Reeling Backward: Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966)
This unexciting -- and disturbingly misogynistic -- crime caper starring James Coburn would be entirely forgotten if not for marking Harrison Ford's first screen appearance.
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“Paging Mr. Ellis? Paging Mr. Ellis?”
With these unassuming words, one of the most unforgettable film acting careers was launched. Harrison Ford, who recently celebrated his 81st birthday and saw the release of the fifth Indiana Jones movie, spoke this dialogue playing a bellhop delivering a telegram to James Coburn in the crime comedy/thriller, “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round” in 1966.
In his early 20s, skinny and using the upper register of his voice, Ford was referred to as “boy” by Coburn’s character, Eli Kotch, a rascally thief and con man. Ford, who didn’t even receive a screen credit, doesn’t actually deliver the telegram to Kotch, who had been using the opportunity as one of his endless ruses to get the name and room number of a real hotel guest so he could impersonate him.
And off the boy went, to better things.
Kotch takes on the name of Charles Ellis, Henry Silverstein and a host of others over the course of “Dead Heat,” an overly complicated caper in which Kotch and his crew scheme to rob the international bank at the Los Angeles airport at the same time the Russian premier is arriving for an important diplomatic visit.
It’s now out in a quality Blu-ray issue from Kino Lorber.
Alas, the movie surrounding Ford’s inauspicious start is also not terribly memorable. Written and directed by Bernard Girard, an itinerant fellow who mostly stuck to television, it tries very hard to be an American version of a “mod” spy/thief thriller, layered in with plenty of humor and sex. Give everybody Brit accents and it’s the sort of thing primed for spoofing by Austin Powers.
To borrow an oft-used line from the late, great Roger Ebert, Girard knows the words but not the music. He’s using the format of a heist movie but the story actually spends very little time on the planning and execution of the robbery. The first half of the movie is all Kotch wooing and bedding all sorts of gullible women, whom he then robs — or uses their position to rob someone they work for — and ditches.
It’s a disturbingly misogynistic movie, with Kotch seemingly having absolutely no regard for these woman as human beings, let alone as romantic partners. He’s perpetually playing a part, to the point we wonder if even he remembers the person inside. Perhaps there isn’t one, as Kotch seems obsessed with duping others.
In a compelling opening sequence, Kotch is in prison participating in a group therapy session with Dr. Marion Hague (Marian McCargo), the staff psychiatrist. He hijacks the meeting to yak about his complicated memories of his mother, especially the way she smelled.
We later learn that Dr. Hague has recommended Kotch for early parole, and that the two have been carrying on a clandestine affair. After a bout of lovemaking upon his release, she arranges a boring job for him, but Kotch walks away from her and his parole officer without even so much as wave.
Now, this must have been a grift years in the making — gaining the doctor’s confidence, winning her affection and trust, arranging for them to begin a life together that would instantly spell the end of her career were it discovered. And he just leave her hanging.
Cold, man, very cold.
Kotch moves about the country using the job of an escort for dead bodies as cover, traveling from L.A. to Denver, Boston and other parts. Jobs he takes on include shoe salesman in a clothing store for domestic servants, exterminator, writer, police detective and more. For each of these he invents a new name, accent and style of dress. During the actual heist he plays an Australian policeman escorting a fugitive back to his country, actually Aldo Ray as Eddie, one of his crew.
The other two members are Paul (Michael Strong), the main muscle guy, and Miles (Severn Darden), a dweeby electrical expert who rewires the alarm at the bank. It turns out that all of Kotch’s early double-crosses and thefts, including stealing a famous painting from a wealthy older woman he romances offscreen (played by Rosie Marie), are just to raise the $85,000 to buy the engineering plans for the bank off the brother of a fellow prison inmate.
The film also keeps cutting away to a group of law enforcement and security types planning the arrangements for the arrival of the Russian premiere, led by Robert Webber. These sequences are absolutely dead weight, distracting from Kotch’s various antics, and don’t even factor much into the way the actual heist goes down.
Further begging the question is why exactly Kotch wants to do the job on the same day as the diplomatic visit. The ostensible theory is that all of the local police will be too busy dealing with protests, traffic and security concerns to notice the bank is being robbed. But it seems like it’s complicating the plot for its own sake rather than adding to a sense of tension.
Indeed, one wonders why Kotch and Eddie even have to bother with impersonating an Aussie cop and prisoner, even going so far to have him drop Eddie off at the airport police station while he goes to switch bags with Paul, so they can then sneak the stolen cash onto their plane.
For that matter, why fly out of the airport to make their getaway rather than drive out and hole up somewhere? Kotch is able to use the familiarity he’s built up with the police sergeant to get an escort through the overtaxed security — but none of that would be necessary if they just chose to do the job on a day the airport wasn’t swarming with hundreds of extra LEOs. As near as I can figure, Kotch and Eddie are totally superfluous to the actual robbery, which Paul and Miles carry out themselves.
The recipe to a good heist movie is have an interlocking set of characters, challenges and resources that work together like a well-oiled machine comprising many gears. A character uses their ability at skill X to obtain MacGuffin Y so that can be used to overcome Problem Z, and so on.
Here, it feels like a random collection of puzzle pieces that don’t actually fit together, but the filmmaker and crew move them busily around in hopes we don’t notice.
In the second half of the movie, Kotch seduces Inger Knudson, a secretary to a wealthy woman who he meets while working one of his cover jobs as an exterminator. He does this just to gain access to the house so he can rob it, but decides that Inger, played by Camilla Sparv, is of further use to him.
He actually marries her and brings her to Los Angeles, summoning a cock-and-bull story about being an aspiring writer and having some of his poetry commissioned by the music industry to be used as lyrics in pop songs. A manuscript he shows her provides the title to the movie.
There’s a suggestion that Kotch might actually be forming some genuine feelings for her, since her usefulness is far outweighed by the complication of keeping her around. Of course, he dumps her in the end like all the others, flying off to Mexico City with the loot. A cheap twist ending, literally a throwaway line of dialogue in the last seconds of the film, advises us that Inger’s employer passed away and left her $7 million — the irony being that he’d be richer having stuck by her side.
Speaking of the title, it’s unclear exactly what it means, other than it sounds clever. A dead heat is another word for a rare tie in sports, like two racers crossing the finishing line so close it’s impossible to tell who actually came in first. And of course the horses on a merry-go-round can never win or lose, just keep replaying the same endless loop.
I feel much the same way about “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round,” which leads us around in a lot of elliptical circles without ever getting anywhere from a character or story standpoint. If not for Mr. Ford’s introduction, I have a feeling this would be a completely forgotten film — and deservedly so.