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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round

by Glenn Erickson Aug 01, 2023

James Coburn’s starring film career began with projects he deemed ‘far-out’ — and writer-director Bernard Girard promptly hooked him on this eccentric thriller about an infallibly seductive con-man. It’s a low-key, non-violent puzzle picture about a perfect heist, and also a guessing game that skips from San Francisco to Denver to Boston to Los Angeles, all the while hiding an ironic narrative sting in its tail. Will Coburn’s brand of Cool prevail?  The supporting cast mostly stays out of the way: Camilla Sparv, Aldo Ray, Nina Wayne, Robert Webber, Todd Armstrong, Michael Strong, Severn Darden — and even Rose Marie.


Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1966 / Color / 1:85 widescreen 1:66 widescreen / 107 min. / Street Date July 25, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
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 Director: Walter M. Simonds
Film Editor: William A. Lyon
Original Music: Stu Phillips
Produced by Carter De Haven Jr.
Written and Directed by
Bernard Girard

It’s the Ultimate Shaggy Dog Story.

The fun of the ‘Caper Film’ is seeing all the interlocking pieces of a heist come together and evaluating its credibility … we get to vicariously play master criminal. With the help of the newly-minted star James Coburn, writer-director Bernard Girard got to make a caper film unlike any other.

Actor Coburn found himself in a Hollywood Catbird Seat around 1965. He was still primarily doing TV work, but every feature supporting role he took enhanced his popularity. He scored in action roles in John Sturges pictures (The Magnificent Seven,  The Great Escape) and got attention as a villain in Stanley Donen’s Charade. Coburn’s unconventional looks didn’t disqualify him for A-list stardom. The role that pushed him over the edge was likely Arthur Hiller’s The Americanization of Emily.  The spectacular spy spoof Our Man Flint  then  gave him top billing as an unlikely sex symbol.

Coburn became a guru of hip for the Vietnam years. He made gangly and angular cool — men envied his long legs. Bruce Lee helped him with martial arts scenes, where Coburn would flail his long marionette arms like a madman. Coburn’s huge toothy smile was no longer being compared to that of the horses he rode. His golden asset was a deep, resonant voice. It would serve him well twenty years later, when physical ailments began to settle in.

The new star picked and chose most of his projects wisely, which resulted in one masterpiece, Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst.  Written and directed by veteran TV director Bernard Girard, this one-of-a-kind ‘crime caper art film’ dares to take the entire heist caper genre as a big joke, a joke partly on the audience.

The slickest, swingin’est conman who ever took the world for a ride!

The narrative of Dead Heat never stands still. Skipping from San Francisco to Denver to Boston to Los Angeles, parole-jumping ex-con Eli Kotch (James Coburn) establishes several identities as he sets up a complicated, unexplained criminal caper. Kotch obtains a parole by seducing a prison psychologist (Marian McCargo). He puts in a $5000 down payment on another convict’s secret plans of a bank security system, and has only a few weeks to come up with $45,000 more.

 

Eli crisscrosses the country undetected, first by taking a job safeguarding caskets being shipped by rail, and then by posing as a conventioneer on a private charter flight. He also masquerades as a pest exterminator, and sells shoes in a store that caters to servants’ uniforms. Those jobs put him in touch with wealthy households ripe for burglary. He cons a series of maids and ladies’ companions, all of whom become his romantic partners. The air-headed looker Frieda Schmidt (Nina Wayne) is the first — he raids her employers’ entire apartment building. Stuck for cash, he seduces the middle-aged socialite Margaret Kirby (Rose Marie) by arranging to ‘rescue’ her lost dog. Kirby turns out to have several works of art Eli can nab.

Our busy thief invests most deeply in ladies’ maid Inger Knudson (Camilla Sparv), engaging in a full romance and pulling her into a whirlwind marriage. He appears to fall in love with her. He brings her out to California under the illusion that he’s a poet with a contract to write lyrics for pop songs. Inger takes Polaroid research pictures for her new husband — that include shots of the target bank and an LAX police station.

Eli eventually hooks up with three close confederates: strip club employee Eddie Hart (Aldo Ray), inventor Miles Fisher (Severn Darden) and actor Paul Feng (Michael Strong). Their amazingly adroit bank robbery is pulled off during a state visit by the Russian Premier, right under the noses of the LAPD. Kotch fools everyone and keeps his cool at all times; even his cohorts are shocked at how well things go. But is that an illusion?  Will Eli’s best-laid plans go awry?

A good example of the influence of European trends on American films, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round keeps its audience guessing at all times. We wait for the hook, the trick, the gimmick, hoping we’re keeping up with the plot. In other words, it’s a shaggy dog story that requires our full attention. The film is atypically engaging; it was a sleeper hit in 1966 but not a runaway success. We remember our audience’s amused reaction to Dead Heat’s unorthodox conclusion, but others may have scratched their heads in confusion: ‘That’s the ending?’

