Dead Heat on Merry-Go-Round (Girard, 1966)

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round should be better than it is. A re-edit would take care of a lot of its issues, in fact. But there are also some script-related problems. For one, much of the script relies heavily on James Coburn’s Eli Kotch being unbelievably irresistible to women. This isn’t Alfie, it’s just a given. And it gets a little tiresome and unbelievable. His entire criminal enterprise is based off of his magnetism and director Bernard Girard goes out of his way to emphasize that sexuality with shots like the second one below:

Picture 1  Picture 3

That leg in the foreground occupies more of the frame than the action (Eli stealing from her purse). Why? Well, because Eli’s a virile male, of course and Girard wants to foreshadow the inevitable between the two.

Some of the female portrayals are downright ridiculous. Like this one:

Picture 4

There’s a nice little bit of cross-continental parody where the Secret Service and State Department are totally confounded with how to accurately handle the arrival of the Russian Premiere amidst a series of US protests. I love shots like this one:

Picture 5

All of the identical suits surrounded in the foreground by the Russians. They’re overmatched visually as well as narratively.

A lot of the success of Dead Heat has to do with Coburn. Eli’s a con man and Coburn does an entertaining Australian cop-

Picture 6

-and he happily sings his way through Christmas in jail. He’s charismatic, for sure:

Picture 8

I also like a lot of the locations, like this one, which reminds me of the best shadiness of good heist films:

Picture 7

There are a few great one-liners in this script, which Girard also wrote. My favorites: as Eli makes off with a bag of cash, impersonating a police officer, and escorted by unwitting cops:

Cop: “This bag is heavy.”

Eli: “Well it’s got all the bloody evidence in it!”

And then later, as the State Department struggles desperately to keep the Premiere’s arrival under control:

State Department Man 1: “There’s been a hold up at the bank.”

State Department Man 2: “Thank God! Now tell them to bring the Premiere down.”

These are hilarious. The first filled with nice irony, and the second worthy of Peter Sellers.

But there are far too many problems to make Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round anything better than simple entertainment. For one, the first half of the movie has little to do with the ending heist. There’s no arc building towards it. Yeah, there’s some planning done, but for the most part Eli is just pulling off small, unrelated jobs. It’s character development, but at the cost of losing fun momentum. It really slows things down and makes the end heist less entertaining: since we know less of it, we’re less invested. We haven’t seen the blood and sweat that’s gone into it in the same way that we have in, say, Charley Varrick.

The last third of the film is filled with crosscuts. Eli pretends to be a cop while making off with the cash. The cops have their hands full at an overcrowded police station. The airport is a mess as the Premiere arrives. Eli’s accomplices pull off a heist and attempt to get away. This is tailor made for a really tense build-up. Standard, but good stuff: the cops get on the thieves trail and the parallel editing is used to imply closeness and an “inevitable” capture: danger.

But the editor totally drops the ball. The cross-cut is always late. There’s no tension. By the time the cops get word of a heist, the thieves are already far away. By the time their descriptions are making the rounds they’re already long out of their disguises. This feels like a really easy solve: just move some of these “discovering” moments to earlier (like, 5-10 minutes earlier) in the film and suddenly the crime and the possibility of discovery are closer together and therefore more suspenseful.

There’s another problem. The plan is actually presented as too foolproof. Nothing goes wrong and, more importantly, nothing really can go wrong. There’s no way to identify Eli. The gang makes no mistakes. That’s fine if you just want to watch how to pull off a heist, but for the slick narrative it’s trying to be – certainly referential to some of the all-time greats – this just sucks the life out of everything. There’s no moment to sweat. The characters literally sweat during the heist, but there’s never a fear that anything unexpected will go down. This is partially due to the aforementioned “late” cross-cut, but again, also a script problem.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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