Weird and often wonderful, William Richert's film of Winter Kills (1979) is a one-of-a-kind, jet-black political satire. Confusing as the Kennedy assassin conspiracies it mirrors, it's a riddle of a movie wrapped up in an enigma. And you thought Oliver Stone's JFK was confusing?
The movie generally follows Richard Condon's 1974 novel, the author best-known for the similar The Manchurian Candidate (1959), superbly adapted by John Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod in 1962. That film was darkly funny, too, though Richert's film is more outrageous if less fully satisfying. The problem-plagued production, including a Mafia hit of one producer and a 40-year prison sentence handed down to the other, was shut down multiple times, and when it was finally released Richert battled distributor Avco-Embassy for several years before he eventually personally bought the distribution rights and recut the film. The Blu-ray is of this later recut.
Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges) is the half-brother of U.S. President Timothy Kegan, who was assassinated in Philadelphia in 1960. An heir to the family fortune but rudderless in his early adulthood, Kegan is staying aboard one of the family's oil rigs when longtime family associate Keifetz (Richard Boone) arrives by helicopter with Arthur Fletcher, a dying man wrapped like a mummy. Fletcher confesses on his deathbed that he and another assassin actually murdered the President back in 1960, setting up his "official" killer, Willie Arnold, as a patsy. He claims to have been hired by someone named Casper Jr., and leaves instructions on where he stashed his rifle in a Philadelphia commercial building. Soon after, Keifetz and the orderly present at the confession are reported dead.
In Philadelphia, Nick, accompanied by friend Miles Garner (David Spielberg) and Police Captain Heller (Brad Dexter) finds the long-buried rifle but, minutes later, snipers gun down Garner and Heller, and Nick barely escapes with his life, the rifle and corpses stolen during the melee.
Nick then confers with "Pa" Kegan (John Huston), obviously based on Joseph Kennedy Sr., who outlived President Kennedy by six years. Obscenely rich and gleefully lascivious, Pa decides to help Nick unravel the mystery, though Nick prefers working through his journalist girlfriend, Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer), who writes for National Magazine. Pa sends Nick to see crazy millionaire Z.K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden), who conducts war games on his private land. Other clues, some dramatized in flashback, involve gay nightclub owner Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach), who murdered Willie Arnold before he could stand trial (a la Jack Ruby), and Gameboy Baker (Ralph Meeker), a gangster who allegedly murdered the President for not returning favors after making a $2 million campaign contribution.
Also cryptically connected (or not) are Hollywood madam Lola Comante (an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor), who provided companions for the President; and Pa's high-tech accountant, John Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), who oversees the vast Kegan empire from a brain center that looks like something out of Star Wars.
Winter Kills is a difficult movie to describe, and certainly difficult to follow, a shaggy-dog story whose plot specifics are less important than individual vignettes and their memorable characters, and its broad satirical strokes, mainly that American democracy is a sham, that we're all helpless against an all-controlling corporate oligarchy. Jeff Bridges's determined character holds it together, a difficult role that's partly sympathetic but in other respects unlikeable. Indulged his every whim, he is unambitious and has an unformed teenager's concept of love that's almost endearing, while in other scenes he unctuously brandishes the family name to threaten those who stand in his way. Already amassing impressive credits (The Last Picture Show, Huston's Fat City, The Iceman Cometh) to offset more commercial projects (King Kong, etc.) Bridges clearly is all-in with Richert's ambitions.
Even better though is John Huston, the last in a trifecta of great performances (following Chinatown and The Other Side of the Wind), with Pa reveling in entitled depravity, like Trump but with a wily sense of wit and intelligence lacking in the current White House occupant. (In a nice touch, at a luxurious meal Pa keeps a bottle of ketchup nearby. Or maybe that's a nod to Manchurian Candidate's 57 communists?) Pa's lines, so melodiously delivered by Huston, are highly quotable: "Do you know how many times your brother got laid while he was in office? One thousand seventy-two. And with a schedule like his!" and "Take these brass knuckles, but don't lose them. They have a sentimental value." (Huston would himself later film another Condon novel, Prizzi's Honor.)
Most of the all-star cast has a minute or two to shine in their colorful parts, especially Boone, Perkins, Hayden, and Dorothy Malone, as Nick's mother. Huston's longtime associate Gladys Hill plays his secretary, and Joe Spinell, Tisa Farrow, and Berry Berenson (Perkins's real-life wife) have small roles. Toshiro Mifune is in there, too, though wasted in a two-scene cameo with no payoff; maybe he had more to do in Richert's original screenplay.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, Kino's release of Winter Kills is positively gorgeous, a new 4K transfer light years ahead of the VHS version I had to contend with while writing my Kurosawa-Mifune biography 20 years ago. Shot mostly by Vilmos Zsigmond (with John Bailey shooting additional scenes), the cinematography is incredibly handsome throughout, and the Blu-ray does their work justice. The DTS-HD Master audio, mono, is also good. English subtitles accompany this Region "A" disc.
Apparently the only new supplement is an audio commentary track featuring Richert and monitored by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson. The extensive other supplements all appear culled from an earlier Anchor Bay DVD release. They include Richert's 2003 commentary track (begging the question...); "Who Killed WINTER KILLS?" an excellent retrospective featurette; "Reunion," with Richert and Bridges; "Star Stories" i.e., more on-camera material featuring Richert; a radio spot and a trailer.
As a movie Winter Kills is basically a wild (very wild) goose chase but, like so many John Huston-directed movies, the quest itself is where all the drama is. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.