Yesterday, I took a look at Executive Action, a 1973 docudrama about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Today, I want to take a look at another film inspired by the Kennedys, the 1979 satire Winter Kills.
As the film opens, it’s been 16 years since a popular and dynamic President named Tim Kegan was assassinated in Philadelphia. Despite constant rumors of conspiracy, the official story is that Kegan was killed by a lone gunman and that gunman was subsequently killed by another lone assassin. The President’s half-brother, Nick (played by Jeff Bridges, who looks so impossibly young and handsome in this film), has disappointed his father (John Huston) by declining to follow his brother into politics. Instead, he spends most of his time sailing on corporate oil tankers and dating fashion editor Yvette (Belinda Bauer). This all changes when a dying man named Fletcher (and played, underneath a lot of bandages, by Joe Spinell) asks for a chance to speak to Nick. Fletcher reveals that he was the 2nd gunman and that he was hired by to kill President Kegan. Before dying, Fletcher tells Nick where he can find the rifle that was used to kill the President.
Following Fletcher’s directions, Nick finds both the rifle and proof that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy. Determined to find out who was truly behind the conspiracy, Nick goes to see his father, the flamboyant tycoon Pa Kegan (John Huston) who, we discover, is only alive because he frequently gets blood transfusions from young women. With Pa’s encouragement, Nick is sent on an increasingly bizarre odyssey into the darkest shadows of America, a world that is populated by militaristic businessmen, sinister gangsters, and an unemotional man named John Cerutti (Anthony Perkins) who very well may be the most powerful man in the world.
The martyred President might be named Tim Kegan, his accused assassin might be named Willie Abbott, and the man who shot Abbott might be named Joe Diamond (and might be played by Eli Wallach) but make no mistake about it — Winter Kills is a thinly disguised look at both the Kennedy assassination and the Kennedy family. Based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Winter Kills takes all of the various Kennedy conspiracy theories and intentionally pushes them to their most ludicrous extremes. The end result is a film that tries (and occasionally manages) to be both absurd and sincere, a portrait of a world where paranoia is the only logical reaction.
As I discovered from listening to director William Richert’s commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, Winter Kills had a long and complicated production history. The film was produced by two marijuana dealers, one of whom was murdered by the Mafia shortly after the film premiered while the other would later be sentenced to 40 years in prison on federal drug charges. The production actually went bankrupt more than a few times, which led to Richert, Bridges, and Bauer making and releasing another film specifically so they could raise the money to finish Winter Kills.
When Winter Kills was finally released, it got a good deal of attention because of its spectacular cast. Along with Bridges, Huston, Perkins, and Wallach, the film also features cameo appearances by Tomas Milian, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Meeker, Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune, and a host of other actors who will be familiar to those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM. And yet, according to Richert, the film itself was barely released in to theaters, the implication being that Winter Kills was a film about conspiracies that fell victim to a conspiracy itself.
Given the film’s history and the subject matter, I was really hoping that Winter Kills would turn out to be a great movie. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work. The film struggles to maintain a balance between suspense and satire and, as a result, the suspense is never convincing and the satire is ultimately so obvious that it ends up being more annoying than thought-provoking. The cast may be impressive but they’re used in such a way that film ultimately feels like it’s just a collection of showy celebrity cameos as opposed to being an actual story.
That said, Winter Kills remains an interesting misfire. Jeff Bridges is a likable and compelling lead (and he gives the film much-needed focus) and, playing a role that has a lot in common with his better known work in Chinatown, John Huston is a always watchable if not necessaily likable. Best of all is Anthony Perkins, who plays a role that, in light of what we now know about the NSA, seems oddly prophetic.
Finally, best of all, Winter Kills remains an interesting time capsule. If nothing else, it reminds us that mistrust and paranoia are not unique to this century.