Winter Kills stands out from other JFK assassination-fuelled pictures, not only due its broad satirical bent but also thanks to a beleaguered production history that could inspire its own movie. The latter involved murder, production shutdowns (no less than four), a filing for bankruptcy, a remount several years later and finally an ignominious fate when it was dumped, in butchered form, in a limited release slot. Based on Richard “The Manchurian Candidate” Condon’s novel of the same name, this fictionalised rehearsal of the different strands of JFK conspiracy theorising takes a “names have been changed” tack but the major players are clear to those with even a cursory knowledge of assassination lore. Indeed, the result may be seen as something of a dry run for the melting pot approach Oliver Stone took more than a decade later. First time feature director William Richert delivers a strange, uneven satire that bears the signs of the desperate attempts to salvage something coherent. Yet, rather than being diminished by its problematic inception, the finished film is dazed, surreal and occasionally brilliant.
It’s curious that Richert, on being offered the project, advised that the only way he could adapt Winter Kills would be as a comedy. Since Condon’s novel itself is a satire, perhaps Richert meant merely that he would need to further broaden the tone (as the film is certainly broad). He said that otherwise it could only be approached as a tragedy (which is arguably the approach Stone took). Condon once commented that every book he ever wrote was about the abuse of power, and in Winter Kills the blame in the intentionally scattershot narrative is ultimately laid at the door of the family patriarch; the man who sought to gain power from the his son’s rise to the presidency.
Even without the satirical impulse, it is this aspect that sets Winter Kills apart from other JFK-themed fare. In Stone’s film, the wheels of organised power, be it government or mob or other sovereign states, come into his gun sight. All of which Richert’s film takes on board, before reducing the impenetrable to something simple. By all accounts Condon was no fan of Joseph Kennedy, but the charge levelled by seems as much an admission that, if you need a definite answer, this one is as good as any. Indeed, the film never provides a straight admission. Anyone expecting it to sift through the facts and hypotheses will be sorely disappointed. As armed with possibilities as Condon and Richert were, they use them to highlight that the whole affair is mindboggling if one is foolhardy enough to immerse oneself to it. The peak of this, and the point at which the movie most fulfills its potential, is the barrage of confusing and contradictory charges John Cerutti throws at poor Nick Keegan. Perhaps Richert’s most perceptive statement of the qualities of Winter Kills is his couching it as a “political Alice in Wonderland”. One wonders if he coined that before or after Costner’s Jim Garrison announces, “We’re through the looking glass here, people”. Either way, Richert’s film catches something of the fever dream quality of Lewis Carroll’s work.
The film’s assassination took place on February 22 1960, and the title is announced by a (self-sourced) quote at the beginning of the novel; “Minutes trudge, Hours run, Years fly, Decades stun, Spring seduces, Summer thrills, Autumn sates, Winter kills”.
Keifitz: I brought you an assassin. He says he shot your brother. He was second rifle at City Hall.
The protagonist is Nick Keegan (Jeff Bridges), the half brother of deceased President of the United States. President Tim Keegan was assassinated in Philadelphia 19 years earlier, and Nick is summoned to hear the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be the second shooter at City Hall. The man claims the hit was order by mobster called Casper Jr. Nick sets off to discover the truth, and locates the shooter’s rifle. When the men he is with are shot, Nick seeks his father’s help.
Pa Kegan (John Huston) is a bullying patriarch, sorely disappointed in Nick’s lack of political and business acumen. He takes command of the investigation and Nick submits to this direction (“Okay Pa. For the family”). Nick visits wealthy industrialist Z K Dawson, a former political opponent of President Keegan, at whom Pa Kegan has pointed a finger of blame. Dawson denies all knowledge, and informs Nick that, since he profited from the President’s decisions, it would have been very foolish to bump him off.
Nick learns that further witnesses are ending up dead. He meets with Ray Doty (Michael Toma) a former officer in the Philadelphia Police Department (now a chicken farmer). He tells Nick that Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach) was contracted to kill Willie Arnold “for business reasons”, and that Diamond’s was the second of two contracts; the first was on the President himself. Pa Keegan organises a meeting with Irving Mentor (Irving Selbst) a Mafiosa who gives Nick the name of the mobster who ordered the hit. A major Hollywood studio is then implicated, enraged at all the money it lost when the President stopped screwing their star Ella Mae Irving. As Nick leaves the meeting place, a bomb goes off. Nick then talks to the alleged mobster, incarcerated Frank Mayo (Tomas Milian), Nick is told that he is following red herrings. He then finds that his girlfriend Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer) has vanished without trace.
John Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), Pa Kegan’s right hand man, unloads a further grab bag of stray suspects in Nick’s direction. This includes an actress who ordered the President’s death as punishment for Pa Kegan’s failure to pay back the mafia the money they put up to buy Tim’s election (done without the President’s knowledge; when he discovered Pa’s action he severed connections with his father). He also tells Nick that the Dawson he met was not the real Dawson. Cerruti then claims that Nick has been in a relationship with the daughter of the real Dawson and it was she who ordered Tim’s death (with whom she also had an affair). After threatening Cerruti, Nick extracts the information that it was in fact his father who had Tim killed. He confronts Pa Keegan, who in turn blames Cerruti. When his attempt to have Nick killed fails, Pa plunges to his death from the balcony of his luxury suite. Nick discovers that Yvette is dead and confirms that he will return to the Keegan seat, as “I’m part of the family”.
Winter Kills takes in a raft of different conspiracy theories, from the Mob, to the Police, to politicians, Cubans, big business, Hollywood and finally family. It does so in an intentionally confusing manner, even riffing on the doubles that are found in some of the JFK theories (there are two Captain Hellers, played by Brad Dexter and Ed Madsen, and two Z K Dawsons are cited). Witnesses drop left, right and centre, in common with one of the most persistent JFK allegations (as popularized by Jim Marrs). One lead directly contradicts another lead, or sends Nick off on a completely divergent path. When Cerruti alleges that Yvette, who would still have been an infant when Tim was murdered, had an affair with the President and order his assassination, Richert is indulging in undisguised mockery of just how askew some theorising becomes (and how easy it to is to lose one’s bearings down the rabbit hole).
Keifitz: They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood until you can’t tell a lie from the truth and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?
Richert isn’t after subtlety. The allusions to JFK are more often than not sledgehammer. Jack Ruby becomes Joe Diamond. The Warren Commission becomes the Pickering Commission. When Nick comments “The Pickering Commission proved that Willie Arnold shot my brother” the only difference between Winter Kills and the events informing it is that Nick sounds like he believed their verdict. Yet even this fluctuates with the demands of the plot; Nick is, to some extent, a cypher. He’s the innocent who discovers the truth (or not, as the case may be) at the same time as the audience. A few scenes later, Nick responds to the suggestion that the recovered rifle is taken to the FBI with “Oh, why not. They probably built it”; this is now the knowing commentary of the writers rather than the character. (Much-popularised theories relating to the FBI and CIA take a back seat in Winter Kills. Pa dismisses the CIA as cigar smugglers and the FBI as fit only to search for runaways.)
If Keifitz is correct, the intentional feeding of disinformation (nominally in the form of Pa Kegan and Cerruti in the movie) prevents the solving of any great conspiracy. Indeed, this idea is a much-discussed one amongst conspiracy theorists and runs the gamut from political assassinations to UFOs; the more you seed false trails and obfuscation, the less chance the devoted investigator has of discovering if there was anything to discover in the first place.
There is such a broad wash of cynicism pervading Winter Kills, we cannot even be sure if the opening scenes are legitimate. It’s unthinkable that Keifitz (Richard Boone) would first bring evidence to the wayward son rather than his boss, even if he weren’t completely in on the facts (the climax suggests that he very much is his master’s keeper). As Nick notes, “Someone is trying to teach me a lesson in futility. Why am I the only one who isn’t killed?” The object? Manipulating the black sheep back into the family fold. Pa tells him, “You ain’t a piano player. You ain’t an artist. You got no business sense. No political sense. What the hell do you want anyway? Where are your values in life?” If the elaborate ruse runs the risk of discovery (as occurs), rather than setting Nick’s mind at rest and encouraging him to see the value of his surname and all that it encompasses, the family can always claim Nick has gone a bit potty and lock him away in a booby trap. As Cerruti attests, “You’re not to be believed. What have you got? Half a dozen different scenarios all going in opposite directions.” And ironically, Pa succeeds in exactly what he sets out to do. This may involve an attempt to kill his second son, but his actions lead to the installation of Nick as the new head of the family.
