American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Richard Rush's "The Stunt Man is like one of those delicate sets of Chinese boxes, each one with another box inside, growing smaller and smaller until finally there is nothing left at all. I don't mean that as a criticism; the film is intended to be seen in that way, as a cinematic puzzle in which there are no answers and the only question is that old standby-what is reality?
The movie takes place on the set of a movie, a World War I flying daredevils-type picture of the sort that hasn't been made since "The Blue Max." Peter O'Toole plays the director of the film-within-the-film, supplying a heavily mannered performance that somehow succeeds in winning us over with its very unlikeliness. He's so very arch and fey that we realize no one like this could really exist-except, possibly, in real life.
This movie set is a chamber of horrors that already has claimed one victim, a stuntman drowned when his car crashed off a bridge. Was his death an accident? Or is O'Toole a maniac who arranged it? Who knows? The movie deliberately teases us with the possibilities. And then the hero (Steve Railsback) stumbles into the picture and, before long, onto the picture.
Railsback is wanted by the cops. He has to hide out. O'Toole discovers his secret and offers him a job, replacing the missing stunt man. Railsback has little choice but to accept, and before long, blackmailed by O'Toole, he's doing the most difficult stunts himself. The only problem is that some of the stunts seem a little too real. Railsback begins to suspect that O'Toole really wants to kill him, either in the service of cinematic art or for some sadistic private purpose. And that is essentially the situation the film repeats, over and over, scene after scene, all the way to the end.