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Winter Kills

When William Richert’s “Winter Kills” was originally released in 1979, it proved to be so wild and audacious in how it mined our collective memories of one of the darkest, most defining moments of 20th-century American history--and presented them through a blackly comedic prism so far ahead of its time--that the few audiences that turned up could hardly believe what they were seeing. This adaptation of Richard Condon's novel returns to theaters in a newly restored version under the aegis of Quentin Tarantino, and it has not lost an iota of its power to shock, amuse, and simultaneously perplex viewers. If anything, it seems to have grown even bolder with age in its willingness to take on sacred cows in the craziest manner imaginable. To look at "Winter Kills" now, it seems more obvious than ever that this is indeed one of the great unsung American films of that era and one thoroughly deserving of rediscovery.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In 1960, President Timothy Kegan, the handsome and popular scion of an enormously rich and powerful family, was assassinated by a sniper during a visit to Philadelphia. A federal commission convened to investigate the crime and concluded that it was the work of a lone gunman named Willie Arnold, who was killed a couple of days later while in police custody by a nightclub owner named Joe Diamond with alleged ties to Cuba and the Mob. While this conclusion raised many questions, it would be enough for many people, including Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), Timothy’s younger half-brother and the eventual heir to the entire Kegan dynasty.

Therefore, you can imagine his surprise when family factotum Keifetz (Richard Boone) arrives on the oil tanker Nick is currently working on with a nearly-dead man who claims he was one of two men who were hired to do the shooting and set up Arnold as a patsy, even offering up the Philadelphia location of where he stashed the rifle that did the deed. Nick assumes that the guy is a crackpot, but when he travels to Philadelphia, he finds the hidden rifle, although he winds up losing it in the ensuing confusion. He returns home to his family’s vast California compound to visit his estranged father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), and tell him of this discovery. Although initially dismissive, Pa agrees to help Nick uncover the apparent conspiracy behind Timothy’s murder and its subsequent cover-up, offering the use of the vast Kegan empire to help him along the way.

The rest of the film follows Nick as he embarks on his search for the truth, which results in several encounters with people who offer him information—often in direct contradiction to what he has already been told—and who, more often than not, seem to end up dead soon afterward. These encounters include Z.K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden), a personal and political rival of the Kegan family who gives Nick some information before chasing him off his property with a fully-armed tank, a corrupt Philadelphia cop (Michael Thoma) who recounts the deal reputedly made between high-level mobster “Gameboy” Baker (Ralph Meeker) and Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach), and John Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), the man behind the Kegan vast information network and who knows where all the bodies are buried, even the ones still at least temporarily alive. Assisting Nick somewhat in his pursuit of the truth is Yvette (Belinda Bauer), an enigmatic magazine editor who agrees to use her resources to help him pursue leads—assuming she is actually who she claims to be.

Although shot through with Condon’s trademark sense of dark humor, Condon’s original novel recounted this story in a mostly straightforward and serious manner. But in adapting it to the screen, first-time filmmaker Richert (who would only direct two more features, “The American Success Company” [1980] and “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon” [1988] and died in 2022) elected to shift it into a more overtly comedic mode, presuming that doing it as satire might make it somewhat more palatable to audiences. This approach may not have succeeded in terms of financial gain, but it does make the film work in a way it might not have had it been done more somberly. The ramshackle, wild-goose-chase-style plotting gives the film an almost revue-style feeling (one oddly reminiscent of the plot thread in Brian De Palma’s cult comedy “Greetings” involving the conspiracy nut played by Gerrit Graham) that weirdly fits the material at hand. "Winter Kills" does a highly impressive job of milking laughs out of a subject that most people might not find to be that funny (especially back in 1979) while still touching on the disillusion felt by many, both then and now, regarding the institutions they had been raised to believe in.

Although the episodic nature of the film may prove frustrating and confusing at times, it does offer up any number of brilliantly staged and often hilarious sequences: the quietly shocking aftermath of the rifle discovery; Nick riding a horse in the middle of nowhere so that he can safely shout “You stink, Pa!"; Yvette’s inventive circumnavigation of a snooty restaurant’s rules about women in trousers; the scene where Cerruti (who, as performed by Perkins, suggests what might have resulted if his character from “The Trial” had been working for the other side) calmly recounts a massive amount of exposition despite having just had both arms broken; and the moment when Pa advises Nick to put money into South America. The film is also aided by a fairly elaborate cast (besides those already mentioned, it also finds parts for familiar faces like Toshiro Mifune and Dorothy Malone and cult favorites like Joe Spinell to none other than Elizabeth Taylor in a silent but highly memorable unbilled cameo) who are all clearly having a lot of fun, especially Huston (who would go on to successfully adapt another Condon novel with his late-period masterwork “Prizzi’s Honor”), whose work here may outdo even his turn in “Chinatown” in how it personifies power and corruption in its most curdled form.

Unlike “The Manchurian Candidate,” which languished in obscurity for years after being withdrawn from distribution before returning to view in 1988 only to be enshrined as an American classic, “Winter Kills” is unlikely ever to have received a similar embrace. I adore the film, but even I recognize it is just too weird and messy and disreputable in most regards, even today, ever to achieve even a trace amount of that recognition. And yet, no matter how many times I have seen it, I remain consistently knocked out by its wit, courage, and audacity. I can only hope that at least some who come to check out this long-overdue re-release, even if it's due entirely to the Tarantino imprimatur, will feel the same way.

Now playing in select theaters. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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Film Credits

Winter Kills movie poster

Winter Kills (2023)

Rated R

97 minutes

Cast

Jeff Bridges as Nick Kegan

John Huston as Pa Kegan

Anthony Perkins as John Cerruti

Eli Wallach as Joe Diamond

Sterling Hayden as Z.K. Dawson

Dorothy Malone as Emma Kegan

Tomas Milian as Frank Mayo

Belinda Bauer as Yvette Malone

Ralph Meeker as Gameboy Baker

Toshirō Mifune as Keith

Richard Boone as Keifitz

David Spielberg as Miles Garner

Brad Dexter as Captain Heller One

Director

Writer (book)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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