Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Heist movies have been a staple of the cinema since The Great Train Robbery of 1903.
Comedy heists probably start in earnest with Topkapi in 1964, itself a comedic remake
by Jules Dassin of his own Rififi,
the most famous heist movie of them all. British efforts like The Lavender Hill Mob,
Two Way Stretch, and The Wrong Arm Of The Law are also early entrants in the
genre. For some reason Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round having built itself up for the
execution of 'the job', fumbles the ball by presenting both a routine depiction of the robbery
and by pushing the film's star to the sidelines during the final stages.
James Coburn (Affliction) is Eli Kotch, a con man who gains early parole by sensitive performances in prison group therapy, and by the seduction of psychologist Dr Marion Hague. To raise money to pay for a set of plans for a robbery, he targets further susceptible women before robbing them. Disguised as a pest exterminator with literary pretensions he meets Inger (Camilla Sparv), housekeeper to a wealthy old lady. He marries Inger, presumably for a cover story, and they move to Los Angeles where he claims record producers wish to set his lyrics to music.
Kotch recruits an electronics expert, a film actor, and another associate (yes, they're that unmemorable), for his scheme. He leaves Inger, claiming to have had his Navy unit called up for active service. In the film's only scene that hints at any depth, the chain-smoking Kotch pauses on the sidewalk as he leaves, and allows a glance back that suggests his feelings for Inger have gone beyond expediency.
The robbery is to take place against the visit of the Russian premier to LA, and is therefore aided by the presence of demonstrating crowds and the paranoid security services. Pretending to be an Australian police officer, Kotch deposits one of the gang, as his prisoner, with the local LAPD; the other two, masquerading as policemen carrying out security checks, enter the airport bank, jam local phone lines and make off with the contents of the vault. Collecting his 'prisoner' and using his two associates as police escort, Kotch is given priority clearance onto a plane bound for Mexico. Leaning back in his seat Kotch mutters some observation about getting what is needed. Are his thoughts returning to Inger?
Meanwhile Inger has heard that her former employer has died, and in attempting to contact Kotch, to tell him that she will be away for the funeral, she discovers that the Navy knows no one who answers his description. In the most peremptory of 'twists' the administrator who has tried to help her comments to a colleague that since her old employer's death Inger has inherited an estate of $7m.
Having built up to the robbery reasonably well the final stages seem rushed, and Coburn himself plays only the most superficial part. That said, Coburn is a memorable turn, born cool, and fans of the great man should probably seek this out to see him impersonate a Swiss and an Aussie, and for his memorable 'actor's studio' routine in custodial therapy at the beginning of the film. The film is of passing interest too as providing probably the first un-credited cinematic role for a fresh-faced Harrison Ford as a bellboy.