After a spotty original release (to say the least) in the early 80s, The Stunt Man (1978) has dipped in and out of view ever since and has gradually become a cherished cult item. The TCM Festival was proud to present a brand new restoration (completed only last week) and as an epitomizing summation of the 70s oddball movie on the fringes of Hollywood, it’s fully deserving.

Adapted and directed by Richard Rush, The Stunt Man centers on a Vietnam vet who’s on the run from the law and inexplicably taken under the wing of an eccentric director (Peter O’Toole), and invited to replace a dead man in the eponymous role on the crew. O’Toole is fantastic, imperious and hilarious, with a great running bit of floating serenely into frame on his crane seat (and reportedly channeling David Lean).

Barbara Hershey swans in and out as the love interest of both the movie and the movie within and Steve Railsback as the “hero” has an endearing surfer look, cautiously bewildered by the oddball world of the movie’s company, and gradually concluding that O’Toole, in his search for a greater sense of truth, actually wants to shoot him dying.

Rush has a great deal of fun faking us out with what’s being shot, what’s really happening and what’s being imagined by staging extended action scenes (all over the multi-gabled roof of the Coronado in San Diego, for example) that are impossible to cover for real. That way we’re constantly slipping between the layers of illusion and reality. His catchphrase for the film is “truth is a matter of the angle from which you happen to be watching” and he makes a pretty decent point of illustrating that.

The film goes on about a half-hour too long and some of the exterior photography is rather dated, but there’s a lot of great details of character and incident of the movie-making life, and an interestingly bizarre (real-world) denouement when Railsback explains why he’s on the run whilst he and Hershey roll around in paint laughing hysterically. It’s perilously close to a straight rip-off of Dennis Hopper’s (awesome) The Last Movie, and ultimately it doesn’t add up to much. The film is admirable if for no other reason than aspiring to the heights of his deliciously absurd conflation of the real and unreal.