Winter Kills (1979) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I don't think I can top the summary written by Richard Jameson for He nailed it, and he did so articulately.

This exhilarating kaleidoscope of a movie, from a surreally layered novel by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate), combines post-Watergate paranoia, gallows humor, political sci-fi, dazzling suspense set pieces, something we might call postmodern historical burlesque, and gonzo performances by a truly all-star cast. It's held together by Jeff Bridges as the surviving scion of a Kennedy-like dynasty who reluctantly sets out to solve his brother's assassination. John Huston's own dynastic credentials and rough-hewn aristocracy make him perfect casting as the family patriarch, a simultaneously genial and appalling American monster. Writer-director William Richert, a virtual unknown, somehow corraled an amazing ensemble, including an unbilled Liz Taylor, North by Northwest production designer Robert Boyle (who also contributes a delicious cameo), composer Maurice Jarre, and the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The widescreen camerawork and zesty primary-color palette demand DVD, which may finally do right by this quintessential '70s film that the '70s just weren't ready for.

The Huston role which Jameson is talking about is a thinly-disguised version of Joe Kennedy: profane, conniving, amoral, horny to the end. The plot of the film centers around a 1979 investigation of the JFK assassination (the names have been changed, and the facts altered slightly), as conducted by the President's fictional half-brother. It would not be completely unfair to say that the film is a comedy. It's not a lowbrow comedy or a farce, and you may not laugh very much, but it is a comedy in the sense that it retells the story of the assassination with the most jaded possible perspective, as if written by Ionesco, or one of those Theater of the Absurd masters. In some ways, it is similar to that classic conspiracy movie, The President's Analyst.


Belinda Bauer shows everything as Jeff Bridges's girlfriend.

Bridges shows his butt for an extended time in good light.

Helen Curry, as an assassin disguised as a maid, shows her breasts

The premise: What if all the JFK conspiracy theories are true? What if it was the mob and the communists and the Cubans and the FBI and the rich industrialists and everybody else who has ever been suspected. How can that be? What if there was an even deeper conspiracy beneath the outer layers of the onion? What if the crime was arranged by a power cartel who placed JFK in power and later had to dispose of him because he wasn't following orders like a good soldier. That whole Presidency thing made him think he really was important, and his masters didn't like that, so they had him offed, and left behind a bewildering entanglement of contradictory clues that pointed to everyone and no one, and could never be penetrated.

Do you remember who it was who placed JFK in office in the first place? It was his father.

Did his own father kill him? Maybe. Or maybe even old Joe Kennedy had masters to answer to.

I guess if you want to be really picky, you could argue that when the plot is finally unraveled, the explanation makes no sense at all. Once I knew the secret, I looked back on some of the earlier scenes and couldn't figure out why they happened. When you try to do that, you end up against the wall of "but if X is true, then so-and-so wouldn't have done Y". I fully agree with the people who proffer that criticism, but I don't really care. This is a fascinating, crazy, lunatic movie. The director Bill Richert never did anything before this film, and he didn't do much after it, but he pulled off a minor miracle here. He managed to land the right to write and direct a movie from a novel by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate, Prizzi's Honor). He managed to land some superstars: John Huston, Jeff Bridges, and Elizabeth Taylor, in addition to cinematographer Szigmond, set designer Boyle, composer Jarre. He landed some incredible character actors: Toshiro Mifune, Eli Wallach, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden and Richard Boone. And everyone connected to the film had the time of their life filming it.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Commentary by writer/director William Richert

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • "Who Killed Winter Kills?": all-new interviews with writer/director William Richert, actors Jeff Bridges and Belinda Bauer, director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, and production designer Robert Boyle

  • Reunion: William Richert and Jeff Bridges discuss the making of Winter Kills

  • Star Stories: William Richert remembers the cast of Winter Kills

  • Production still gallery

  • Behind-the-scenes still gallery

  • Deleted scenes still gallery

  • Poster and advertising art gallery

  • Production art gallery

  • DVD-ROM: original screenplay

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35. Looks great.

  • Number of discs: 2

The film itself is good, but not great. In fact, it bombed completely at the box office, grossing only a million dollars on a six million dollar budget, and effectively delivering Richert's career stillborn. The world was not really ready for a comedy about the Kennedy assassination in 1979. After 1979, it would be nearly a decade before Richert would get another film, and he would never make another film of any real significance.

The DVD is absolutely magnificent. It is one of the best examples of an older film given a proper release on DVD. It's packed with interviews and commentaries, and it's obvious that everyone liked and respected everyone else. They tell stories on each other constantly, and they all tell stories on that ultimate colorful character, the late John Huston. (Both Bridges and Richert do good impersonations of Huston and Zsigmond.) In addition to the commentary track, there is one entire disk of additional special features. I recommend it heartily for anyone interested in an accurate and fascinating account of how the novel became a film, and how Richert pulled off his little recruiting miracles.

The Critics Vote

  • no major reviews online

The People Vote ...

  • It was budgeted at $6 million for production, but bombed completely, barely grossing a million dollars.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. If you love films, get the DVD and watch every minute of every feature. It is a textbook illustration of how every older film should be brought to DVD. Props to Anchor Bay for the job they did on this.

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