Robin’s Underrated Gems: Winter Kills (1979)

In this week’s “Shouts From the Back Row” podcast, we discussed our favourite movies involving politics and numerous films involving assassinations and political conspiracies were mentioned. So, of course, it’s only appropriate that my subject for today’s column is one of the most underrated and weirdest political conspiracy films ever made. Winter Kills is such a unique enigma in that it’s clearly an over-the-top satire of conspiracy theories yet there’s still an element of truth about everything that happens. This movie was a mammoth box office flop when it was originally released and rumours abound that it disappeared from theatres very quickly because it pissed the wrong people off. So maybe the conspiracy theories presented in Winter Kills aren’t so farfetched after all. The film was based on a novel written by Richard Condon, the man responsible for one of the most famous political conspiracy stories of all time, The Manchurian Candidate. Though The Manchurian Candidate had its fair share of satire, it still treated its subject matter with seriousness and its political assassination story wound up being way ahead of is time. However, by the time Condon wrote Winter Kills, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated and Watergate was already in the public eye, so political conspiracy theories were all the rage. The conspiracy presented in Winter Kills is so ridiculously over-the-top that it seems like Condon may have written the whole thing with tongue firmly planted in cheek. As a film, Winter Kills works better if you view it as a satirical black comedy instead of a straight thriller though it may take multiple viewings to figure that out.

The protagonist of Winter Kills is Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), whose brother just happens to be a former President of the United States who was assassinated nineteen years earlier. Like another Presidential assassination you may have heard of, a lone gunman was assigned full blame for everything before being murdered himself and the case is officially closed. However, at the beginning of the film, Nick hears a deathbed confession from a man who claims that he was the real shooter and that the President’s assassination was part of a mammoth conspiracy. The assassin leaves behind actual evidence and his story checks out when Nick finds the man’s original rifle hidden away in the same building where he took the fatal shot. Immediately afterward, however, everyone else who helped Nick find the rifle turns up dead and the rifle is stolen. Without any evidence to prove the existence of a conspiracy, Nick turns to his powerful zillionaire father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), and the two of them decide to pursue the truth behind their family member’s death. It’s no big secret that the Kegan family in Winter Kills is based on the Kennedy family and that Pa Kegan is an over-the-top caricature of the family’s patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. Until this point, Winter Kills has established itself as a fairly straightforward political thriller, but traces of black humour give off the impression that this movie may not be what it seems. You immediately sense that something is a little off when John Huston performs this key scene wearing a pair of red bikini briefs!

It’s revealed that Pa Kegan used his wealth and influence to pretty much buy his son the Presidency and planned to use the office to further his own interests, which is the same reason many people believe JFK was able to become President. Of course, an insinuation like that hardly seems shocking today (especially in light of George W. Bush’s two terms in the Oval Office), but back in the 1970s, this was a surprising revelation to many people. This pretty much summarizes the very fine line that Winter Kills walks. The story has many elements of truth and believability to it, but the actual narrative is completely wacky and over-the-top and seems to be poking fun of the idea of conspiracy theories in general. Once Nick tries to uncover the truth behind his brother’s death, he pretty much just stumbles from one random event to another until one character literally tells him that he’s just running around in circles going nowhere. Random things happen that have no real context or explanation, but are still undeniably hilarious, like when Nick tries to fight off an assassination attempt by his own maid, or when a group of mob informants are taken out by a bomb disguised as a dead cat. Despite the fact that the film only had a $6 million budget and he was an unknown first-time director, William Richert was able to assemble an amazing cast of actors, who obviously felt strongly about the material even though many of them wound up playing small roles that didn’t seem to have much bearing on the overall plot. For example, there’s legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in a rare English-language role as the Kegans’ main servant, who just kind of pops up and disappears without serving any function in the story. Anthony Perkins has a ridiculously strange role as Pa Kegan’s assistant, a surveillance expert who runs a large computer network and can seemingly overhear every single conversation in the entire world. Eli Wallach appears in flashbacks as a key member of the conspiracy named Joe Diamond, who is none-too-subtly based on Jack Ruby. Elizabeth Taylor even pops up in flashbacks in an unbilled dialogue-free cameo as a movie star mistress of the President who’s obviously patterned after Marilyn Monroe (if Marilyn Monroe had been one of the masterminds behind the conspiracy, that is). Sterling Hayden also does an amusing send-up of his role from Dr. Strangelove as a war games fanatic who may or may not have been involved in the conspiracy, but after this memorable introduction scene, you never see him again for the rest of the movie or find out what his true role in the story was! Like many of the characters, he only seems to exist in the movie for the sole purpose of leading the protagonist on a wild goose chase.

I could easily complain about the messiness of the plot and the large number of unanswered questions it leaves, but that seems to be the whole point of Winter Kills. The film’s central message seems to be that trying to unravel a mammoth conspiracy is a very fruitless task that won’t lead you anywhere. However, if this had been done as a straight political thriller, it may have wound up being very generic, but its decision to tell the story in the form of a subtle dark comedy makes the whole thing a unique, one-of-a-kind experience. And while the film may be very disjointed, it is never anything less than entertaining. Winter Kills is incredibly well-shot, has some terrific production design, and is filled with wonderful performances. Jeff Bridges has the extremely difficult role of playing the “straight man” in this colourful story, who winds up becoming just as baffled as the audience by everything he finds out, but he does a great job at carrying the film and preventing it from descending into aloofness for the viewer. John Huston completely steals the film with his delightful performance as Pa Kegan, and even though most of them have very small roles, all of the renowned actors in this cast do very solid jobs in their limited screen time. In the end, Winter Kills is a very acquired taste and probably needs to be watched more than once in order to fully appreciate it, making this the very definition of a cult movie. However, it’s definitely recommended viewing for those who are in the mood to see something really unique and different. From my point of view, many of the movie’s flaws are forgivable since its very troubled production history prevented the filmmakers from doing everything they wanted to do, and it’s actually a bit of a miracle the film even got finished at all. The story behind the making of Winter Kills is almost interesting as the film itself and highly appropriate for a movie that revolved conspiracy theories. The production had to be shut down multiple times and declare bankruptcy because it was financed by some less-than-reputable producers. Let’s just say that one of them was murdered in the middle of the production by the mafia for failing to pay his debts, and that another one was sentenced to 40 years in prison for marijuana smuggling. The only way William Richert could eventually get the film finished was by making another movie called The American Success Company and using the profits from that to finance shooting the rest of Winter Kills! Considering all the trouble that went into making this film, it definitely deserves to be seen by a hell of a lot more people. If you ever watch Winter Kills, be sure to follow it up by watching this fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary as they both go hand-in-hand so beautifully.

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