James Coburn masterminds an ambitious robbery in this slick heist flick, but Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is often too cool for its own good. The impossible-to-follow plot will make your head spin like the titular carousel, but if you can survive the confusion, you might just enjoy the breezy performances and '60s vibe. A vibrant transfer and solid audio heighten the disc's appeal, but the lack of supplements (save for a trailer) is disappointing. Coburn fans will welcome this release, but the rest of us might prefer a trip to the amusement park instead. For Fans Only.
Heist flicks are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but it takes plenty of imagination, smarts, and talent to make a good one. For every classic like The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Reservoir Dogs, and even the 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven, there are three or four or more mediocre heist films that follow the formula but lack the goods to make them great. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is a prime example. Writer-director Bernard Girard's hip, very '60s-ish caper movie walks the walk, but too much style, not enough substance, and a very convoluted plot wind up sabotaging this slick but sluggish crime yarn.
The film follows the escapades of Eli Kotch (James Coburn), a lovable con man who changes guises as often as he changes clothes. We first meet him in jail, charming a gorgeous prison psychologist with bogus stories about his tortured youth. The tall tales work their magic and he seduces the doctor, body and soul, to win parole. Yet after a night or two of passion on the outside, Eli leaves the shapely shrink for his one and only true love - money - and though he pursues plenty of other warm-blooded, voluptuous females during the course of Bernard Girard's comically-tinged caper (including one who tries her breathy best to sound like Marilyn Monroe), it's the pursuit of cold hard cash that really fuels Eli's inner engine. Eli may act like Don Juan, but for him, women are merely rungs on a ladder that he hopes will lead to a big ol' pot of gold.
The particular pot that obsesses Eli doesn't lie at the end of a rainbow, but rather deep inside a bank vault at the Los Angeles airport...and like Frank Sinatra in the original Ocean's Eleven, he enlists the services of every friend and associate he can scrounge to help him knock it off. Trouble, however, threatens the mission's success. A visiting Soviet dignitary is scheduled to arrive at the airport the same day as the planned heist, so security is airtight. Or is it? Eli, of course, has a master plan and won't let anything as trivial as Cold War politics interfere. He might even use the international summit to his advantage...
All this sounds exciting, but Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round never reaches the dizzying speed necessary to make it work. Director Girard (who also wrote the script) tries hard to make Eli a blue-collar, rogue James Bond, but the character remains too low-key to capture our fancy. Ditto the complex, maddeningly oblique plot, which demands attention while dulling our senses with its painstaking pace. The sketchy details make motivations difficult to discern and the story tough to follow, and while I certainly enjoy a challenging cinematic jigsaw puzzle, when all was said and done, this particular brainteaser didn't seem to merit my effort. Girard's light touch and subtle, sardonic comedy add a refreshing spin to Eli's shenanigans, but still don't provide the necessary zip to propel the narrative.
Coburn puts his considerable talents to good use, striking just the right casual tone and spicing his character with an intriguing duplicity that keeps the viewer off-guard - although how he could find money more attractive than Camilla Sparv is beyond my comprehension. (Sparv would win the 1967 Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Newcomer for her performance in this film, but despite a couple of notable credits, including starring opposite Robert Redford in Downhill Racer, her career never really took off.) Coburn can't save Dead Heat by himself, but his finely tuned performance adds interest to the film.
Aldo Ray and Robert Webber lend solid support and The Dick Van Dyke Show's Rose Marie crops up briefly as a rich socialite who falls prey to one of Eli's scams. The film's biggest surprise is the debut of Harrison Ford in a bit part as a bellhop. Looking surprisingly skinny and baby-faced, the 24-year-old actor winningly flaunts the half-cocked grin and twinkling eyes that would one day make him a star.
Despite its amiable premise and early promise, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round never involved me like I thought and hoped it would. Throughout the film I felt I was riding a trance-inducing carousel instead of the far more thrilling roller coaster I anticipated. And while a clever and ironic twist ending provides a potent finish, I found the payoff to be too little too late.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a matte-finish sleeve. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Despite no evidence of remastering, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks crisp and vibrant, but the lack of any clean-up tempers my enthusiasm for this rendering. The amount of scratches and marks littering the source at the movie's start really concerned me, but as time went on the picture cleared up considerably and even delivered the wow factor on a few occasions. Though intermittent nicks still cropped up, the offenses were minor.
The natural grain structure remains intact (a bit of snowiness could be detected on solid backgrounds, especially the sky) and delivers a film-like image that features excellent clarity and contrast and faithfully honors the cinematography of Lionel Lindon, who won an Oscar a decade before for Around the World in 80 Days. Blacks are deep and the white snow during the Denver sequence is especially well defined. Colors often pop. A bold red dress, yellow taxi, and various pastels all make statements and show no evidence of fading, and flesh tones appear natural and remain stable throughout. Shadow delineation is quite good and razor-sharp close-ups showcase beads of sweat, Coburn's pores and facial blemishes, and Sparv's peaches-and-cream complexion. Print damage aside, fans should be quite pleased with this high-def presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Stu Phillips' music score without any distortion and sonic accents like ringing telephones, sirens, and jet engines are distinct. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. A bit more fidelity would have lent the track a more expansive feel, but it certainly gets the job done as is.
The film's three-minute original theatrical trailer, which hypes the confusing plot and features a character who sums up my thoughts about the film to a T - "It bugs me when I don't know what's going on" - is the only extra that pertains to Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. Several previews for other KLSC releases are also included.
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round was a sleeper hit back in 1966, but I found the hard-to-follow story and deliberate pacing merely sleep-inducing. Coburn makes a likable criminal mastermind, but can only do so much with a ho-hum script. Despite a fair amount of print damage, Kino's video transfer is sharp and vibrant and solid audio perks up the proceedings. If Coburn is your guy, you'll want to pick up this nicely packaged disc, but I don't foresee myself hopping aboard this carousel again. For Fans Only.