Katie (Mary Steenburgen) is a struggling actress with an out-of-work husband (William Russ) and a deadbeat brother (Mark Malone). Desperately in need of money, Kate goes to an open audition and is immediately hired by Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall), who explains that Katie will have to meet with one of the film’s investors, the wheelchair-bound Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubes). In the middle of a raging snowstorm, they go to Dr. Lewis’s home and, once they’ve arrived, Katie discovers that she is meant to replace an actress who looked exactly like her but who Dr. Lewis claims had a nervous breakdown. She’s told that she must stay the night so she can meet the director in the morning and when she tries to call her husband to let him know where she is, the line is dead. (For those born after 1996, the line being dead was the 80s equivalent of not being able to get a signal.) Dr. Lewis says it must be due to the storm but he promises to have Mr. Murray take her into town in the morning. Of course, the next morning, the car doesn’t start and it becomes clear that Dr. Lewis is not planning on ever letting Katie leave his home.
Dead of Winter is a throw-back to the type of gothic, damsel-in-distress films that actresses like Nina Foch, Ingrid Bergman, and Linda Darnell used to make back in the 1940s and 50s. If you can accept that anyone could ever be as naive as Katie, it’s not that bad of a thriller. Director Arthur Penn fills his movie with homages to Hitchcock and the scene where a drugged Katie wakes up to discover that she’s missing a finger is an effectively nasty shock. By the end of the movie, Mary Steenburgen has played three different characters and she does a good job as all three of them. Jan Rubes makes Dr. Lewis’s too obviously evil but Roddy McDowall is great as the polite but psychotic Mr. Murray. When Mr. Murray sees that Katie has tried to escape by climbing out a window, he yells, “Oh dear!” and only Roddy McDowall could have pulled that off.
Dead of Winter was Arthur Penn’s second-to-last theatrical film. After making films like Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, and Alice’s Restaurant, Penn’s career went into decline as the American film industry became increasingly centered around blockbusters and Penn’s cerebral approach fell out of favor. After Dead of Winter, Penn would direct Penn & Teller Get Killed before returning to his roots as a television director. Penn ended his long and distinguished career as an executive producer on Law & Order.