 

Some thrillers with surprise endings ‘cheat’ by selectively withholding information from the audience. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round uses a quirky ellipsis pattern that might frustrate some viewers, or be judged as overly mannered. As Eli Kotch flits about the country, the breezy, freewheeling style ellipses most of the generic material, including all of the burglaries. Eli is shown making a key from a wax impression, and Girard cuts directly to the police investigating a 3-town house robbery. We have barely met Rose Marie when the narrative jumps to the aftermath, as she describes how Eli has stolen her paintings. An entire seduction and an art theft scene are skipped over. That rogue Eli apparently  just can’t wait.

It’s a straight role for the comedienne Rose Marie. She reminds us a bit of Martha Raye in Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Escapist conventions give Gentleman Thieves the benefit of the doubt. It’s meant to be amusing when Eli fleeces one unfortunate woman after another, sweeping them into bed and then making off valuables he can fence. It’s all in fun, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Dead Heat was likely chosen to help James Coburn escape from his action persona and his Flint movies — an awful Flint sequel was in the works. Coburn makes for a charming thief, but the glamour sours as we realize what a heel Eli Koch is. We experience Eli like his women do: he’s here one minute and gone the next. That Nina Wayne’s character seems clueless isn’t much of an excuse. Kotch takes advantage of her, and the story can’t even linger long enough for a bedroom scene.

In some ways Coburn is the film’s weak link — when he launches into New Age monologues for the benefit of Wayne’s Frieda or Sparv’s Inger, the writing is weak and he’s fairly unconvincing. It’s just assumed that Eli has a magic attraction that wins over every woman in record time, the way he tames a Doberman with a mere purr of his voice.

 

Mister Personality.

Eli Kotch slips into various disguises and accents to carry off his chicanery. This gives him a chance to wear cowboy duds, workman’s overalls and a down-under getup for an Australian detective. In these Coburn is good within his limits — Kotch is darned lucky that no real Aussie overhears his accent (which was also criticized in The Great Escape). Eli keeps changing his name, a detail that may have been lifted from Peter Stone’s admired screenplay for Charade.

But Coburn does project genuine Star Quality: his voice and self-assured manner make him more handsome than he is. He has Presence — he retains our interest and approval even when merely striding through apartment buildings and airport lobbies.

All the con-man games are simple; Kotch relies on his skill at charming and betraying new acquaintances. The stakes become a little less comforting when he completely hoodwinks the sweet Inger Knudson, who believes he’s the intellectual he pretends to be and honestly loves him. She’s played with winning vulnerability by Camilla Sparv, a talented European import. Ms. Sparv didn’t get the career she deserved. She was more or less just ‘the girl’ in the Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer, but not before being wasted in Columbia’s downmarket Matt Helm sequel, Murderer’s Row. She makes a fine impression here, looking particularly impressive in her outfits for the Boston snow.

 

Something always goes wrong in a caper — where does Eli trip up?

At about 50 minutes in Eli gathers his crew for the heist. We watch every detail to see where Coburn will make his mistake. The true measure of a Caper is not how clever the plan is, but how the crooks react when things go wrong, off script. We don’t know ahead of time what to expect. Director Girard doesn’t use suspense techniques to make us think the heist is in jeopardy. Government agent Robert Webber must organize a complicated visit from the Soviet Premier. How does it relate to Eli’s scheme?

The two plots do tie together eventually, but in unexpected ways. At this point I’m going mum on further explanations, as Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is one picture that definitely doesn’t want to be spoiled.

1966 was an era of ‘cool,’ with flippant humor and little sensitivity to minorities and women, at least not in entertainment. One of Coburn’s personally-promoted features is 1967’s Waterhole #3, a show seldom revived today — its main sexist joke calls rape ‘assault with a friendly weapon.’ Eli Kotch isn’t as crass, yet neither is he anything but a user and abuser. He gets along well with his male confederates but the women in his life are no more than stepping stones, to obtain money or to shield him from  law enforcement. We never see Eli actually ditching any of his female conquests, not even Inger.

 

Dead Heat spends its final reels prowling around an older iteration of our Los Angeles International Airport. A redesign in the early 1980s added an entire second level, but kept the same overall inefficient layout.    The LAX ‘Theme Building’ is featured prominently, having been finished (in all of its Jetsons glory) in 1961.

Two other locations look familiar as well. Coburn and Aldo Ray pick up a car at a mall on Pass Avenue out in Burbank. When Coburn talks to cohort Michael Strong outside of Paramount Studios, we see them walking on Marathon Street just outside the Bronson Gate, about two blocks from CineSavant headquarters. It makes us wonder if the production began on that lot, and somehow migrated uphill to Columbia Pictures at Gower and Sunset. Added note: when Strong steals some police uniforms from the costume department, he strolls past a full-scale submarine mockup that is almost certainly the sub seen in Paramount’s Assault on a Queen, released the same year.

