Classic Film Review: The Cultish Conspiracy Chaos of “Winter Kills” (1979)

The film’s co-producer was found murdered, handcuffed to a chair two weeks before the film was released. He and a later-imprisoned co-producer made their money from marijuana importation, sales and distribution.

The movie was chopped up by studio editors and released in New York, and abruptly yanked. Four years later it came out “restored,” making a little more sense but barely any more box office cents.

Myth has it that the Kennedy clan tried to suppress “Winter Kills.” But its unique place in cinema history might be that it’s the only movie to ever go bankrupt in the middle of production. Many of its famous cast members supposedly never got paid, but Elizabeth Taylor, stepping out of retirement for a single scene and a single line, made damned sure to get her cash up front.

And its director only made two other features in the ensuing 43 years. William Richert, who also made the equally cultish film “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon,” starring River Phoenix, died just last month (July, 2022).

“Winter Kills” checks almost every box on the “this might be a cult film” checklist. It is beloved, studied, parsed by obsessive fans. Look at the “trivia” entry for it on the Internet Movie Dababase. The gossip around this movie is its own legend.

It’s the least-heralded of the conspiracy thrillers from the Golden Age of cinema conspiracy — “Chinatown,” “Executive Action,” “All the President’s Men,” “Cutter’s Way.” All of them seemed so far fetched at the time, even the historically-accurate one.

And yet here we are in 2022, with evidence pouring in of an ever-widening conspiracy to pull off a putsch on Jan. 6, 2021, with vast expanses of Trump-corrupted government covering it up, and compelling evidence emerging of espionage or attempted espionage committed by a treasonous, Russian-colluding puppet placed in the White House by America’s enemies.

Think this movie about an oligarchic conspiracy to elect and/or kill a sitting president still has something to say?

I first encountered “Winter Kills” in a “Film Satire” class in grad school, and that’s what it is. However serious Richard Condon’s Kennedy Assassination roman a clef novel was (he also wrote “Prizzi’s Honor”), Richert — who only had a dance documentary to his credit when he landed this gig — saw it as darkly hilarious. And so the finished film often is.

Jeff Bridges is our slack-jawed straight man, the last son of an all-powerful tycoon (John Huston) who got young Nick’s much older half-brother into the White House only to see him assassinated there twenty years before. A presidential commission laid the blame on a “lone gunman,” and paid little heed to the fact that the shooter was murdered in police custody by a mobster NOT named Jack Ruby.

So yes, the Kennedys were probably a bit put-out by the hit novel and the fact that a movie was being released just as the Chappaquiddick-disgraced youngest brother in the family was considering a run for the White House.

Nick Kegan is on an oil exploration ship in the Persian Gulf when one of his father’s fixers, played by Richard Boone in a Mexican poncho and California Angels baseball cap (and supposedly magnificently drunk in every scene) shows up with a dying man whom he says was the real shooter that day.

They hear the dying man’s confession, and the game’s afoot, with Mr. “My Name Opens Every Door” Kegan running around and slowly figuring out that most everybody who knows “what really happened” and that knows he’s stumbling into “proof,” gets killed. His first hint is when the ditzy old cop (Brad Dexter) and a couple of others with him when he finds the hidden murder weapon are shot — right in front of Nick in the very car that they plan to drive to the FBI.

Not-wholly-hapless Nick is instantly over-matched in every meeting, especially those with his meddling, all-powerful father.

“I gotta talk to you, Pa.” “You better BELIEVE it, boy.”

His Dad isn’t driven to back Nick’s search for who had his oldest son murdered by any great desire for truth and justice, not even by patriotism.

“I’ve got INTERESTS in this country!”

Nick’s quest sends him to meet chicken farming mobsters and another crazed old crone of business (Sterling Hayden) who stages tank battles — with live rounds — on his vast Western ranch.

In retrospect, Dad sending Nick there in a Ford Pinto should have been a clue. And no, that’s not even the nuttiest scene in the movie

Nick has an elusive girlfriend (Belinda Bauer) who works for a magazine. His mother (Oscar winner Dorothy Malone) is a bit mad, his father’s valet (Toshiro Mifune!) isn’t any help, and Dad’s pre-Internet records, information and wire-tapping kingpin (Anthony Perkins) could have been the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s mad satire “Brazil.” This amoral, robotic nerd has all the answers.

“Your father spent eleven million dollars to raise your brother up from a skirt-chasing college-boy to President of the United States. For twenty years he told him what to do and how and why he was gonna do it and what would happen when it was done.”

Almost every scene has a whiff of madness about it. Perkins’ metallic line-readings, Mifune’s phonetic efforts at English, a sex scene that’s so over the top that silly Nick is the only one not to know “She’s faking it,” a mob meet in a cafe where a gangster brings 20 or so pals to ensure Nick doesn’t try anything.

The lore surrounding the movie tends to overshadow some of the fun. The Kennedys probably didn’t try to quash it — probably — and it doesn’t look like any special “slimming” lens was used on Liz Taylor in her single scene.

But Huston, all arrogant, imperious bluster, a saggy, pear-shaped old man not shy about showing us what he’s got in a bathrobe because he’s just that rich, as casual with racial slurs as he is about homophobic ones for the same reason, is a grandiloquent beast here.

Virtually every legend put on screen pops right off it in this film. Eli Wallach plays a Rubyesque mobster with Cuban ties in flashbacks, Ralph Meeker is in some of those flashbacks as a colorful, unfiltered mob-go-between named “Gameboy” and Hayden is just as blustery as Huston and sitting in a tank because that’s how the super-rich play. He’s not shy about speaking ill of the dead president to the guy’s half-brother, either.

“Hell, if your old man didn’t own him already, I might’ve bought him myself.”

The overarching subtext of “Winter Kills” — set over just a few days in a mid-70s winter — is that America is a “democracy” owned and ruled by the super-rich, who not only face no consequences for their misdeeds, who not only benefit by pillaging a “rigged system,” but whose very lives are prolonged by secret, experimental longevity therapies — “blood replacement” and the like.

“You sure that sugar’s good for you, Pa?”

“It’s MY hospital!”

The novelist Condon was sure this film was suppressed by such people, and wrote a magazine article titled “Who Killed ‘Winter Kills?'” That inspired a documentary 20 years ago.

I don’t buy it. I reviewed Richert’s “Jimmy Reardon” when it came out, and while it’s worth seeing and decidedly out of step with the teen coming-of-age dramedies of its era, its quirkiness wasn’t exactly commercial.

“Winter Kills” is flawed and screwy and “out there” and the cast is mostly very old, never a recipe for box office success. It’s found its select audience over the decades on home video and streaming, with critics coming along and reviving interest in its bracing set pieces, big laughs and dark, uncomfortable chuckles.

And with it having so much to say about America in 2022, a few more of you should dive in and spread the word. “Winter Kills” was onto something.

Rating: R, violence, explicit sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milia, Ralph Meeker, Belinda Bauer and Elizabeth Taylor

Credits: Scripted and directed by William Richert, scripted by based on a novel by Richard Condon. An AVCO Embassy release on Tubi, Amazon, other streamers

Running time: 1:37

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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