Winter Kills (1979)
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Winter Kills (1979)

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The fact is most movies are now made by formula. You select a genre, generate a check list of required characters, locations and situations and let the writers fill in the gaps. Now this doesn’t always have to produce a bad flick. Sometimes a twist or two can make all the difference. One example is the 1979 dark comedy ‘Winter Kills’. On paper it looks like another ripped off from the headlines flick with a dose of conspiracy theory and a dollop of political intrigue. What sets this film not only apart but above so many in the pack of similar movies is it takes a darkly humorous slant on the story and uses an incredible cast and excellent direction to tell it. Just a peak at some of the credits of this film should tell you it has a lot going for it. Based on the book of the same name by Richard Condon, author the political thriller ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ and the crime drama ‘Prizzi's Honor’ this man knows how to tell a gripping tale. Add to this a prime cast and crew and you have yourself a great film. Anchor Bay / Starz is now re-releasing this little gem to DVD. If you missed it the first time around make sure you add this one to your collection, you will not be disappointed. It may be a little dated at times but the basic structure and delivery of the story hold up very well.

The protagonist of the film is Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges). He has always had what most people would consider the perfect life. Born into wealth and privilege Nick has had advantages few people could aspire to have. As the son of the powerful and mega rich tycoon Pa Kegan (John Huston) Nick has had everything given to him except for the freedom to become his own person. His father is controlling, dominating and a virtual force of nature. Some twenty years ago his half brother Timothy was elected president, all part of Pa’s grand design. What was not part of the plan, hopefully, was Timothy was assassinated supposedly by a lone gunman at Philadelphia’s Hunt Plaza. Many have held on to the notion that there was more to this killing than the public was told and there might even have been another gunman at work. I know, at this point it sounds almost uncomfortably familiar. When Nick hears the deathbed of a man, Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell) who claims that he was part of a team contracted for the assassination he starts to have some doubts about the official report of that day. With the few meager clues Nick was able to glean from the confession he sets off on his own to uncover the truth. Pa appears to want to find the people who murdered his son but Nick was to circumvent his father’s wide reaching influence and uncover the truth himself. Nick sets off to Philadelphia to begin his search. He enlists the aid of his friend Miles Garner (David Spielberg) and a police captain Heller (Brad Dexter). They find a gun in the location given by Fletcher but Nick is distracted by a young woman popping her gum. When he turns his attention back Miles and Heller have been shot dead. The trail leads to Lola Camonte (Elizabeth Taylor) a former hostess now a political lobbyist. She informs Nick that the nightclub owner Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach) was connected with organized crime and in on the plan. He was paid by the men behind the assassination to kill Arnold, the man believed to be the lone gunman. This seems to be confirmed by Ray Doty (Michael Thoma) a police lieutenant associated with Heller. Nick turns to his girlfriend Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer), a magazine reporter, to use her contacts to help him further the investigation. She sends him off to Cleveland where he finds out that the Cubans may have had a hand in the killing. Pa is not happy with someone outside the family and his influence helping Nick out. After meeting with a mobster about the Cuban connection Nick sees the same young woman he did before just as the dinner he was in explodes. Slowly Nick begins to put the pieces together leading to the conclusion you have to see.

If this story had been presented as a political thriller it would have failed miserably. It is too close to the assassination of President Kennedy and as such as been done time and time again. Instead wrtiter-director William Richert plants tongue firmly in cheek to give us an exceptional dark comedy. This was his freshman effort and although he hasn’t done much since it is an excellent film. The humor here is subtle, it may take a couple of viewings to catch everything but it is well worth it. The film may seem dry the first time through but once you start to understand where Richert is coming from you can really enjoy it. Perhaps this need to exert your concentration and truly watch the film is part of the reason it didn’t do well in the theaters. Many people in the audience just couldn’t find the humor in a film not too loosely based on one of the most tragic days in American history. The film is well paced and moves the complex plot along nicely. The cinematography is fantastic.

This is simply put an incredible cast. Even the cameos are filed with the best acting talent available in the late seventies. This is the kind of film that big stars flock to even though it is doubtful that it will generate huge box office. This is a project that came from a love of their craft. Jeff Bridges is perfect as the affable Nick. It wears the persona of a young man born to wealth and privilege but cursed with a wide streak of independence. He is the kind of leading man that the women love and the men want to be. It is almost impossible to have a bad film that contains John Huston. In his long career as both an actor and director he was the consummate professional and a true treasure of American cinema. Here he plays the lordly and controlling Pa to perfection. His force and drive offers a counterpoint to the youthful drive of Nick.

Anchor Bay / Starz had released this film to DVD back in March of 2003. Now it re-releases the same two disc set with the reduced suggested price of $9.98. Considering online discounting you would be crazy to pass this up. The video is in a subdued anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. The colors are often muted but the print held up well. The audio is in the original Dolby 2.0 Mono. So many people demand the original aspect ratio for the video but want all six speakers pounding. This film is shown as it was in the theater and that is what matters. The commentary track by Richert is one of the best I have heard in a long time. He details what it took to get this film made and his disappointment in its theatrical release. His glee in the prospect of a DVD release to get his film out is obvious and fun to listen to. The second disc contains three extras. The first is a 38 minute featurette called ‘Who Killed Winter Kills’. It details the mishaps that lead to a short time in the theaters. The next is ‘Reunion’ where Bridges and Richert get back together after over 25 years to chat about the film and its production. The last is ‘Star Stories’ where Richert discusses how he got actors like Elizabeth Taylor to appear in his film. You may have never heard of this movie but don’t let that keep you from owning and watching it.

Posted 11/19/07

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