Perhaps Richert’s greatest casting coup was setting John Huston at the head of the family table. Huston had already played the decade’s most indelible monster, the cadaverous incestuous Noah Cross in Chinatown. That role informs our appreciation of him here. But where in Polanski’s film Huston’s lurking frame and gargoyle face were used for horrific effect, here he is a comic grotesque. Pa Kegan is no less of a monster, but his character is shot through with cruel wit and bluster that makes him both repulsive and magnetic.
Huston reportedly needed little nudging to take the part, as he was no fan of Joseph Kennedy. Pa Kegan is soulless and remorseless. For him, there is nothing that cannot be commoditised, least of all his sons. Whether or not he killed his first born or allowed him to be killed, he is more than ready to murder his second. His mantra is money, and it dictates his reasoning until the end. He tells Nick he accepted the official verdict on Tim because the alternative would be to “point the finger at Russians, Cubans, some goddam hoodlums, or industrialists. Maybe throw us into a world war, civil war, sure. I accepted it. I got interests in this country”. But, as Cerruti tells Nick, his brother’s decision to ignore his father’s steering influence “hurt your father a great deal, both personally and financially”. When Pa blusters to Nick that he didn’t kill Tim for money, it was Cerruti, we don’t really believe him, even if the puppet excuse has some juice thanks to the vastness of his assistant’s influence; “You think I’m in control here? I’m nothing but a goddam front”. The muddy waters serve to emphasise the unfathomable reaches of power. These are areas the everyman cannot hope to sift through.
Huston knows just how to make his character funny in spite of his vile machinations; as he hangs from the huge American flag outside his apartment, his last words are to instruct Nick to invest the family fortune in South America.
He is also great at accentuating the lecherous crudity of Pa. His is the power of the cock, wielded to keep his offspring in line. His line of sexual proclivity in turn informed Tim’s behaviour. We first see him on a golf cart flanked by young crumpet (“Think they’re playing with my nuts?”), continually mocking Nick’s reserve (“Well, you always had an excitable imagination. For a while, as a boy, I was afraid you might turn out to be a fag”). We also see the effects of this in a marvellous cameo from Dorothy Malone, the ‘50s screen beauty (Richert meant to cast Dorothy McGuire, but misremembered her name). She plays the addled current wife of Pa (and mother to Nick), who wanders the family mansion in a fog of sentiment (and then crushes her beloved dog in her sleep). In a subtle touch, it is she who unknowingly sets out the entire plot to the oblivious Nick. She announces that, while he is staying, she will organise an Easter Egg hunt. He protests that it’s winter, little realising he has already embarked on his father’s Easter Egg hunt.
Elsewhere, a string of sly touches illustrate the unassailable wealth and intolerance of Pa. He calls Nick to a pilot’s cabin mid-flight for an update because he can; it’s his airline. He bugs the restaurant (his restaurant) Nick and Yvette dine at as a matter of course. Deliciously, his blood is changed monthly; “I take it from the kids at Amherst. I got a deal with the Red Cross”. And he dismisses the current POTUS out-of-hand (“That moron can’t even find the men’s room”).
The unfortunate side effect of Huston’s presence, purposeful or otherwise, is that Nick all-but disappears as a character. Bridges, who never gives a role anything less than 100% and is completely present, can’t make a character compelling when it just isn’t there on the page. We see lovely little touches; Bridges is a skilled piano player, but he purposefully misses notes because that’s what Nick would do. As Richert puts it, Nick is the straight man. But in a satire/comedy, such a figure can be overwhelmed. You put James Coburn in The President’s Analyst, and he is larger than life just like his surroundings; he can withstand the straightjacket. That isn’t Bridges’ style. So on one level he’s a perfect fit (innocent, idealistic, naïve). But, when Richert weights the character down with “straight” baggage (Nick rides into the desert, adorned in jammies and a dressing gown, and shouts at the landscape “You stink, pa. You stink!”), the film slips artlessly out of its intended tone into melodrama. The subplot with Yvette is almost entirely irrelevant and doesn’t have sufficient substance for us to care about their relationship. As such, the last words (in response to a replayed answerphone greeting from Yvette) “And I’ll miss you” are weak and ill fitting. They point to the kind of movie this has no intention of being (curiously, it also predicts the final moments of De Palma’s Blow Out, a couple of years later).
Cerutti: Well, that’s astonishing. Well, it’s startling. Shocking… Don’t panic. Panic is counterproductive.
