Monday, September 12, 2016

The Standard Of Living

It’s the easiest thing in the world to focus on what’s in front of you, making you miss the bigger picture. Sometimes you realize right away. Sometimes it takes a little longer. Either way, the outcome isn’t going to be what you want. Released in 1966, DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is about just that sort of thing, a heist film with some of the expected fun touches but also a soberness to it that indicates how nasty some of the actions are, that the fun and games of a rollicking mid-60s heist aren’t just fun and games. Plus it has James Coburn, the epitome of cool in this star vehicle that came between the two FLINT films, at the height of his breakout with that enormous toothy smile just flashy enough to almost make you forget what sort of person he’s really playing. The KCET Cinema Series sometimes screens one of his films in conjunction with the James & Paula Coburn Foundation and this past August they played a gorgeous 35mm print of this film, something I had never expected to see. Remembered these days mainly for being the feature debut of a certain other legendary star in a bit role, DEAD HEAT is almost too aloof to be a classic, it’s almost daring you to call it anything other than aloof, never asking for your love but within the fractured quality of its story its own cool rhythm comes to play. It may not be a masterwork of the genre but regardless, there aren’t many days where I’m going to complain about getting to see a 60s heist movie anyway and this one definitely has its pleasures.
Recently released from prison and breaking parole after seducing his psychologist, con man Eli Kotch (James Coburn) begins to put his plan into effect to pull off a master bank heist at the Los Angeles Airport at the exact time the Russian premier arrives for a trip to the city. But first he must pull off a number of smaller jobs to pay for the blueprints that will give him the information he needs for the plan and sets out across the country to begin earning that money. During his travels he meets the lovely Inger Knudsen (Camilla Sparv) under the guise of an intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’, marries her and continues the con by moving her out to Los Angeles. As he makes his own way out west to assemble his gang of fellow thieves (Aldo Ray, Severn Darden, Michael Strong) for the crime, federal agent Milo Stewart (Robert Webber) who is overseeing the visit by the premier, is working to have the airport tight as a drum for the premier’s arrival and very intent on making sure absolutely nothing goes wrong.
Eli Kotch doesn’t care about anyone else around him, they’re only shadows, just like the shadows seen on a wall in the film’s opening shot as if for him the whole world is just sitting there, waiting for him to take advantage of it all and get what’s his. Written and directed by Bernard Girard (various feature & TV credits, including a number of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is an odd, chilly film that makes you wonder just when the story is going to start instead of spending valuable time on scenes where apparently not much of anything happens only to discover that was the story, just like how you realize after the fact in life that what you were waiting for already came around. It’s a slippery narrative with an extremely detached layout and manages to be enjoyable even when you haven’t quite caught up to what’s going on. At times it’s as if half the scenes don’t even matter and, of course, they do it’s just not always clear exactly why. Along with the fun, it almost dares to be alienating in its storytelling; much of the pleasure in heist films involves laying out whatever the plan is, so we know what the characters know and even what they don’t, allowing for twists to occur in both directions. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” someone like Danny Ocean will say as we cut to the explanatory montage. Going totally against that grain, part of the goal of DEAD HEAT seems to be to clarify as little as possible as Eli Kotch puts his plan into effect, with what seems like whole chunks of plot skipped over through ellipsis and then offering still less info, never making it clear right away as a new scene begins what exactly is important, what we should be focusing on. One imagines watching the film on local TV with commercials during the 70s just assuming that scenes have been cut but as it turns out everything is right in front all along.
