Film Review Of Winter Kills (1979)

Copyright © by Joe Valdez, 9/14/07

Joe's website: http://thisdistractedglobe.com/  


  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 back.

  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 herself.

  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 satirical elements.

  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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