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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
Columbia TriStar
1966 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 107 min. / Street Date September 30, 2003 /
Starring James Coburn, Camilla Sparv, Aldo Ray, Nina Wayne, Robert Webber, Todd Armstrong, Michael Strong, Marian Moses, Severn Darden, Rose Marie
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Art Direction Walter M. Simonds
Film Editor William A. Lyon
Original Music Stu Phillips
Produced by Carter De Haven Jr.
Directed and Directed by Bernard Girard

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 way of 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 Verdoux. 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. Coburn and 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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
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

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