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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966)

"It all depends on what you need."
- Eli Kotch (James Coburn)

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: November 04, 2003

Stars: James Coburn, Camilla Sparv, Aldo Ray, Nina Wayne, Robert Webber, Todd Armstrong
Other Stars: Rose Marie, Harrison Ford
Director: Bernard Girard

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:47m:22s
Release Date: September 30, 2003
UPC: 043396106383
Genre: crime

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ C+A-B D

DVD Review

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round 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 comely prison psychologist with bogus stories about his tortured youth. The tall tales serve their purpose, and he seduces the doctor body and soul to win parole. But 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 females during the course of Bernard Girard's comically-tinged caper, it's the pursuit of cold hard cash that really fuels Eli's inner engine. For to Eli, women are merely rungs on a ladder—one he's hoping 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 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 plot.

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. 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, but the film's biggest surprise is the debut of Harrison Ford in a bit part as a bellhop. Looking surprisingly skinny, the 24-year-old Ford 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 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.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been preserved in this striking anamorphic widescreen transfer, which benefits from high-definition re-mastering. Sharpness and contrast are excellent and details leap off the screen, despite the typically pale hues of Eastmancolor. Some age-related grit can be detected now and then, but the source material looks surprisingly crisp and clean.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is nothing special, but provides clear, distortion-free sound. Almost all the dialogue is comprehendible and Stu Phillips' music score enhances the action without overwhelming it.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Hard Times, Murder By Death
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: A couple of trailers for other James Coburn DVDs are the only extras offered.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round was a sleeper hit back in 1966, but I found the hard-to-follow story and delicate pacing merely sleep-inducing. A top-notch transfer and stellar performance from James Coburn earn this caper a few points, but not enough for me to hop on the carousel again.


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