Nineteen years after the assassination of US President Tim Kegan in 1961, his brother learns from the lips of a dying bandaged man that the official report into who really fired the gun was wrong. I know that, says the dying man, because I was number two rifle that day, and what’s more I’ll tell you where the gun I used has been hidden.
Using the murder and bits of the life and family background of President Kennedy as a template, William Richert’s 1979 drama then heads off into the undergrowth for a hack through the weeds of the improbable. Winter Kills isn’t just a conspiracy thriller but a conspiracy thriller constructed like a conspiracy theory – lies over rumour over a smidgeon of truth.
In an eclectic, brilliantly chosen cast with some inspired choices, Jeff Bridges play Nick, the investigating brother. John Huston repurposes the maverick, wonky-wheeled patriarch from Chinatown to play Pa Kegan, Nick’s massively wealthy kingmaking father, while Anthony Perkins, in little more than an extended cameo, plays a Musk/Zuckerberg tech bro in utero, the man behind the Kegan dynasty who knows where all the bodies are buried thanks to his vast network of eavesdropping computers.
Bits seem familiar if you have any knowledge of the Kennedy assassination and the rumours that swirled around it. Like the character played by Eli Wallach, a Lee Harvey Oswald stand-in called Joe Diamond who’s been hired by the Mob because of their interests in Cuba. Or Elizabeth Taylor in a non-speaking role as a Very Famous Actress who may have slept with the President… and possibly Pa Kegan too.
Which makes it sound like Richert is interested in a read-across from reality to fiction, which is only partly the case. Using the book by Richard Condon (who also wrote conspiracy thriller par excellence The Manchurian Candidate) as a launching point, Richert is also intent on capturing the paranoid modus operandi of the conspiracy theory, and in particular the way it connects up disparate elements – a factoid here, a rumour there, a useful character there – the goal being the creation of a simulacrum of logical connection. Look, the conspiracy theorist shouts, it’s a straight line!
Hence the weird and incessant changing of location. Nick’s on the high seas on a ship. He’s on a horse. He’s in a hospital. He’s in New York. The action shifts to a snowy airport, a chicken farm, to a scene of passionate love-making, to Hollywood, to Cuba. “You’re getting the runaround here,” one of his many, many interviewees (most of them not who they say they are) tells him at one point. You don’t say.
The unusual casting reinforces the idea. Dorothy Malone as Nick’s blowsy, frowzy mother. In it because of her film noir background almost certainly. Who can forget her in The Big Sleep, a similar hodgepodge of the disconnected. Or Sterling Hayden as a maverick who plays around in old army tanks and who gives Nick both a cool and hot reception when Nick turns up to interview him about what really happened to his brother.
The effect is dizzying rather than comic and the presence of Hayden calls to mind Dr Strangelove, which Winter Kills resembles in tone.
Unlike Strangelove, Winter Kills bombed. Actually, it was bombing even before it was completed and Richert had to stop production to go and make another film to raise enough money to finish it. In fact the making of Winter Kills is a mini conspiracy thriller in itself – it was financed by drug money and one of the producers had been murdered, probably by the Mob, before the movie was in the can.
Its stature has grown over the years and what looked incoherent when it was made now appears deliberate – a question of style mimicking content. Thanks to the enthusiasm of Quentin Tarantino it got a new lease of life in 2023, with a theatrical run on new 35mm prints. Since the great Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematographer back in 1979, of course it also looks fabulous.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023