The film leaves it up to us to put the pieces together as Eli Kotch expresses all the confidence in the world without giving away the details even to the people around him. We’ll see the setup of the con, many of which involve getting women to open themselves up to whichever character he’s playing at the moment to take advantage of them, to help him ‘identify their desires’—a southern-accented funeral director from Berkeley, a French-accented shoe salesman from Switzerland who lives in Denver, returning a missing dog to a Boston heiress, but we see almost nothing of the actual jobs being pulled as if that’s secondary to the schemes and once he’s got the plan going the end result is a fait accompli. Characters are introduced, set up, then gone before we realize it, as the film and its lead character speed off to a different locale leaving them behind and clueless as to what really happened. The jigsaw puzzle layout does become clearer over multiple viewings but even then plays as if certain details are left unexplained because the film just isn’t interested in them, even if it would allow for just a little more clarity. But it does give DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND its own unique vibe and in some ways is the perfect vehicle for Coburn in his 60s persona. He’s Mr. Iconoclast, not needing anyone around him, facing straight ahead and not looking around for any cars that might be about to hit him as he walks out into the road. Just like he does, the film decides on what’s important and since you’re only an observer you don’t get a say in the matter.
And that main character remains an enigma, given little more than an extended speech in the very first scene in which he reveals a childhood betrayal which no doubt shaped his worldview. It may be the only truthful thing he reveals about himself, presuming he hasn’t simply made it up for the benefit of the prison psychologist he’s using to aid in his early release. Either way aside from that we get next to nothing else in the way of character detail outside a close-up of him staring at a newspaper headline announcing the impending arrival of the Russian premier which must be the date of his job, eyes on that prize, fixed on the goal no matter anything else and it’s the only thing that matters. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a good, smooth time that continually clicks along—the pacing never slacks off so there’s a tightness to the direction through each new stage of the plan and it never seems to rest for a second. The jaunty score by Stu Philips keeps it all light hearted but never fully swings as much as you’d want it to in that 60s way as if it wants to keep things close to the vest, never fully indicating what kind of film this is, never wanting to reveal the next crucial twist, let alone what’s going to happen as a result. Eli Kotch talks about playing ‘that invisibility game’ in his cons and he’s right since the shadows he encounters, all those easy marks, never take too much notice of him. He already seems to know how helpful and open the world is going to be whether it’s the women he takes full advantage of or the people he encounters briefly who almost always seem to mention how pleased they were to have met him and help him out, never knowing the fast one he’s pulling on them. He even dismisses worry about how fast he’s putting this heist together, insisting that it can’t wait; you wait around, you get fat, he says. As if to prove his own viewpoint, the entire world around him is going crazy, stuck in their own world of worry about whatever their particular problems are.
It’s a film where almost everything is a put-on, including when one of the crooks is introduced wearing prison garb only to have it revealed to us that he’s working as a Hollywood extra. Even the preparations for the premier’s visit are all about what’s being shown on the surface, how it’s “the standard of living we want to project” and we’re seemingly told more details about the preparations for the visit, which as far as we know is of incidental importance to the plot, than the heist itself. As confusing as it might be the pacing keeps things feeling controlled, so careful that it’s a movie where the heist finally kicks off and the lead basically goes for a quiet stroll with us still not entirely sure what he’s waiting for. DEAD HEAT could have been made by its own lead character—“Eli Kotch” was even the original title—since it gives you pleasure for a little while, pulls a fast one and then that’s it. “Whoever remembers anyone by their name?” one of the women asks which is what Kotch seems to already know and he’s right, just about every choice he makes is absolutely right except for the one thing he doesn’t bother with. When he wins the heart of Camilla Sparv’s Inger Knudsen by pretending to be some sort of intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’ he doesn’t seem to know how good he has it and how good it can be with her, even if the two of them are only in some tiny apartment where they have to hide the fact that they’re cooking in a place where it isn’t allowed. She even puts on a little performance when they’re staying over at her wealthy employer’s house as if it really belongs to them, playing at the game that he takes very seriously. “Oh, Henry,” she coos to him, as if to foreshadow the final twist. Unable to believe that he’s fallen for her so fast, she couldn’t be sweeter to this total shit and he just doesn’t care. The movie is almost about the behavior that gets put out there for the world to see, whether truthful or not and what it can be during those lonely moments when we let our guard down like how Coburn pauses outside of Sparv’s building when he departs, for a few seconds aware of what he’s leaving behind. For once in a heist film, the suspense almost seems beside the point.
