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Steven Spielberg must have taken a good look at Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) before he started work on Catch Me If You Can (2002) because the look, tone and style of the latter film is highly reminiscent of this quirky 1966 caper film starring James Coburn as a smooth-as-silk con artist. Playing a character named Eli Kotch, Coburn fashions a fascinating portrayal of a completely amoral narcissist, one whose real identity remains a puzzle from the first to the final frame. Changing names and accents as quickly as one changes clothes, Eli masterminds his escape from prison (through the unwitting assistance of a female psychologist he seduced) and begins plotting an elaborate heist with some former colleagues-in-crime. The target is a bank located in the Los Angeles International Airport and Eli's preparation for the robbery involves a series of unorthodox money-raising ventures in Denver and Boston. Along the way Eli poses as a Swiss shoe clerk, a termite exterminator, a Knights of Columbus delegate, an Australian police inspector and he even gets married - to Inger Knudson (Camilla Sparv), the beautiful private secretary of a millionairess - but it's all just part of his master plan.
In case you're wondering what the title means, it's a reference to a novel Eli claims to be writing when he first meets Inger but it's just another smoke screen. In truth, the whole movie is a smoke screen. For all of Eli's clever manipulations of other people, particularly women, he remains an enigma, giving Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round a cool, detached quality that left critics divided over its merits. Unlike most heist films which usually have audiences rooting for the thieves, however, Dead Heat is dispassionate throughout while maintaining an intoxicating surface beauty; Los Angeles landmarks like the futuristic-looking Encounter restaurant at LAX are lovingly photographed as are wintry scenes in snow-covered Boston. The playful music score by Stu Phillips also adds an extra layer of irony to the proceedings, culminating in an unexpected twist ending which makes Eli's self-satisfied smile at the fade-out the biggest joke of all. He doesn't get the "punch line," but the audience does.
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round was made at the height of James Coburn's popularity. He had only recently attained star status with his breakthrough role in Our Man Flint (1966), which he followed with the Blake Edwards comedy, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) and this cult crime comedy. But after making In Like Flint, Waterhole No. 3 and The President's Analyst the following year - 1967 - Coburn experienced a series of commercial failures like Hard Contract (1969) that ended his run as a leading man. By 1975, he was no longer the top name on the marquee, but a well-respected supporting player, assisting Charles Bronson in Hard Times and Gene Hackman in Bite the Bullet. But if you want to see a genuine Hollywood superstar in the making, you can glimpse him briefly in a scene with Coburn in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. That baby faced bellhop who delivers a message to Coburn's table is none other than Harrison Ford, making his film debut.
Producer: Carter DeHaven
Director: Bernard Girard
Screenplay: Bernard Girard
Art Direction: Walter M. Simonds
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Editing: William A. Lyon
Music: Stu Phillips
Cast: James Coburn (Eli Kotch), Camilla Sparv (Inger Knudson), Aldo Ray (Eddie Hart), Nina Wayne (Frieda Schmid), Robert Webber (Milo Stewart), Todd Armstrong (Alfred Morgan), Severn Darden (Miles Fisher), Rose Marie (Margaret Kirby).
by Jeff Stafford