Release Date(s)1966 (July 25, 2023)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is a caper flick that combines psychological drama with international intrigue as an incarcerated crook uses his charm to expedite his parole and pull several small scams to bankroll a big bank robbery.
Eli Kotch (James Coburn) has a talent for conning people—especially women. His behavior in group therapy charms prison psychiatrist (Marion Moses) to put in a good word for him at his parole hearing. Upon being released, Kotch wastes little time violating his parole, skipping town and hooking up with his former associates to plan a big bank heist at Los Angeles International Airport. But nothing comes easily. They need a blueprint of the bank and must pay the hefty price of $90,000 to get it.
To raise that amount and more to hire his crew, Kotch pulls a number of cons in Denver and Boston under various aliases while posing as a Swiss shoe clerk, A Knights of Columbus delegate, and a termite exterminator. He also poses as a writer to meet and marry the innocent private secretary of a Boston millionairess, Inger Knutson (Camilla Sparv). His final impersonation is as an Australian police inspector transporting prisoner Eddie Hart (Aldo Ray) back to Australia on the day the Russian premier is due to land at the airport. With the police force assigned to provide security for the top Russian and handle swarms of protesters, the heist should be executed with little interference by the law.
Caper films proliferated in the 1960s with such movies as Oceans 11, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Killers, and Topkapi lighting up theater marquees. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is not on the level of those top-notch capers. Its main character is problematic. Kotch is clever at what he does but has few relatable qualities. He uses women for personal gain and his relationships with his crew are coldly professional. He constantly has his eye on the big prize. He is methodical in his planning and bold in the chances he takes, confident that his persona of the moment, pleasant small talk, and a winning smile can see him through any obstacles that arise. Coburn plays Kotch as detached, cool, and laser-focused but he doesn’t convey the suavity or humor of a James Bond, so it’s tough to warm to him. Coburn’s Australian accent, in one of his impersonations, is pretty good. He never successfully conveys Kotch’s charm and seems too aloof to put women under his spell. Cary Grant could have sold the character easily, or even Michael Caine, but Coburn is a poor fit.
Camilla Sparv is quite beautiful but not much of an actress, which likely accounts for why she never really made it in movies. As part of a contrived sub-plot, she is at her best when the camera captures her in close-ups, allowing her facial expression to convey emotion.
Robert Webber plays State Department official Milo Stewart, charged with protecting the Russian premier. Looking nervous, giving orders to underlings, trying to avoid incidents that would embarrass the United States, he is in a constant state of stress.
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is notable for the first, unbilled screen appearance of Harrison Ford, who has a single line as a bellboy delivering a message to Kotch. There’s also an appearance by Rose Marie (Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show) in a small role.
The script, written by director Bernard Girard, is needlessly complex, with a bunch of characters who appear and disappear fairly quickly. Scenes often seem cobbled together. For a caper film, it’s surprisingly devoid of suspense, which should escalate as the actual robbery gets closer. Instead, the film plods along. Director Girard tells the story without cinematic sizzle. Most scenes are shot traditionally. Girard does make use of the L.A. Airport with a number of exterior scenes showing its modern architecture.
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round was shot by director of photography Lionel Lindon on 35 mm film (Pathecolor) and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Blu-ray features an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Clarity, detail delineation, and grain quality are all very good. Images are sharp, and color palette is varied with intense primary colors. A woman’s vibrant red blouse and a belly dancer’s shimmering silver outfit are particularly bold, and blacks are deep, rich, and velvety. There are no visual imperfections and, for a film that’s 57 years old, the print looks terrific.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Stu Phillips’ score is light and perky, which conveys a feeling that the script itself has trouble suggesting. Dominant sound effects include airplanes landing and taking off at the L.A. airport, protesters shouting, police car sirens, and ambient noise in airports and a busy police station.
Bonus materials on the unrated Blu-ray from Kino Lorber include the following:
- Trailer (2:33)
- A Fistful of Dynamite (Duck, You Sucker) Trailer (3:35)
- Harry in Your Pocket Trailer (2:00)
- The Internecine Project Trailer (3:00)
- Kill a Dragon Trailer (1:44)
- Gambit Trailer (1:13)
- Arabesque Trailer (3:30)
- Masquerade (1988) Trailer (1:25)
- Grand Slam Trailer (3:52)
- The Anderson Tapes Trailer (3:03)
- Masquerade (1965) Trailer (3:00)
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round was made during a transitional time in Hollywood. In two years, the Production Code would be gone. In this film, casual sex is accepted and the bank robbers are portrayed as the good guys. The main characters are oddly dull and the plot drags. With some editing, the pace could have been pepped up. The twist ending is rather flat and disappointing.
- Dennis Seuling