Thursday 10 July 2008

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966)

James Coburn's character, Eli Kotch, used to work as a bellhop in a hotel and learned how to tell how big a tip he could from the smell of the guest's cologne. He's telling this to a prison psychiatrist as part of some session or other, but it isn't long at all before he's on parole and in bed with her. She's a cute blonde, naturally, and just as naturally he breaks parole on day one. Soon he's in LA, where they're preparing for a high profile visit from the Russian premier, and he'll be back here for the main thrust of the film.

In the meantime he goes everywhere else it would seem. The first trip to Denver sees him pose as a Swiss shoe salesman, as whom he picks up Frieda Schmid, a fascinating character played by Nina Wayne. In no time flat she's gone though, along with plenty of her possessions. He's a conman and thief who really has a way with the women, it would seem, as he quickly collects enough keys surreptiously to rob three apartments in one night. Then it's off to Texas to be an termite exterminator who writes on the side to romance a Swedish lady, who he marries. And then it's here and there and back again to pull off a bank heist under the nose of the entire police department who are monitoring the Russian visit.

James Coburn is a chameleon here, and he has a ridiculous amount of fun juggling accents, occupations and personalities at heartbreak speed. He has a different name every time we see him and a different girlfriend to and the suggestion is that he has more fun being a chameleon than actually stealing stuff. He plays so many parts that even he must have lost track of which one was which, and which the real Eli Kotch was. The film cleverly gives us hints and lets us make sense of it all. We see what Eli does in the same way his victims do: now they see him, now they don't. Maybe we never see the real Eli Kotch. Maybe Eli Kotch was just another fake name and personality. And the ending proves that he's too clever for his own good.

The strange thing here is that James Coburn, who is so all over this film that it's hard to even believe there's anyone else in it, is not the biggest star in it, and no, I'm not talking about Aldo Ray, who would have been the other obvious name in 1966. No, the biggest star in it wasn't a star at the time. Harrison Ford got paid $150 for his uncredited role as a Texas bellhop in his debut movie, though he does get a few lines. He's very recognisable, both by his face and his voice, but there's not a huge amount to suggest at a future anywhere near the level he achieved.

Then again there's a great story that attaches to the performance. Apparently a Columbia executive told him that he didn't have that indefinable 'it'. When they saw Tony Curtis in his debut role delivering groceries, they knew he was a star. When they saw Harrison Ford trying to deliver a message in this film, they didn't know any such thing. Reportedly Ford leaned over the desk and replied to the suggestion that he go back to school and study with a typical Harrison Ford quip: 'I thought you were supposed to look at him and say, 'There's the grocery boy'.'

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