 

Bernard Girard’s story has a sting in its tail.

Most screen Capers are about overreaching ambitions and the urge to cut corners to success. Most build to a finale of heavy-duty irony, with the robbers dead, captured or at least foiled in their aims. More than one classic heist drama ends with an image of a cloud of stolen money being blown around an airport tarmac. Dead Heat goes in an entirely different direction . . . there isn’t even a body count. Eli Kotch outsmarts everyone, making involuntary co-conspirators out of bank security men, the LAPD and the Secret Service. In genre terms it’s the perfect crime, and he earns every nickel he gets away with. The finish carries a much quieter, philosophical kind of Karmic irony:  Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round delivers a message about the effort we spend on material goals at the expense of human relationships. Eli Kotch can claim a rare victory over the Rat Race. Yet he still seems petty and insignificant, too impressed with himself to consider other people. He goes straight for what he wants, yet the title suggests that his tricks and games won’t deliver the happiness he seeks.

In addition to its interesting actresses, Dead Heat showcases Coburn’s friend Severn Darden (The President’s Analyst) and his old associate Aldo Ray, as unusually trustworthy criminals. An airport security chief is played by Philip Pine, from Irving Lerner’s cult crime noir Murder by Contract. Possibly working off his Columbia contract, Todd Armstrong of Jason and the Argonauts plays a second-banana G-Man to top dog Robert Webber. Perhaps the only lazy casting is Ben Astar as a Soviet General — we know him too well as a comic Russian in Bye Bye Birdie.

 

It looks like Coburn gave a day’s work to plenty of his associates from the 1950s — Wolfe Barzell, Paul Birch, William Phipps, Rex Holman, Vic Tayback, Lorna Thayer, Stephanie Hill. Do any of them still get residual checks for Dead Heat?

Viewers are always being told to keep a lookout for one young actor who became a future star: a bellboy with a telegram turns out to be none other than Harrison Ford. The IMDB lists this as Ford’s first film. He’s 23 but looks 16.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is an attractive widescreen encoding of this handsomely-shot picture. Bernard Girard’s unfussy direction challenges us to pay close attention, looking for clues about exactly what’s going on while scenes and locations change every few seconds. Excellent lighting keeps up both realism and studio-grade glamour; the only cheap content are a few night scenes filmed on obvious studio street sets.

Stu Phillips’ music score establishes a smart, hip mood right away, with a cue behind a nicely-designed title sequence, featuring the blueprint for the $50,000 electronic circuit board that will enable Eli Kotch to override a bank’s security system. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round never played well on TV. With all of the narrative jumps and elisions, the audience needs the no-distraction setting of a darkened movie theater. Across commercial interruptions, it was easy to think that scenes had been cut out. Editor William E. Lyon (Picnic,  Major Dundee) likely participated in some heated cutting room debates — even on a movie screen, a couple of those ‘jump ahead’ transitions barely connect the narrative dots.

Not a whole lot has been written about writer-director Bernard Girard — his other films The Mad Room and The Mind Snatchers didn’t catch on, and producer Robert Aldrich took him off What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? in mid-shoot.

Kino’s only extra is a trailer — I’m not sure why there’s no commentary for this presentation. The attractive cover art may be foreign, or new. The original U.S. ad art uses a Merry-Go-Round theme, which does a better job of distinguishing the show as a cut above standard caper material.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 31, 2023
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Rob Gaczol

I’d seen this as a kid on TV back in the mid-’70s, but never remembered much about it, but remember there was something “cool” about it. — Got the DVD maybe about 20 years ago, I guess, and was somewhat disappointed by it, though as with so many films I’d seen only in Edited-For-TV Pan & Scan versions it was good to see the unedited WS version, though at the moment, I can’t remember much from that viewing. You’re review has given me a different perspective on the film, and I’ll probably give it another view soon. You mention that there was “the story can’t even linger long enough for a bedroom scene” with Nina Wayne. I recall seeing a still of Coburn in bed with Wayne, but this scene wasn’t in the movie — filmed but edited out?

Avie L Hern

Loved it when I first saw it on TV as a kid, was hugely disappointed when I saw it for a second time in my fifties. It really fails to hold up, despite my being huge fan of Coburn and Severn Darden.

Re “We remember our audience’s amused reaction to Dead Heat’s unorthodox conclusion, but others may have scratched their heads in confusion: ‘That’s the ending?’”

Well, the film has an agreeable twist at the end, a moral, really, that says Crime DOES pay, BUT it doesn’t pay nearly as well as if you hadn’t committed the crime in the first place.

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