Written and Directed by William Richert (based on the Richard Condon novel)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, Belinda Bauer
Tagline: They are the power. Protected by violence and ruled by corruption.
Trivia: Most of the film was shot in 1976, three years before getting a release date. A more expanded version hit the market in 1983.
Winter Kills is a movie that often comes up in “cult films of the 1970s discussions” so I was curious to check it out when it recently aired on TCM. Based on a novel by Richard Condon, who also wrote The Manchurian Candidate, the film plays as a satire on the paranoid thriller genre (or does it). To describe Winter Kills in one word I go with baffling, an odd assemblage of scenes that scoff at plot conventions in favor of showcase one shot performances that range from irritating to amusing.
Jeff Bridges stars as Nick Kegan the younger half brother of a JFK like president who was assassinated several years before. The film begins with Nick hearing a death bed confession from a man who claims he was one of the shooters. Thus Nick embarks on a amateur investigation in search of the truth. John Huston, over the top as usual, plays the Joe Kennedy type father who repeatedly downgrades Nick as a ne’er do well son. At one point he chides Nick for not sleeping with over 1000 women like his more ambitious brother!
Each scene follows the same pattern: Nick is given a name to look up at some random location, chats with the person, and is then given yet another name to track down with even more information (lots of ins lots of outs). Each revelation leads to more dead ends thus deepening the mystery of the assassination – and sometimes the informants get killed like sitting ducks.
My favorite meeting featured an unhinged Sterling Hayden playing war games with tanks in his backyard! Many of these sequences also feature pointless flashbacks that are grainy and not shot very well, even Elizabeth Taylor makes a silent cameo. A femme fatale played by Belinda Bauer with whom Nick wants to marry is clearly shady since she speaks with a vague European accent (Yvette doesn’t even get the honor of a dramatic screen death).
By the end your head will spin with all the plot twists and choppy editing that leads to a logic defying climax better suited for a Mel Brooks movie.
Winter Kills took elements from other paranoid thrillers that were far superior, specifically The Parallax View and Marathon Man. Bridges appears clueless throughout, although he would go on to star in a far superior thriller Cutter’s Way a few years later, and of course star in the 1998 shaggy dog epic The Big Lebowski as “the dude.” Did the Coen Brothers include an allusion to Winter Kills? Do we need a Room 237 for The Big Lebowski?
Winter Kills had a troubled production history. The producers were involved in the illegal drug trade (one was apparently murdered) and a sudden halt in production delayed the shoot for months. Richert even filmed another movie in between entitled The American Success Company with much of the same cast.
As a curiosity of the 1970s, Winter Kills is worth a look for film addicts who cannot get enough of the decade. But there’s a weariness to it that’s grating and ridiculous. Many stars appear so you can at least count the cameos if apathy sets in during your viewing experience.