If you're a young first time feature film director who's assembled a cast that includes Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshirô Mifune, Richard Boone and Elizabeth Taylor, then you better have a damn good story to tell boy! Well William Richert found one in Richard Manchurian Candidate Condon's novel, Winter Kills which became the movie called, um, Winter Kills.
Winter Kills is all about the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma packaged as a complete mindfuck about who really shot President Keegan in Philadelphia in 1960. It's in the tradition of great seventies paranoia films like The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor except it's also bloody funny – a deadpan black comedy full of great one-liners and absurdist setups. And yes it does reveal who took out the contract on Keegan.
It's pointless outlining the plot 'cos by about halfway through you're as baffled as the dead President's hapless half-brother (Jeff Bridges) who's trying to follow the thread through the labyrinth.
Just sit back and enjoy the ultimate conspiracy fairytale played out with gusto by some great actors playing great characters. There's Tony Perkins in charge of a supercomputer that can blackmail anyone, Sterling Hayden in a biblical beard leading his own private tank corps, Elizabeth Taylor as the President's foul mouthed procuress, Eli Wallach playing Jack Ruby bullied and manipulated by Ralph Meeker's mobster, Richard Boone acting sideways to everyone else as an oil rig foreman and Toshirô Mifune musing on the futility of it all.
But it's really John Huston's film. He reprises his Noah Cross role as a Joseph Kennedy (who Huston knew and disliked) patriarch with immensely ruthless and amoral glee. Often surrounded by bimbos ("You reckon they're feeling my nuts under the blanket son?"), handing out blackjacks and brass knuckles ("Look after them. They have sentimental value."), guarded by M-16 wielding doctors during his regular blood changes and with the CIA smuggling his cigars in from Cuba, Pa Keegan steals every scene he's in and a lot more too ("I'm the Jupiter of thieves.").
The story behind the making of Winter Kills also fits the overall vibe. The initial money was put up by big time pot smugglers who washed their ill-gotten gains through the Emmanuelle flicks before decided to invest in a "proper film". But when one was found handcuffed to a hotel room bed, shot through the head, and the other got sent down for twenty years, production on Winter Kills stopped for 18 months until Richert raised the rest of the money by making a quickie film in Germany in the meantime.
Winter Kills has now been re-released in a very nice DVD package with some excellent extras, including the complete script as a PDF file, some of the best production design sketches I've ever seen and a great interview with a very funny and charming William Richert. So if you want to know who really shot President Keegan, this is the film for you. It makes JFK look like an Oliver Stone flick.
GrogFlog verdict: "They will pile falsehoods on top of falsehoods until you can't tell a lie from the truth and you won't want to know the truth." 7.7 out of 10.
Coming soon: Fatal kids in secret labs, eyes without a face, gay US Treasury agents on acid and James Coburn gets Jungian.