Blu-Ray Review – Winter Kills

Winter Kills is a totally batshit conspiracy thriller that is also quite satirical—as with The Manchurian Candidate, there is some humour, which stems from the fact that both are based on Richard Condon novels. The film was directed by William Richert, who aside of this film is probably best-known for playing Bill the Falstaff character in My Own Private Idaho.

Winter Kills is also remembered for its insane cast list, which would be a dream for any filmmaker. It’s basically a fictionalised take on the JFK assassination. John Huston plays Pa Kegan, who is obviously based on Joe Kennedy, JFK and RFK’s father. It’s well-known that all his kids were terrified of him, and here he is the guy behind the assassination. It’s a very convoluted, almost Alice in Wonderland-like plot. Jeff Bridges plays the politician’s brother, who ends up playing detective to some extent. There are also roles from Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, and even Elizabeth Taylor in a mute cameo!

It’s very much Huston’s and Bridges’ film. Huston is channelling both Joe Kennedy and his character Noah Cross from Chinatown, a similarly evil father who had lots of power. Both actors are fantastic in Winter Kills. Huston actually knew the elder Kennedy, and was not a fan…

It’s a really wild, strange conspiracy thriller, and one of the last of those to come out in the 1970s. It’s a genre that kind of died out by the early 1980s, although of course it comes in and out of fashion. The later films have a different feel, however.

It was beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, a cinematographer who really made the look of 70s cinema. The film was primarily funded by marihuana dealers, Robert Sterling and Leonard Goldberg, who had made some money earlier with their involvement in the Emmanuelle films. Goldberg was murdered in the middle of the production, most likely by the Mafia. That didn’t help matters much, and not long after Sterling was arrested and ended up with a 40-year prison sentence. The film was shut down three different times because it went wildly over budget. The film’s production was such a mess that the director went to Germany to make another film in the midst of the carnage, American Success Story. But amazingly, it ended up being a really good, oddball thriller despite everything that was going on. The convoluted plot is inherent to the genre.

It was not a success at the time, but since then it has gained a cult following because a) it has a great cast and b) it’s just a wild, fun conspiracy thriller. Conspiracy theories have grown up around the film itself: AVCO Embassy Pictures, which initially released the film, pulled it pretty quick. Ted Kennedy was about to run for president in 1980, and there was a Kennedy connection with the company. Naturally the family was not very happy, so Condon and Richert both imply that they put pressure on AVCO. For their part, AVCO say the decision was because of negative reactions from the audience. It makes a very good double bill with Executive Action or The Parallax View. Although obviously the version of the JFK conspiracy presented here in disguise isn’t what actually happened, but the theme of powerful players wanting to get a president who was friendly to big American business contracts and war contracts may well have played a role in the real story.

There is a bunch of good stuff on the disc, including an old commentary track, a couple of featurettes from the old Anchor Bay DVD (including a fairly long making-of called Who Killed Winter Kills?), a filmed reunion of Bridges and Richert, and another video of Richert telling stories about the cast. New stuff comes from critic Glenn Kenny, who does an overview of the conspiracy thriller where he places the G. K. Chesterton novel The Man Who Was Thursday as the Ground Zero of the genre. Josh Olson’s Trailers From Hell segment about the film is included, as is the trailer and a TV spot, and a booklet with new and archival writing on the film.

★★★★½

Ian Schultz

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