As noted, perhaps the best example of the intended tone of the picture is Perkins’ performance as Jon Cerruti. It’s here that the rarified weirdness plateaus. This is evidenced not only by Perkins’ mannered, self-conscious delivery (“Don’t snap at me, you!”) but also in his elaborate Bond-villain lair (a remarkably effective combination of set and matte painting). The resulting image is of an individual who eavesdrops on the entire world (the globe itself hangs on a huge screen behind him, as if seen from space), answerable to no one (so, like the NSA then); “While you sleep, we continue”. He presides over “Information. Black holes of information. Galaxies within galaxies. Multiple expanding universes of information. Aren’t you glad you came?”
The double speak and tautologies he indulges in could be right out of Dr. Strangelove. (Asked who kidnapped Yvette, Cerruti replies “The kidnappers”.) As could Cerruti’s background. Pa informs us that, idiosyncratically, “He doesn’t even give himself a raise. He lives in Brooklyn. In a rabbit hole”. Another Alice reference.
Cerruti: Your father put him in the White House. Why? Because that’s where you can generate the most cash.
As the ringmaster, it is Cerruti who provides the ultimate answers. Or, at least, the ones that make the most sense at the time. He avoids answering questions directly, even on the receiving end of Nick’s blackjack. So his response to the question of whether Pa had Tim killed is “The whole secret, as your father says, is not to get caught”.
Famously (at least, as famously as any part of this movie has become) Bridges mistakenly used a real, rather than a prop, blackjack when he was beating on Perkins. While he did no permanent damage, the pain in the scene is purportedly for real. It also elicits my favourite slice of dialogue in the film, as Cerruti, in cracked tones, informs Nick, “Did you hear that? Did you hear that, you clown? You’ve broken my arm!” And the last lines we hear from Cerruti (who presumably continues to monitor the world following the credits) are the illustrative “Do you get the picture, Nick? Do you get the picture? Do you get the picture?”
Dawson: I know why you’re here. You’re here because you think I had some part of a conspiracy to kill your brother. You and all the conspiracy lovers in this conspiracy-loving country.
It’s this pitch-black humour that informs the best sequences. The first scene presents us with a man swathed in bandages, who might be auditioning for the Mummy in a Universal Horror. When Keifitz suggests, “I think he wants to shake your hand” Nick numbly complies. Consequently, he fails to address the whys and wherefores of how this assassin has so conveniently shown up now. Later, Captain Heller starts interrogating a hairpiece salesman who now occupies the floor where the rifle was hidden. Asking where he was when the President was assassinated, the man replies, “Eighth Grade English Class”. The mishaps befalling witnesses are also appropriately ludicrous. The wigmaker jumped out of a window, and we are told Keifitz fell off a toilet and broke his neck.
Richert, despite acting as writer/director, a role that might lend itself to rampant egoism, appears entirely humble about his inexperience in interviews. Accordingly, he makes it clear that he expressly tried to surround himself with the most experience crew he could find. In terms of cast too, he looked to secure iconic actors who would be instantly recognisable. This is canny shorthand when the complexities of a narrative run the risk of confusing the audience (Stone did exactly the same thing). So he populates the flashbacks with the likes of Eli Wallach and Elizabeth Taylor (in a non-speaking role; her husband John Warner also has an silent cameo as Tim Keegan). Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond employed a weight-reducing Panavision lens to make Taylor look better on screen than she had done in years.
Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly) plays Gameboy Baker. Richard Boone, best known for his appearances in westerns on TV and in films, is third only to Perkins and Huston in screen presence. Reportedly Boone was a fall-down drunk, but you wouldn’t know it from his performance (he possesses a schnoz that tells a thousand late night tales, though). Sterling Hayden has one scene as Dawson, in a crazy representation of the game playing fakery of this world (and one already invoked by the chessboard opening titles). Nick drives onto his land, where a war-game is taking place, and is quickly surrounded by tanks. When he departs it is under the threat of being blown apart. Hayden, complete with Abe Lincoln beard, is a very different character to Dr. Strangelove’s Jack D Ripper, but the connection informs our impression of the character and so the film. Elsewhere, Richert’s inexperience shows. He cast Toshiro Mifune as Pa’s butler but then cut most of his scenes because Mifune’s accent was incomprehensible. Then there’s Tomas Milian, who plays a much older gangster under some very obvious make up.
Richert: Once you start thinking conspiracy and connections, they’re everywhere.
