ON A MID-AUGUST afternoon in 1979, William Arnold slumped in the dark of a pool-house screening room, dreading the whir of the projector. I am going to hate this movie, he thought. Even then, at the beginning of what would be a 30-year career as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s film critic, Arnold, 31, knew better than to prejudge a picture. But this wasn’t so much a writing assignment as an awkward obligation born out of his occupation’s influence, and the movie had all the makings of a bomb.
Earlier in the week, Noel Marshall, the Hollywood producer who had tried unsuccessfully to adapt Shadowland, Arnold’s 1978 investigative book about Frances Farmer’s psychiatric care, called from Los Angeles: “Could you do a favor for an old director friend of mine?” Richard Rush was bringing his struggling, unreleased film, The Stunt Man, to Seattle for an exclusive, one-night sneak preview on Saturday, August 25, but the film’s producers refused to spend money to promote it. “Richard’s made a fantastic film,” Marshall insisted, “but the people who financed it can’t stand it, and nobody wants to release it. I’d really like you to take a look at it.” Rush was counting on the last-ditch Seattle screening to build buzz and convince his investor, Melvin Simon Productions, that the film was worth releasing, but without any advance advertising, he needed a positive review in the P-I to lure an audience to the theater. So Marshall was leaning on Arnold, coaxing the young critic to fly to Los Angeles for a private screening at Rush’s home in Bel Air, California.
Arnold acquiesced—agreeing to Rush’s request that he run a review before the sneak only if he liked the movie—but instantly regretted the decision. Usually, when a producer or studio wanted to shelve one of its pictures, as Rush insisted that his producers were doing to The Stunt Man, it was for a good reason. Anyone who’d seen Simon’s campy vampire spoof Love at First Bite earlier that spring knew that even a halfway decent movie could make a lot of money. And if Rush’s picture couldn’t pass Melvin Simon’s less-than-exacting smell test, it had to be an epic dud.
So there Arnold sat in Rush’s pool house, thinking more about the flight home to Seattle than the movie he’d come to LA to watch, when Rush flipped a switch and the screen lit up with the image of a lone buzzard perched on a light pole. And for the next 130 minutes Arnold’s jaw hung slightly slack. Relative newcomer Steve Railsback played a young, on-the-lam convict who stumbles onto the set of a World War I action movie, where the film’s manipulative, dictatorial director, played by Peter O’Toole, offers him asylum if he’ll work as the leading man’s stunt double. Told almost exclusively from the convict’s perspective, who constantly questions whether his savior is trying to snuff him out on film, The Stunt Man was an unconventional—and at times off-putting—narrative that suffocated its viewer with Railsback’s paranoia as it played with the difference between perception and reality.
Arnold was dumbfounded. He had just watched “one of the most innovative and exciting films to emerge from the American cinema in a long, long time,” as he would write in his review on Friday, August 24—but Rush was convinced that the moneymen behind the picture wanted to kill it.