Film Review Of Winter Kills (1979)
Copyright © by Joe Valdez, 9/14/07
On a cargo vessel off the coast of Malaysia, Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges) is visited by Keifeitz (Richard Boone), the do-dirt man who works for Nick’s father, owner of the shipping company, among other global interests. Keifeitz has with him a man in bandages (Joe Spinell) who wants to confess: he was the gunman responsible for killing Nick’s half-brother - President Kegan - nineteen years ago from an office tower in Philadelphia.
The ne’er-do-well Nick recovers the rifle used in the assassination,
which was blamed on a lone gunman later shot dead by a nightclub owner with mob
ties. Before Nick can present this evidence to the authorities, the policemen
with him are shot dead by a mysterious lady riding a bicycle with a child on the
Nick adjourns to the desert compound of his Pa (John Huston), who wants
the truth behind his son’s assassination. He dispatches Nick to meet with a
rival tycoon (Sterling Hayden) who rides tanks around his property and believes
the Philadelphia Police are implicated.
An ex-cop who runs a chicken farm points to a mob connection, while an
incarcerated Cuban mobster (Tomas Milan) believes a Hollywood agent had the
president killed after the movie star he was having an affair with killed
Nick is in love with a French journalist (Belinda Bauer) who has very
loud orgasms and Nick wrapped around her finger. He asks her for help, against
the warnings of Pa. While in Cleveland meeting with mobsters, Nick encounters
the bicycle riding female assassin again.
The only man who seems to have any credibility is Cerruti (Anthony
Perkins), the director of Pa’s intelligence apparatus who works from a secret
silo and taps phone conversations around the world. Cerruti tells Nick the truth
about his girlfriend, and Pa, implicating the old man in the assassination of
his own son.
Winter Kills was a novel by
Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian
Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor. It
was a complex murder mystery that made no attempt to disguise that it was about
Joe Kennedy and a conspiracy in the assassination of JFK.
No one in Hollywood wanted to touch it. Enter Robert Sterling and Leonard
Goldberg, marijuana smugglers who had made somewhat of a name for themselves by
producing the soft core Emanuelle pictures. Aspiring to go legit, they purchased
the film rights to Condon’s novel.
Their first choice to direct was Milos Forman, but Forman’s agent
informed the producers that the Oscar winning filmmaker wasn’t available. The
agent suggested another client, a screenwriter named William Richert, who had
never directed a feature film. Richert felt the only way to approach the tragic
material would be to do it as a political Alice In Wonderland and emphasize the
Without the backing of a studio, the quality of Richert’s adaptation
attracted an all-star cast including Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor
(in an unbilled cameo as a mob madam), and others. Shooting commenced on five
huge soundstages at MGM. What no one realized was that Goldberg didn’t have
the money to pay for any of this. He figured if enough people were owed money,
they’d let him finish the movie.
Instead, the union shut it down, and the picture declared bankruptcy
before it could be completed. Richert shot for a week in Philadelphia with cast
and crew – including famed director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond and
production designer Robert Boyle - working for free, but the union shut them
down again due to funding shortages. Shortly thereafter, Goldberg was found
handcuffed to his bed, shot dead by someone he owed money to.
Richert came up with the idea to take Jeff Bridges and Belinda Bauer to
Germany to shoot a script he’d written called The American Success Company,
selling the distribution rights to finish Winter Kills. When Winter
Kills was finally completed and released two years later, it was well
reviewed, but didn’t stay in theaters long. Richard Condon theorized that the
distributor – Avco Embassy – had major defense contracts and that the
Kennedy clan pressured them to bury the movie.
Winter Kills is one of the
great overlooked films of the last thirty years. Richert found a pitch perfect
tone for the picture, which works as a visually stunning conspiracy thriller,
and a goofy satire of conspiracy thrillers. Along with Tron in the 1980s and The Big
Lebowski in the 1990s, it also confirms Jeff Bridges’ affection for smart,
idiosyncratic films with unique vision and off-beat wit.
If Richert realized his directorial debut was being funded with drug
money and was about to run out, he doesn’t show it. The movie has a staggering
visual palette, courtesy Vilmos Zsigmond’s mysterious lightning, and rich
production design by Robert Boyle. Maurice Jarre provided a musical score
that’s also top drawer.
There are a number of sly visual touches, including the bicycle riding angel of death, and the finale, where Huston dangles from a giant American flag. The picture was cast beautifully. Jeff Bridges and Belinda Bauer maintain a wonderful sense of humor, without trying to go for laughs. Instead of doing the audience’s thinking and answering all our questions, Richert smartly presents any number of theories, which like a dessert tray, the audience is free to pick their favorite from.
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