Sony // 1966 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 7th, 2003
The slickest, swingin'est con man who ever took the world for a ride!
James Coburn stars in a slick, hip caper film from the 1960s that, despite being clever and charming, lacks any motivation to thrill audiences. For a film that moves so slowly, if you blink, you'll miss quite a bit. Little things -- like plot, character depth, dramatic tension, and comedy come and go so quickly, that one could almost think they were never there to begin with.
But retro charm, baby, is something this film has in abundance.
Eli Kotch (James Coburn) is a jailed con man that begins to formulate an ingenious plan while in prison. He is a master of the con, and can charm his way through any situation -- including women.
After seducing his prison psychiatrist in order to win an early parole, he begins a series of skillful and successful robberies to raise cash in order to purchase black market plans for a job that nobody has been able to pull off. But Kotch, it seems, is just the man to do it.
Once he has the plans, he realizes that this is a job he cannot pull off alone. So, he hires an electronics wizard in order to supply the gadgetry, recruits a fake policeman to work the scene, and even seduces a young lady named Inger Knudsen (Camilla Sparv) into marriage, just to facilitate an alibi and provide cover.
But Kotch may be in over his head. In a place that nobody expects -- robbing a bank situated inside Los Angeles International Airport, during a visit from a Russian dignitary, while the entire building is swarming with police and security -- Kotch may be in for the ride of his lifetime.
I always liked Coburn as an actor -- he could be dapper and dirty at the same time. In Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round, Eli (Coburn) is a steely, hard customer; he connives and swindles and subtly manipulates without prejudice or hesitation. The best part about his performance is not the conning or the slimy actions, but the insufferable charm and panache exuding from his presence onscreen. He is a bad man, but he is a charming man -- the kind of upstanding man you would meet and thoroughly enjoy his company; you would leave with an inflated sense of self-worth and pleasure, before realizing your wallet was missing.
But a major problem with the film is the undeveloped nature of his relationship with his "wife," played by Camilla Sparv. It feels like Kotch should be torn between his supposed love for his wife and his lust for wealth, but he never is. He simply fleeces her, and takes her for a ride. There is no romantic tension, no dramatic confrontations, no moments of pennant reflection on the part of Kotch -- she is simply a means to an end, and there are no regrets. Which is a shame; the movie could have used the spicing up.
Spice is a problem in Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round. The film plods on at its own leisurely place, never taking itself too seriously, but never providing any genuine challenges or pitfalls for its protagonists. Kotch confidently charms his way through the film without stopping for breath; there is not one obstacle that even comes close to slowing him down. There is little substance to Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round, and unfortunately, not enough style to carry the film. The lack of dramatic tension kills the suspense, kills the anxiousness. Not once do you ever worry about Kotch, because he is never in any danger of being caught, being exposed, or being unsuccessful.
Visually, the film is a trip down retro lane, with the center of the film focused around the old Los Angeles Airport, back when it was a futuristic modernist architectural monstrosity. Of course, nowadays, it looks nothing like that -- which, if you ask me, is a shame. Everything in the film screams ultra modern '60s style. Even the DVD's packaging matches the opening credits -- a camp, delightfully whimsical 1960s motif of crooked arrows and ridiculously outdated graphics.
One of the film's most unexpected twists comes from a bellboy, who shows up on-screen for a few seconds, played by an astonishingly young Harrison Ford -- his first cinematic role at the tender age of 23. The role is uncredited, and, like the rest of the film, blink and you may miss it.
In regards to the transfer, specks of dirt and other visual imperfections tarnish what would otherwise be a very nice looking presentation. Black and white flecks of dirt and the occasional scratch run through the transfer, but overall, it looks quite clean, quite smooth, and quite well done. Re-mastered in high definition (whatever that means), in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colors are muted and slightly washed in a pastel, retro fashion, with light blues and browns being especially well represented. Black levels and graininess are all well within respectable levels. Quite a nice picture overall, despite its lack of cleanliness.
The audio is well mixed overall, though at times, ambient airport noises clutter the dialogue quite badly. Overall, the Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack sounds full and clean. This disc sounds as good as it looks. One of the film's best features, the score, is an upbeat and sassy soundtrack that swings with brass hits and xylophone notes that accentuate the playfulness of the film, as well as heighten the occasional tense moments.
"Dull Heat On A Merry-Go-Round" would be a more accurate title. The story is well written, and the dialogue is good, but the lack of tension and danger absolutely smother all notions of this film being exciting or thrilling. To add double damage, the slow pace and fairly dull characters have absolutely nothing fun to say or do. So, even as a comedic caper film, Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round stops dead.
The subtitles in Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round are mildly problematic in their inaccuracies and sometime take great liberties in their textual descriptions of dialogue. Entire long sentences are compressed into short bits of text, subtle details are excluded, and so on. Now obviously, subtitles cannot be completely accurate records of dialogue in a film. But these subtitles seem to be too aggressive, too dismissive of the dialogue. While not really a problem, per se, it is worth mentioning.
There are absolutely no extras to speak of on this disc, which sucks.
Also, Coburn has a terrible fake Australian accent.
There is nothing serious about Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round. It feels good and looks good, and the tone is light and pleasant. Problem is, the film is not funny enough or enjoyable enough to be a comedic caper film; nor is the film serious or dramatic enough to be a thrilling caper picture. Worse, the much hyped-up ending, while clever, is a big dud. The film stalls before it gets moving, and coasts the rest of the way home.
Its vintage camp value, however, cannot be denied, and if you are feeling retro, Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round is a hipster's choice, man.
The court sentences Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round to six weeks of dramatic counseling and comedic training in order to learn how to be more thrilling and more entertaining.
The sentence may be reduced for good behavior, and for the DVD's sharp visual transfer and presentation.
Also, the court orders the immediate restorations of the Los Angeles Airport back to its 1960s styling. Construction is to begin immediately.
That's odd. Nothing is happening. Maybe I need to hit this hammer thingy harder.
Hmm, still nothing.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated