance that he was nominated for an acting Oscar 8 times yet could never quite seal the deal with Academy Award voters (The Stunt Man was one of those disappointments). His distinctive style and obvious talent draws most of us in, but at the same time his flamboyant performances put a significant minority of people off because they feel that he is just playing Peter O’Toole again.

Other strengths of the film are the memorable score by Dominic Frontiere and some vivid supporting performances which help compensate for Railsback being rather one-note as the film’s hero. Also, true to its name, this film is full of jaw-dropping stunts.

The script, with its movie-in-a-movie, riddle-in-a-riddle structure is a matter of taste. I found it a work of near-genius, but I can understand why other viewers consider it exhausting and even alienating. This scene from the film gives a sense of the proceedings, and the compelling nature of O’Toole’s appropriately theatrical portrayal of a mad genius filmmaker. Give this unusual film a chance and make your own judgement.