In January 1966, with the release of the James Bond spoof "Our Man Flint," Nebraska-born James Coburn went from seven years of cinematic dues paying to genuine superstar status. Although he'd been a stalwart character actor in such classic films as "The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape" and "Major Dundee," his portrayal of supercool secret agent Derek Flint demonstrated how easily he could carry his own picture. The year turned out to be a great one for Coburn; in August, he appeared in the WW2 comedy "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?," and in December, he closed 1966 out nicely with the breezy heist film "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round." In this last film of that year's trio, Coburn portrays a character almost as cool and resourceful as Flint: Eli Kotch. Kotch IS his actual name, although, glib and inventive con man that he is, he also sports any number of pseudonyms, as needed. As smooth talking and charming a liar as has ever appeared on screen ("the slickest, swingin'est con man who ever took the world for a ride," as the film's poster described him), Eli, as it turns out, will indeed require all the mandacious prowess he can muster to pull off what he has planned in this film!
When we first encounter Kotch, he is in the process of sweet-talking the female psychiatrist at his L.A. prison into giving him a parole. Once on the outside, he breaks that parole immediately, and for the next 1/2 hour of screen time, the viewer wonders just what the heck he is up to, as he systematically cons and robs a succession of women in Denver and Boston while posing as a mortuary worker, a shoe salesman and an exterminator ((two of these women are played by Nina Wayne, the wispier-voiced, younger sister of pneumatic Carol and who some baby boomer TV lovers may recall as "Camp Runamuck"'s Caprice Yeudleman, and "The Dick van Dyke Show"'s Rose Marie, in a relatively rare big-screen appearance). Eli eventually cons a woman named Inger (the lovely Swedish actress Camilla Sparv) into marrying him and unwittingly abetting him in his grand scheme: robbing the International Bank of Commerce in the Los Angeles International Airport, on the same day that the Soviet premier is due to land! But can Eli and his three accomplices pull off this crime, AND keep Inger in the dark, AND get away with the loot? Even supercool Derek Flint might break a sweat during this caper!
Truth to tell, unlike such marvelous heist films as "Rififi," "The Killing" and "Topkapi," here, the actual robbery sequence is a bit anticlimactic and disappointing; the buildup to the robbery, however, and the events that follow, as we wonder whether or not our quartet will actually get away with the crime, are pretty exciting. It is fairly fascinating to watch Kotch & Co. carry out their plans, IMF style, especially inasmuch as we have no idea where things are heading. But the scheme that the men carry out is fairly ingenious, and a repeat watch of the film made me appreciate Kotch's thoroughness even more. In the lead, Coburn is just perfect as the charming Eli, who can seemingly think/con/talk himself out of any situation. The actor is immensely likable here, displaying that winning, toothy grin over and over again; how much less of a film this would be without him! Coburn is ably assisted by a dynamite supporting cast here, too. In addition to the ladies already mentioned, there is Aldo Ray as one of Eli's henchmen (Ray had previously appeared in the heist film "The Day They Robbed the Bank of England," as well as "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" with Coburn); Robert Webber, who many will recall as the smarmy adman, Juror #12, in "12 Angry Men," here playing a government agent; Severn Darden as another of Eli's henchmen (Darden would appear the following year with Coburn in the wacky satire "The President's Analyst"); two "Star Trek" alumni, Michael "Roger Corby" Strong (another henchman) and Phillip "Colonel Green" Pine (as the LAX security chief); AND, in his film debut, a young actor named Harrison Ford (unbilled here), playing a hotel bellhop ("Paging Mr. Ellis, paging Mr. Ellis"). "Dead Heat..." has been stylishly directed by Bernard Girard, who was known primarily for his television work, and features a catchy, percolating theme by Stu Phillips. Filmed largely at LAX, the picture seems to be enamored of the comparatively new and futuristic-looking Theme Building, which had been erected in 1961; indeed, I counted a good dozen loving and lingering shots of this most distinctive architectural wonder scattered throughout the film, from numerous vantage points and distances. The bottom line is that "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round" (and yes, that oddball title DOES eventually make sense) is a most entertaining film, thanks in large part to James Coburn, who, three months later, with the release of the sequel "In Like Flint," would cement his star status even further. So do Kotch & Co. get away with their caper by the film's end and live happily ever after? I wouldn't dream of saying, but I will mention that rather than demonstrating that "crime doesn't pay," this film interestingly posits the notion that the straight road might ultimately be a more lucrative deal....
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