There’s also some neat location work giving us a pretty good glimpse of what LAX looked like back in those days, with the “International Back of Commerce” oddly located on the street level of the famous Theme Building (I always think of it as Encounter and was surprised to discover the actual name, so the things you learn). Even with the Russian premier coming through to this international airport it still seems like a pleasant commuter stopover compared to now. Other portions of the film feel somewhat backlot bound, typical of studio releases of the time, so much so that it’s almost a surprise when actual Boston locations turn up for that section. Because of the 60s vibe and airport setting some have compared it to CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, obviously a much warmer film, but there is also a certain amount of MAD MEN’s Don Draper as well in the behavior of this film’s lead character with his willingness to put on a false front and just take off, forgetting about what’s being left behind, nothing that matters but the possibility of what’s next. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a little like the feature equivalent of James Coburn cackling with that huge grin of his only in this case he doesn’t get to hear the punchline to his own joke. And it’s a pretty good one.
As Eli Kotch, Coburn glides through every encounter with all the confidence in the world, making even the smallest moments effective. Once he’s given his first big speech at the start, that’s all we need to know as he uses his sly grin blowing smoke rings, confident that each new guise is going to work like all the others—at one point he even reuses his Australian accent from THE GREAT ESCAPE, not that it’s much better this time around. Camilla Sparv (also in MURDERERS’ ROW and DOWNHILL RACER) doesn’t have much to do but project sweetness and vulnerability but it’s what the part needs, enough for us to remember how much she’s being used. The various other women include Rose Marie in a brief cameo and Nina Wayne (sister of the more recognizable Carol Wayne from Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY; I had to check the credits to make sure they weren’t the same person) who as Frieda Schmid is given some of the cleverest dialogue in the film as her character somehow manages to contradict each thing she says within seconds ("I'm always on time. It's one of my failings.").
As Kotch’s cohorts, Severn Darden (both CONQUEST and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, among many other credits) and Michael Strong (Stegman in POINT BLANK) each do something with their thinly written roles displaying quiet nervousness that adds to the tension for their part in the job. But it’s hard to imagine Aldo Ray (who appeared with Coburn in Blake Edwards’ WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? the very same year) doing much less with his own vaguely defined role—by a certain point it’s hard to remember if he even has any dialogue in the film. Along with dependable work by Robert Webber who gets moments of comical impatience in a fairly thankless role and Roy Glenn of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER as a helpful airport cop, a few familiar faces appear briefly including Vic Tayback and Al Nalbandian, recognizable from small roles in a few Coppola productions (including THE CONVERSATION, AMERICAN GRAFITTI and TUCKER; he still has his own flower stand in San Francisco). In addition, as much as the world already knows, Harrison Ford makes his film debut here as a bellhop who briefly gets confused by Coburn pulling one of his many cons. It’s cool to see him here, but the film deserves to be known for more than that.
Since it’s not a film that warrants a huge response from a crowd I wasn’t even sure how it was playing that night and was pleasantly surprised when the final moment got a big response from the audience—the joke landed, essentially. The KCET Cinema Series screening included an enjoyable talk before the film with DEAD HEAT producer Carter DeHaven (this was his first feature producing credit; others include THE EXORCIST III which sadly did not come up) who discussed convincing a reluctant studio head to cast Coburn in the lead, the changing of the title, how Robert Evans tried to keep then-wife Camilla Sparv from doing the film as well as Harrison Ford getting cast in his first role. It was a stunningly pristine print which didn’t look like it had been played in decades; my thanks again to Lynda Erkiletian of the James & Paula Coburn Foundation for the invite. There’s a chilliness to DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND which sets it apart while fitting in perfectly with other Coburn films from the 60s. “It all depends on what you need,” goes a line near the end and sometimes that one thing can be all you think about, where all your focus is so you miss what else is there. Maybe you eventually notice it. Maybe you notice it too late. Sometimes these films keep things so light that there’s no time for such truths but DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND has just the right amount of sting to it. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little nastiness just when you think things are going your way. Except when it happens to you, of course.

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