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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Caper Film with Only One Real Flaw, December 7, 2010
This review is from: Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (DVD)
James Coburn is among my favorite actors -- he might not have been as handsome as, say, Cary Grant or Gregory Peck, nor as suave as Sean Connery or Rock Hudson, but he could carry a film as easily as any of these leading men. What Coburn brought to his roles, long before it became de riguer, was a steady but self-effacing cool, with quite a bit more humor than Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin, who approximated him physically. That his career did not go further is a mystery to me, but thank goodness we have the films he did make. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is a cryptic title until you get the reference in the film, but it's a fine hold-up movie, and the sort that keeps you guessing as to what will happen next.

Coburn plays Eli Kotch, a grifter who, among other things, charms his way out of prison by bedding the state's psychologist (Marian McCargo, a cross between Barbara Billingsley and Dina Merrill) before making his way across the country in a series of interesting cons that net him women and money. It's all to buy the scjematics for an airport international bank's security system, which he plans to crack with the help of his gang (Aldo Ray, Michael Strong, and Severn Darden, whom Coburn would again co-star with in the excellent The President's Analyst). At risk are the usual close calls, but what elevates Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round from the usual caper film is its focus on both character and location, giving the film a more introspective geography than most. Watching it, one can see hints to what later would become standard elements of both Tarantino and Coen Brothers films, and in fact, it's rather surprising in particular the latter chose to remake True Grit and not this film.

A special note must be made about Camilla Sparv, who plays Coburn's duped wife in this film. First of all, she is genuinely beautiful, and not just the standard icy blond, but her performance shows a grace and vulnerability that only a few actresses manage. She's no Audrey Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman, but her turn in this film, as well as the underrated farce Murderer's Row, suggests she should have had a better career than she managed.

Robert Webber, too, brings dimension to the role of a put-upon secret service chief who has to contend with a visit by a Russian premier that, along with protests at the Los Angeles Airport, makes for the sort of confusion that Kotch is counting on. Webber often played Madison Avenue types who were affable if scheming but slightly befuddled, but here his performance manages to give the character more sympathy than he could have had, especially given the time the film was made.

The movie is so good, it predicts what a superior film -- McQueen's The Thomas Crown Affair -- would accomplish much better two years later: deal with the romantic conflicts. Whereas that film makes Crown's uncertain romance with the one woman who might jeopardize the success of the crime central to the plot, this one only marginally does (though it does have a twist at the end that is on the order of Frank Sinatra Ocean's 11 in its irony).

That's a shame because both Coburn and Sparv do a ducj wonderful job of making audiences believe they could and should be a couple, which is especially challenging because Coburn plays that oft romanticized character in American film: the sociopath. Unlike Crown, who was simply bored and turns to crime for the challenge and the excitement, it's obvious that Kotch enjoys his duplicity and has very little feeling for anything or anyone else. Yet, in perhaps a greater con, we root for him.

Writer and director Bernard Girard made one for the ages with Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. I just wish he'd made more films, and that Stu Phillips had scored them, too.
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