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

Highly entertaining woefully underrated heist picture with an impish James Coburn (Hard Contract, 1967), Swedish Camilla Sparv (Downhill Racer, 1969) in a sparkling debut and at the end an outrageous twist you won’t see coming in a million years. This is the antithesis of capers of the Topkapi (1964) variety. Not only is it an all-professional job, it takes a good while before you even realise the final focus is robbery or even the actual location. There are hints about the that event and glimpses in passing of material that may be used, and although the theft is planned to intricate detail, none of that planning is revealed to the audience.

The paroled Eli Kotch (James Coburn), who has seduced the prison psychiatrist, immediately skips town and starts fleecing any woman who falls for his charms. He changes personality at the drop of a hat, fitting into the likes of the mark, and in turn is burglar, art thief, car hijacker, in order to raise the loot required to buy a set of bank plans, and yet not above taking on ordinary jobs like shoe salesman to meet the ladies and coffin escort to get free travel across the country. So adept at the minutiae of the con he even manages to impersonate a hotel guest in order to get free phone calls.

He enrols girlfriend Inger (Camilla Sparv) to act as an amateur photographer working on a “poetic essay on transient populations” to get an idea of sites he means to access. He manages to have the head of a Secret Service detail blamed for a leak. Everything is micro-managed and his final masquerade is an Australian cop with a prisoner to extradite which provides him with an excuse to linger in a police station, privy to what is going on at crucial points.

If I tell you any more I’m going to give away too much of the plot and deprive you of delight at its cleverness. The original posters did their best not to give away too much but you can rely on critics on imdb to spoil everything.

This is just so much fun, with the slick confident Eli as a very engaging con man, the supreme manipulator, and almost in cahoots with writer-director Bernard Girardin (The Mad Room) in manipulating the audience. There are plenty films full of obfuscation just for the hell of it, or because plots are so complex there’s no room for simplification, or simply at directorial whim. But this has so much going on and Kotch so entertaining to watch that you hardly realize the tension that has been building up, not just looking forward to what exactly is the heist but also how are they going to pull it off, what other clever tricks does Kotch have up his sleeve for any eventuality, and of course, for the denouement, are they going to get away with it, or fall at the last hurdle. There is a great twist before the brilliant twist but I’m not going to tell you about that either.

There’s plenty Swinging Sixties in the background, the permissive society that Kotch is able to exploit, and yet the film has some unexpected depths. You wonder if the memories Kotch draws upon to win the sympathy of his female admirers have their basis in his own life. You are tempted to think not since he is after all a con man, but the detail is so specific it has you thinking maybe this is where his inability to trust anyone originates.

Bernard Giradin was not a name known to me I have to confess, since he was more of a television director than a big screen purveyor – prior to this he had made A Public Affair (1962) with the unheard-off Myron McCormick – and Coburn was the only big star he ever had the privilege to direct. But there are some nice directorial touches. The movie opens with a wall of shadows, there are some striking images of winter, a twist on bedroom footsie, and jabbering translators. But most of all he has the courage to stick to his guns, not feeling obliged to have Kotch spill out everything to a colleague or girl, either to boast of his brilliance, or to reveal innermost nerves, or, worse, to fulfil audience need. There’s an almost documentary feel to the whole enterprise.

James Coburn is superb. Sure, we get the teeth, the wide grin, but I sometimes felt all the smiling was unnecessary, almost a short cut to winning audience favour, and this portrayal, with the smile less in evidence, feels more intimate, more seductive. This may well be his best, most winning, performance. Camilla Sparv is something of a surprise, nothing like the ice queen of future movies, very much an ordinary girl delighted to be falling in love, and with a writer of all the things, the man of her dreams.

The excellent supporting cast includes Marian McCargo (The Undefeated, 1969), Aldo Ray (The Power, 1968), Robert Webber (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Todd Armstrong (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and of course a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of Harrison Ford as the only bellboy (that’s a clue) in the picture. You might also spot showbiz legend Rose Marie (The Jazz Singer, 1927).

Witness (1985) *****

The Casablanca of the crime thriller, a stone cold classic in which impossible love takes precedence over unusual situation. In the Bogart-Bergman picture it is expatriates in war-torn North Africa, here a cop protecting an innocent boy hides out among the Amish. Like The Rock, this is so good the director makes the audience wait for a first sighting of the star while exploring the other main characters and the unique backdrop, in this case the customs and dress code of a religious cult that shuns the modern.

Adding to the paranoia rampant in American cinema in the 1970s/1980s is a further element – the hunted man or, in this case, boy. There’s no mystery in this thriller, 20 minutes in we know the culprit, involved in a criminal conspiracy so powerful it cannot be fought. And unlike the bulk of cop movies it’s not set in a city but in the country.

Just-widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and eight-year-old son Jacob (Lukas Haas) set out by train to Philadelphia where the boy witnesses a brutal murder. Questioned by  Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), we discover by accident the killer is cop Lt McFee (Danny Glover). Reaching out to trusted mentor Police Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) only to discover he is implicated, Book flees back to Amish country, where a gunshot wound prolongs his stay.  

Distrusted as an uncouth “English,” liable to violence the Amish abhor, Book, with a range of carpentry skills, soon finds himself at home. Drawn to Rachel, passions simmer, but in this collision of cultures she cannot leave and he cannot stay. Without the cop background this would be a beautifully rendered love story, but the daily danger of the hidden being located  heightens already tense emotions.

The examination of the Amish lifestyle is faultless. Transport is horse and cart, though sometimes that is with almost balletic assurance, there is no electricity, the community works together but threatens exclusion for disobeying strict rules. In compliance, Book dons the typical Amish outfit of plain black jacket and straw hat, buttons forbidden. And it is only when he breaks out of such strictures that his charges are threatened.

While the violence is powerful and when the time comes Book has a ruse or two up his sleeve, the most memorable scenes are as far removed from the crime thriller genre as  possible. First is when Rachel enjoys a tentative forbidden dance with Book. Then there is the love scene where he watches her wash her naked torso, desire written over each face. Finally is building the barn where in quiet but obvious ways Rachel reveals her growing feelings for Book while with hammer and saw he helps put together the structure to the soaring strains of Maurice Jarre’s most magnificent composition.

Director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, 1989) excels in observation, a scene between Rachel and wooing farmer (Alexander Gudonov) takes place in silence, women whispering declaim attitudes to Rachel, her father Eli (Jan Rubes) waking Book before dawn, and several scenes of meals. Since restraint is the watchword, Weir draws exceptional performances from both principles, Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, 1982) receiving his only Oscar nomination, McGillis (Top Gun, 1986) nominated for a Bafta, likewise her only recognition at this rarified strata. Josef Sommer (Silkwood, 1983) is good as the ruthless but tormented corrupt cop, and both ballet dancer Alexander Gudonov and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book, 2018) make Hollywood debuts. Lukas Haas is as wide-eyed as they come.

Although nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Music, it only picked up two, for editing and for an outstanding screenplay by William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, both known almost exclusively as television writers.

An authentic, heartbreaking, multi-layered, adult picture like this is very hard to come by.

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