Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I can see a lot of people watching Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and asking, 'where's the
movie?' It's a shaggy dog story that finishes before a lot of people realize it's over. A good
example of the influence of European trends on American films, Dead Heat keeps the
audience guessing about what is going on for most of its length. It's a caper film, and we wait
for the hook, the trick, the gimmick, hoping we're following the plot. James Coburn makes
for a charming thief, but the glamour of big-time confidence games goes sour as we
realize what a heel he is. The film is atypically engaging; it was a sleeper hit in 1966 but not
a runaway success.
Eli Kotch (James Coburn) shows so many faces to so many people, nobody knows the
real man. By seducing women, he obtains a parole from prison and amasses a small fortune
in burglary proceeds to buy another convict's secret plans of a bank security system. He then
undertakes an amazingly adroit daytime robbery right under the noses of the LAPD during a state
visit by a foreign dignitary. He fools everyone and keeps his cool, especially while cruelly
using sweet young Inger Knudson (Camilla Sparv), whom he marries as part of his scheme.
Character actor James Coburn hit it big with
Our Man Flint and could have gone the
many another second-stringer elevated beyond his level. Coburn wisely took lead parts that
were actually character roles, thereby avoiding wearing out his welcome. He also chose interesting
directors to work with. Both Theodore J. Flicker (of The President's Analyst) and this film's
Bernard Girard were talents that made few movies; Coburn had his share of dogs like anyone but
turned up in some of the most interesting shows of the late 60s.
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round uses a quirky ellipsis pattern that confuses many viewers, and
may seem mannered by others. The first part of the narrative, as Eli Kotch moves about the country
fleecing the unfortunate women he sweeps into bed is about as ellipsed as ellipsis can get. We
barely meet Rose Marie, and we cut to the aftermath as she describes how he's stolen her paintings.
It's a straight role for her, but handled very much like Martha Raye in Chaplin's Monsieur
Kotch takes advantage of dumb blonde Nina Wayne, and the story can't even linger long enough for
a bedroom scene. We experience Eli like his women do: he's here one minute and gone the next.
Eli slips into various disguises, trades and voices to carry off his chicanery. In these Coburn is
good within his limits. His voice and self-assuredness makes him more handsome than he is; star
quality in his case is the kind that allows him to retain our interest and approval even when doing
nothing more interesting than walking through apartment buildings and airport lobbies.
All the fun con-man games are simple ones. Kotch relies on his skill at charming and betraying new
acquaintances. The stakes become a little less comforting when he completely
hoodwinks servant Inger Knudson, a sweet woman who honestly loves him, or at least loves the
intellectual writer he pretends to be while around her. She's played with winning vulnerability
by Camilla Sparv, a European import actress who acts as well as she looks.
As the caper takes shape Coburn gathers his crew, a small group of pros that are minimally
sketched. At last on the familiar ground of the Caper film, we watch every detail of the heist to
see where Coburn makes his mistake. That's the true mettle of a Caper story: not how clever the
plan is, but what makes it go wrong, and how the crooks react when it does. Coburn's plan is so
slick that we honestly don't know what to expect. Director Girard doesn't use suspense techniques
to make us think the heist is in jeopardy. And the major subplot begins to seem like an elaborate
diversion. Government agent Robert Webber's arranges a terribly complicated visit from the Soviet
Premier, but we don't see how it relates to Coburn's story except in providing the airport
confusion to make his crime go more smoothly.
The two plots do tie together eventually, but in unexpected ways. I'm going to skip over the
spoiler-inducing explanations, as Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is one picture that you
definitely don't want spoiled.
Most capers are about overreaching ambitions and the urge to cut corners to success, and most of
them end with the robbers dead, captured or at least foiled in their aims. Dead Heat on a
Merry-Go-Round isn't about the crime itself, but instead seems to be about the immense effort
we spend on material goals at the expense of human relationships. Eli Kotch's crime is almost
irrelevant: half the law enforcement officials in the country witness it, and dismiss it with
relief when they find out nobody's trying to assassinate their Russian guest. (continued in
heavily spoilered footnote 1)
Eli Kotch seems much less admirable today because of his abuse of women. He gets along well with his
male confederates but the women in his life are trophies, patsies, or tragic victims like Inger.
We see a moment of hesitation as he leaves her, and that's it.
Sitting on the airplane at the end, Eli is not very different from most other commuters that measure
their worth in a big score of one kind or another, while undercutting their real chance for happiness.
Girard don't stress the message, but it's hard not to get it. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
is a very interesting and unique picture - the title seems to describe the rat race Coburn's running,
thinking he's getting somewhere.
Severn Darden (The President's Analyst) and Aldo Ray are Coburn's top men, criminals that seem
unusually trustworthy. Possibly working off his Columbia contract, Todd Armstrong of Jason and
the Argonauts plays
a second-banana G-Man to top dog Robert Webber. A bellboy bringing a telegram to Coburn turns
out to be none other than Harrison Ford in what the IMDB lists as his first film. He's 23 but looks
like he's 16.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round looks fine in its enhanced transfer.
Stu Phillips' snappy and unpredictable score is well displayed. There are no extras. The artwork
for the box top is
reminiscent of last year's Spielberg hit Catch Me If You Can, a slightly similar film that
makes explicit Bernard Girard's quiet message.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 19, 2003
1. Eli does what we're all
told we should do - he marshalls all of his talent and effort toward his goal, and achieves it
beautifully. But we see in Inger's face what not only what he's lost, but what he never valued. The
surprise ending gives the horselaugh to his careful plan to wait years to spend his loot, hoping
he'll never be found out. We don't know enough about Eli, but he doesn't seem the type to sit
carefully managing his money without getting into more trouble.
The film is about effort and struggle and sweat - Eli earns every nickel he steals. Again, the
government agents' extravagant preparations serve as a counterpoint to Eli's cozy little plot among
four conspirators. He's a super thief, but still seems a petty and insignificant man, too impressed by
himself to consider other people.
2. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round takes place in LA, at the old
LAX international airport before it was redesigned. All the locations look familiar, including a
Burbank mall on Pass avenue where Aldo Ray and Coburn pick up a car. When Coburn talks to cohort
Michael Strong outside Paramount Studios, we see them walking about two blocks from Savant's house!
The Paramount location makes Savant think that the production started there and somehow migrated from the
Mountain to the Torch Lady.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson