Picture of the Week: Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
At the beginning of this movie, in what I believe is one shot, a sexy woman performs a psychology session with a room full of inmates when prisoner Eli Kotch (played by James Coburn) tells an offbeat story about his mother. This is the perfect set up for what turns out to be one of the oddest and most entertaining crime films I’ve seen in a while.
Until a couple years ago, I had only heard of the film because of its connection to Harrison Ford: his first on-screen role in a minute scene. But the movie directed by Bernard Girard deserved more attention than that.
Following Coburn and then a group of thieves which includes Aldo Ray, the story revolved around his plan to rob an airport bank while the Russian premiere is arriving. But the robbery is not all that interesting compared to how Coburn gets there.
He pulls many accents and personalities out of his hat through the course of the film in order to get what he wants. Coburn is terrific, especially in the way that he manipulates women. He plays (and seems to have much fun playing) a master of charm and deception.
These moments provide for smiles, not laughs, in what (at it’s best) is a low-key, relaxed crime film. Even recent heist efforts such as Ocean’s Eleven do not capture the ease that Girard gets: the hard balance of telling a story quickly with a smooth pace. In fact, this is one of those films that although flawed should be watched more by filmmakers attempting to tackle the genre.
Unfortunately, the movie loses much of its charm (at least for me) in the last half when the robbery starts. The details and action prove boring compared to Coburns’ ordinary mischief but still Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round remains a fun movie.