Action-packed "Stunt Man" Before you know it, it's gotcha Anybody could love "The Stunt Man," but it's a movie that movie nuts will love best of all: a great gleeful game of galloping gotcha from beginning to end. There are gotchas within gotchas, just as there is a movie within the movie, and a few of the gotchas may even be those you make up yourself as you begin to feel almost as paranoid as the central character in the picture. The fun starts when a couple of California patrolmen collar a wild-eyed young fugitive at a roadside cafe. The wanted-one distracts the cops and scampers off into the brush locked in handcuffs. Not long after that having chanced upon a lineman's wire cutters and hacked the handcuffs apart the fugitive takes part in a strange little drama in which the driver of a vintage Duesenberg tries to run him down on a lonely country bridge. Then the car disappears in the middle of the bridge. The fugitive, played by Steve Rails-back, presently discovers that he has wandered into the middle of a scene being filmed for a Hollywood movie. A helicopter swoops down to bridge level and he finds himself being stared at by no less a pair of eyes than those great blank, enigmatic orbs of Peter OToole, the adult male Orphan Annie of the movies, in this case playing the director of the movie within, a tempermental egomaniac named Eli Cross. The eyes stare for a few telling moments, and then the helicopter roars away. The fugitive next encounters the movie company on a California beach where they are filming a World War I battle scene. More movie trickery. The fugitive sees a frail old woman fall into the ocean and jumps in to rescue her, only to discover that she is the war movie's beautiful young heroine in old-age make-up. Cops arrive on the beach to question the movie crew about a stunt man drowned in a Duesenberg he has driven off a bridge. And to alert the movie folks to be on the alert for the fugitive. The director, in a moment of inspiration, passes off the fugitive as Burt, Will Jones after last night the stuntman who drove the Duesenberg, claiming Burt made a miraculous underwater escape. Railsback now becomes Burt, the stunt man. He's welcome to keep the cover as long as he performs some very dangerous stunts the director needs yet to film. And that's just the beginning of all the inspired nuttiness afoot here, folks. Is this crazy director really protecting a dangerous fugitive from the law? Is he just trying to get some difficult action scenes out of the Railsback character before letting him get killed off? Or does the director, as he claims, really take inspiration from the strange, intense young man who has wandered onto his set? When the film's often-frustrated writer wonders why Cross is taking such chances with an amateur who is wanted by the police, the director explains patiently: "He helps me to understand the young man in our story." To the new stunt man himself the director adds, "I've fallen madly in love with the dark side of your nature." Anyway, World War I rages merrily around southern California, with Our Hero in the thick of it when the going is rough, to be replaced by the film's star hero in the closeups. And the audience for "The Stunt Man" is left never quite knowing what's real, what's trickery and which is meant to be which. That's about the same position the newly anointed Burt is in most of the time. The war movie's heroine, played by Barbara Hershey, impressed at the lad's gallantry in rescuing her when he thought she was an old woman, falls in love with him. But how much is real love, and how much is movie magic? The Rails-back character has occasion to wonder about that sometimes, too. It would seem to be enough that "The Stunt Man" and the war movie keep getting tangled up within one another, but there are additional delightful gotchas as members of the film crew work elaborate, witty practical jokes on one another. And then, for customers who remember Railsback for his role as Charles Manson in the TV movie "Helter Skelter," there's an additional gotcha factor going here. Rails-back comes on with those same intense, burning, Mansonesque eyes. The matter of precisely why he is wanted remains a mystery for a long, long time, and those mad eyes contribute to the build-up of audience concern about his guilt or innocence of God-knows-what heinous offenses. God? That could be Cross, enthroned on his high-flying crane, who keeps swooping in and out of the lives of his cast and crew, at times popping into scenes like some cloud-borne deity. When he's actually accused of playing God with the lives of his film company, the director answers, "If God could do the tricks that we can do, He'd be a happy man." In this film, God could be trying to play Eli Cros. And when the O'Toole eyes meet the Railsback eyes, God and the Devil themselves could be squaring off. Their final confrontation sends audiences out of the theater grinning as they conjecture. Director Richard Rush claims to have spent nine years trying to get someone in Hollywood to let him make this movie. His perseverance is to be cheered, along with Melvin Simon, the movie-minded money man who saw the light. Rush adapted the movie notion from a novel by Paul Brodeur, and Lawrence B. Marcus did the final screenplay. Mario Tosi was director of photography, and a couple of dozen stunt men busted their buns for his cameras on the land, in the air and under the water.