Unable to accept the official version of dramatic events, a previously apolitical man plunges into a web of intrigue: the government is run by unseen forces of evil intent on world domination. Nothing is as it seems. We are all being lied to.
Sound familiar? This is the plot of writer/director William Richert's legendary film Winter Kills, which decades ago anticipated the Q Anon and Deep State Conspiracy mood of today. And which, thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Rialto Pictures, is enjoying a rerelease.
Winter Kills' legend derives from Mr. Richert's quest to make the film and the obstacles he faced. Production began in 1977 and the film was finally released in 1979, then quickly shelved due to legal disputes. Before streaming, it was largely unavailable except on bootleg VHS tapes. It's also one of a subgenre of films reflecting The New Hollywood's burgeoning liberal politics post-Vietnam and Watergate, when filmmakers were intent on exposing the moral and political corruption at the heart of the American Dream.
Based on a novel by renowned pulp author Richard Condon (whose book The Manchurian Candidate became part of our national paranoia lexicon), Winter Kills' gnarled production endured budget overages, shady payments, equipment repossessions, bankruptcies, and a producer's murder, events chronicled in the article "Who Killed Winter Kills?" by Condon himself, available online at harpers.org.
Winter Kills takes on the Kennedy assassination. Nick Kegan (a fresh-faced Jeff Bridges), the half-brother of slain president Timothy Kegan is made aware that a lone assassin was not, as the official version had it, responsible. A second shooter set up crossfire, and in pursuing the who and why, Nick goes up against his powerful father (John Huston) to expose a conspiracy of international proportions. America is not what it seems and is instead run by power-mad demagogues who monitor and manipulate the populace. As a character says of Bridges' investigation, "(You get) falsehood upon falsehood until you can't tell the truth and you don't want to."
Winter Kills covers ground trodden by Six Days of the Condor and Alan J. Pakula's JFK conspiracy themed The Parallax View. At the time, it was billed a black comedy and had the street cred: production designed by Robert Boyle of Hitchcock fame, mythic cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. And its cast was a virtual who’s who of Hollywood star power -- Jeff Bridges! John Huston! Dorothy Malone! Anthony Perkins! Sterling Hayden! Eli Wallach! Elizabeth Taylor! -- all lending their considerable wattage to a rebellious thumbing of the nose at the political establishment by the entertainment establishment.
Does Winter Kills hold up 40 years later? Its production woes show in its disjointed structure. Jeff Bridges is on screen most of the time and goes from slack-jawed bewilderment to heroic self-righteousness without logic. Belinda Bauer as Bridge's elusive love interest takes part in an interminable scene whose only purpose is to supply the nudity required of films of the time. Eli Wallach and Elizabeth Taylor's individual sequences look to be from other movies entirely. Incoherent scenes are stitched together by Maurice Jarre’s incongruent score.
But the film does, to its credit, give old dogs Ralph Meeker and Richard Boone meaty roles to chew on. And you can spot Erin Gray (from TV's Buck Rogers) as "Beautiful Woman 4" in a party scene and Berry Berenson as a morgue attendant (in real life, Ms. Berenson was Anthony Perkins wife, and would die in the September 11 attacks as a passenger on American Airlines flight 11.)
So what is Quentin Tarantino's fascination with this film, besides his love of obscure pulp? Parts of Winter Kills are prescient, particularly the eleventh-hour appearance of Anthony Perkins as an insane (and oddly ethnic) nemesis. Here, Winter Kills serves an early warning of what has since been wrought by social media. Clunkily, it comes in a barrage of voiceover exposition designed to explain what the preceding scenes haven't.
Winter Kills is a colorful, glossy mess, a work of slipshod genius. That it got made at all is a miracle. It aspires to be Dr. Strangelove by way of James Bond. It wants John Huston's slide down an enormous American flag to be as iconic a cinema image as Slim Pickens' bull ride on the bomb. But it's undone by inconsistent tone and lapses in lucidity. Winter Kills is the kind of movie where a character in an open field can't detect a platoon of tanks waiting in ambush.
Still, it's an entertaining time capsule of a simpler time, when we were all quite naïve, and Hollywood has the hubris to crusade against what it would eventually become.
Winter Kills plays in a newly struck 35mm print at The Film Forum in New York City, and at Quentin Tarantino's own New Beverly Theater in Los Angeles
Winter Kills. Written and directed by William Richert. 1979. Released by Rialto Pictures. 96 minutes.