Sunday 17 May 2020

Movie Review: Winter Kills (1979)

A conspiracy thriller with satirical elements, Winter Kills boasts a superlative cast but fails on all other counts.

Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges) is the half-brother of Tim Kegan, the ex-president of the United States who was assassinated 19 years prior in Philadelphia, supposedly by lone gunman Willie Arnold. Tim's rise to power was engineered by his wealthy industrialist father Pa (John Huston), who resents Nick's lack of interest in politics. The Kegan empire is managed by a technology and information hub under the watchful eye of the mysterious Cerruti (Anthony Perkins).

Now Nick witnesses the deathbed confession of assassin Fletcher (Joe Spinell), who reveals he was part of the multi-rifle hit squad that killed Tim. Nick retrieves Fletcher's rifle as evidence, and immediately his life is endangered. He seeks the help of his girlfriend and journalist Yvette (Belinda Bauer) to delve into the case, while Pa arranges for Nick to meet with a variety of shadowy characters including eccentric power broker Z.K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden) and mob boss Frank Mayo (Tomas Milian).

Nick learns about the history and Cuban connections of small-time hood Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach), who was hired to kill Arnold. But the more Nick investigates Tim's death, the less sense the entire case makes.

Having overcome a bizarre three-year production history involving drug and soft-core porn money, a murdered producer, and multiple shutdowns due to financial problems, Winter Kills is still a lavish production with a gorgeously rich aesthetic. Director William Richert and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond create grand sets suitable for the unconstrained wealth of the Kegan family, including mansions and private hospital and hotel rooms consistent with the rewards of infinite income backed by hidden corruption.

And the luxury surrounds a cast brimming with talent. Almost every role is occupied by a recognizable name, with none other than an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor making a silent appearance in a couple of key scenes late on. Toshiro Mifune, Dorothy Malone, Richard Boone and Ralph Meeker are among the other performers adding depth and interest in every corner.

But unfortunately, the adaptation of Richard Condon's book falls short where it matters. Winter Kills is intended as a satirical jab at Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories with an added layer of thrills and shocking moments, but never gets the balance right. Too often Richert's script plays straight, dour, and dumb, people dying all around Nick, his life endangered at every turn, and every revelation erasing what went before it. What may have been intended as dry humour contracts into emotionless crustiness.

The self-defeating foolishness of various overlapping and contradictory conspiracy scenarios is the point, but Richert never pauses long enough to properly celebrate the moment. The film blurs into a succession of irrelevant names from the past and present pointing the finger at each other, then dying, with no consequence or impact.

Meanwhile John Huston as Pa is given free rein to munch the scenery with an exhibition of absolute power filled with absurdist winks. Huston appears to be in a movie all his own, none of the other characters sharing the twinkle in his eye.

With Nick maintaining a fast investigative pace and Jeff Bridges shirtless about 50 percent of the time (and sometimes altogether nude), Winter Kills maintains a wacky watchability, but only as witness to the curiously constructed narrative carnage.

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