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Blu-Ray Review - WINTER KILLS (1979)

winter kills review
The half-brother of an assassinated president uncovers a conspiracy 19 years after the killing.


Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: William Richert

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden

winter kills bluray



Based on the novel by Richard Condon, this ploughs the same field of paranoia that was front and centre in the author's previous novel 'The Manchurian Candidate' and films such as The Parallax View, The Conversation et al. William Richert, making his directorial debut, has a more absurdist viewpoint so the nihilistic despair is tempered with a more comedic register which somehow manages to heighten the sense of hopelessness.

A none too covert retelling of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and how the son of a bootlegger managed to become President, this features Jeff Bridges (leading man, not stoner phase of his career) as Nick, the half brother of the deceased President Kenne…..Kegan.

winter kills review

19 years after the assassination a helicopter lands on an oil rig owned by Pa Kegan (John Huston) with a heavily bandaged man, Fletcher, who confesses to being part of a conspiracy that killed the president. Nick is running the oil rig, part of a consortium of businesses in the aging mogul’s portfolio. Using the information provided by Keifetz (Richard Boone), the gun used in the assassination is found and a conspiracy unveiled. However, everyone who Nick meets ends up dead before details of the conspiracy can get out.

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As a set up it’s a doozy, offering plenty of opportunity for existentially bleak excitement. Richert however seems more interested in his rogue’s gallery of grotesque caricatures, letting the plot machinations hang in the background. As Pa Kegan, Huston owns the movie, chews up the script and devours half of the scenery like a particularly ravenous termite: his Machiavellian pater familias may just be his most downright rotten and evil father figure (high or low praise for someone who was in Chinatown). Whether expounding on the sex life of his two sons, schooling them in his unethical business while dressed in tight underpants and dressing gown or generally sexually abusing a coterie of female minions, Huston is having a ball. Just about anchored to Bridges' more restrained performance, it’s a marvellous double act.

winter kills review

Bridges is essentially Alice, who has gone through the looking glass to find that the world as he knows it makes little sense and the people who run it are a bunch of mad eccentrics who don’t really care what the consequences of their capitalistic games are. Those eccentrics include Toshiro Mifune, essentially playing a butler; Anthony Perkins as family accountant Cerruti, who appears to be ensconced in a lair that screams Bond villain. Sterling Hayden and Eli Wallach also appear, as well as an uncredited performance from Elizabeth Taylor. It is one hell of a cast.

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It is unusual to see this subject matter treated so lightly in a film at the fag end of the '70s, but the approach makes sense. The Kennedys were still sacred cows in this period so any attempt to make capital from the murder of a beloved leader and his family would have been given short shrift by the public. The larger than life staging allows an exaggerated satire not to be taken seriously while hinting at the darkness and disillusion that people started to have for institutions and corporations in this post-Watergate Vietnam era.

winter kills review

As a satire of powerful men controlling governments, people and countries on a whim, driven by greed and priapic lusts for youth, it is exemplary. The idea that rich venal idiots control the world may seem achingly contemporary but shows that although politics has gotten more overtly vulgar, the same horny idiots have always been in charge.

Funny, bleak and chilling, it’s a film deserving of a place in the pantheon of conspiracy thrillers. Richert never had a directorial career of much substance; on the evidence of Winter Kills we can only lament a career killed (potentially by outside agents).
Extras:

This 4K restoration is available in two different versions: the 1979 Theatrical Cut (97 mins) and the 1983 Reissue Version (91 mins).

An audio commentary with writer-director William Richert (2003) from the previous Anchor Bay release as well as a 38-minute retrospective doc on the making of the film, featuring Richert, actors Jeff Bridges and Belinda Bauer, director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, and production designer Robert Boyle. A short interview with director and star as well as another short from the director discussing the amazing cast assembled for his feature debut. All are from the previous Anchor Bay release and are nigh on essential for a film whose back story is arguably more interesting than the film itself, involving mob financing, cannabis, murder and budgetary shenanigans that could make its own movie. Richert is one hell of a raconteur and if his career has not matched his debut it is very easy to see how he managed to accrue such a stellar cast for his feature debut.

In addition to the film-specific extras we also get a short doc from critic and writer Glenn Kenny exploring the history of conspiracy thrillers. Throw in the now obligatory trailer, radio spot, image gallery, a Trailers from Hell commentary and subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

The booklet comes with a new essay by Anne Billson, historical accounts of the making of the film, Richert on Winter Kills, and an overview of contemporary critical responses.

Winter Kills is on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Indicator.