Eli Kotch (James Coburn) is spending time in a prison psychology group where the inmates reveal their inner feelings as a way of getting them to think about their actions more and set them on the path to rehabilitation. One prisoner is speaking about how the smell of something sweet can remind him of his abusive, alcoholic father who used to drink vanilla extract but Eli counters that he doesn't necessarily believe scents are the key to a person's inner thoughts and actions, and goes off on a story about the night he and his father realised his mother was having an affair. But then, he likes to spin a yarn, does Eli...
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round was best recalled today for its nonsensical title - you would have to watch the movie to see where it was derived from, not that this cleared up its meaning much - but perhaps that was selling it short, because it remained the most notable film from the directing career of Bernard Girard. He has been described as largely undistinguished as an auteur, but this example of his work did betray certain aspirations as he took the heist flick and applied a measure of style and aloofness to it which not everyone was going to respond to. All that business without much of a pay-off, the naysayers may well have observed, although there was a twist in the tale.
Actually a twist right in the last seconds of the final scene, which you could view as a clever resolution to an involved caper, or a case of cold feet where the way the plot was heading was considered far too immoral for the time, so they added that dampener on Eli's ultimate achievements. For most of the film you're not even all that aware of precisely what he's up to anyway, as we follow him out of prison and into a series of aliases as he pulls the wool over a selection of characters' eyes. This ranges from pretending to return a rich woman's dog or taking young lady out for a drink posing as a Swiss and making an impression of her employer's key to actually getting married to an au pair, Inger (Camilla Sparv).
She is working for a different rich woman, and as the scenes accumulate in much the same fashion for the next hour we begin to piece together what it is Eli is up to. Given there are scenes scattered throughout with Robert Webber trying to organise a visit by a Soviet Premier to Los Angeles, we might be correct in thinking this has something to do with the overall heist, and as the narrative builds to a denouement at the airport you can sort of understand where this has been aiming. Although such an approach, with all cards played very close to the chest even as the story is wrapping up, could have been not exactly a manner of generating supense but a method of sustaining the audience's confusion.
Not so much to keep them on their toes but to stop them asking awkward questions, as once you begin to think over what you have seen you may well be pondering various implausibilities about both Eli himself and the incredibly involved plan - could many criminals be so set on grabbing that wealth for themselves when they were going to split it up to that extent? It would be easier to get a decent job, which in light of the application Eli offers to his crimes he could become a very accomplished mind in an executive position. It is at this point you twig that everything you've seen is mostly for effect, so that you could enjoy the proceedings as an exercise in gloss and superficial sheen, and appreciate Coburn's effortless charm, which to be fair went a long way. Also interesting was that Steven Speilberg looked to have watched this before making Catch Me If You Can: there were noticeable similarities (conman, era, love affair) although his effort was the better movie. Music by Stu Phillips.