Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round

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James Coburn’s time as an A list star lasted only… how long? A year? Three? 1966’s Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is emblematic of the films that took Coburn to the top rung and then pulled him off it again. Key exhibit here is Our Man Flint, also from 1966 – a bona fide hit giving him a star vehicle after having been eye-catching in other people’s hits, like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Charade.

Dead Heat was not a hit but it didn’t stop Coburn returning to the Flint teat again and again, milking it dry with successive films – In Like Flint, Waterhole Three, The President’s Analyst, Duffy, Candy – comedy capers all. By 1969 Coburn was clearly off the A list and making Euro-thrillers and second-string spaghetti westerns.

What went wrong is all evident in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, the story of a jailbird who womanises his way out of prison and then across the USA, destination Los Angeles, where the arrival of the Soviet premier at the airport will act as cover for a massive heist.

This is the 1960s caper movie as it should look and feel. Shot bright and colourfully by DP Lionel Lindon (The Manchurian Candidate, Around the World in 80 Days), with a rinky-dink soundtrack by Stu Phillips, the man responsible for many a TV show theme tune (The Fall Guy, Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica just some among many). It has big boxy American cars of the era taking corners badly, modernist architecture and a fleet of good co-stars who look and feel just right – people like Aldo Ray (as one of Kotch’s partners in crime), Robert Webber (the FBI man co-ordinating the Soviet visit) and Rose Marie (a short but sweet appearance as one of the women Kotch romances and robs to finance the big heist). There’s even an appearance by a young Harrison Ford as a bellhop – blink twice and miss him.

Camilla Sparv as Inger
Camilla Sparv as Inger

Most of all there’s Camilla Sparv as Inger Knudson, another of Kotch’s conquests. She plays the dupe that Kotch, posing as a songwriter called Henry Silverstein, marries as part of his elaborate heist. Good though Sparv is, the character of Inger sits awkwardly in a caper, a genre in which no one really gets hurt. Inger has no idea what’s really going on and is in love with Henry. So when he proposes and she accepts, something in the film breaks.

Coburn continues to ladle on the charm, but from the moment that Kotch marries the blameless, guileless Inger, Bernard Girard – the writer and director – has effectively kissed goodbye to his audience. Though the film is no longer about a loveable rogue but a cruel trickster, Girard continues to insist it’s still all about the heist, presenting Kotch and co as thieves we’re rooting for.

It’s so baffling that I started grasping for alternate readings. Maybe an anti-caper movie was Girard’s intention? With a twist of the presets on Phillips’s soundtrack to make it dark, brooding and existential, plus an edit here and there, maybe you might have got a more arthouse movie featuring Kotch as a proper anti-hero, a sociopath who’s the antithesis of the usual caper movie conman. Maybe?

A thought experiment you might find time for while also wondering whether this film wouldn’t be better with 15 minutes of material removed. There is an awful lot of unfunny comedic business around the premier’s visit, which seems designed solely to give Robert Webber, as the FBI guy in charge of security, something to do.

It’s a shame, it really is, because this movie has all the trappings. It has Coburn at his peak, an actor who seems ready to take the throne so recently vacated by Cary Grant. But charm will only get you so far, and in this case while it takes Kotch all the way to where he wants to go, it’s not taking Coburn there with him. Twinkle as he might, a big dazzler of a smile cannot compensate for poor choice of material.

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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