Winter Kills has four credited producers (AVCO Embassy’s Daniel H. Blatt was also involved). John H. Stark (associate producer) and Fred Caruso are by-the-by in terms of the intrigue involved in the making of the film. Leonard J Goldberg and Robert Sterling, however…. They were two marijuana and cocaine dealers who, as Richert tells it, were involved in producing the Emmanuelle pictures; they wanted to be “proper” movie producers. Their pronouncements that financing was in place quickly proved inaccurate as, with a $6.5m budget, the unpaid bills began to mount up. The unions took action, and so some of the sets built across five MGM stages went unused.
After the first halt in production (shooting began in 1976), sufficient funds were scraped together (mostly arriving in cash) to enable the Philadelphia scenes to get underway. Halfway through, the production ran out of money again. Then, on the home stretch, it was announced that the picture was $4m in debt, and the third major shutdown took place. There were 400 creditors. A two-year hiatus followed, during which Richert had the bright idea of shooting another film (The American Success Company, also with Bridges) and utilising the proceeds to complete Winter Kills. Included in the remount was the Sterling Hayden sequence. Zsigmond was otherwise engaged, so John Bailey filled in.
Winter Kills had been on release for only two weeks when Goldberg as found dead in his apartment. He had been shot, and was handcuffed. He was 33 years old. Sterling was subsequently imprisoned on smuggling charges. Some have suggested the fate that befell the producers is connected to the hornet’s nest the movie poked but if so, one wonders why only those two were singled out. Still, Richert and Condon weren’t shy in putting forward their theory of why AVCO intentionally dumped the picture; it was pulling from theatres after about ”10 people saw it”. They hypothesised that it was buried due to defence contracts the group was angling for, which also involved the Kennedys. Whilst that makes for an attractive angle, it’s doubtful whether the picture could have attracted a sizable audience even if the studio had got behind it. It just isn’t an easy sell. Richert finally released his preferred version of the film in 1983. At the outset of production there was a hope Winter Kills might become a significant enough talking point that the case would be re-opened, but that didn’t even happen when Stone’s film became a hit.
Keifitz: But in the subsequent 19 years, more than 16 people who seemingly had nothing to do with that awful event, have died under mysterious conditions.
Richert names both Milos Forman and Arthur Penn as preferred choices to adapt the book. A documentary maker who had never encountered a 35mm camera before, Richert knew he needed the best in the business to make him look good. He has rarely directed for the big screen since, commenting that he took meetings with Spielberg but since became estranged from Hollywood (an ongoing legal case cites plagiarism on Aaron Sorkin’s part in connection with The American President and The West Wing). His choices here show savvy as, whatever the film’s failings, it looks highly polished.
Zsigmond had made a huge splash during the previous decade, becoming one of Hollywood’s most in demand cinematographers. He worked on McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter amongst others. Richert is fond of recalling Zsgmond’s opinion “It be shit!” when something wasn’t up to his exacting standards, and his airy response to Richert’s desire for rich colours; clearly he wanted the picture to look like the work of Rembrandt. The production designer was Robert Boyle (who cites Winter Kills as his favourite of films he was involved with). The resultant sets blend seamlessly with actual locations (which include the interior of the AFI and a stolen exterior of the PanAm building). He worked with Hitchcock on North by Northwest and The Birds, Oscar nominated for the former along with the later Fiddler on the Roof and The Shootist. Maurice Jarre provided the score; as Richert saw it, you couldn’t do better than the guy who composed Lawrence of Arabia.
Richert tackles the simplification needed to render Condon’s novel on screen remarkably skillfully; the impenetrable maze is both coherent and perplexing. Regarding the changes necessitated by the shutdowns and remounts he said there were a few things he would have liked to complete but he was generally satisfied. Huston helped him figure out the climax, rewriting pages on which Richert then performed his own rewrite. Huston also helped to choreograph the final gunfight.
We were probably mercifully spared one element of the script that failed to survive the cull. Richert perceived the female cyclist (played by Richert’s then wife Barbara) who appears on the scene of several murders not as a murderess but an angel. His intention was for her to ride her bike down to Earth from deep space at the beginning. Her child represented regeneration. This would be a crazy dose of myth, magic and mystery. Unfortunately it sounds heavy-handed and distracting. Worse, it would tip the scale from provocative lunacy into sheer silliness. However, the couple of existing scenes with her actually work very well; she has a take-it-or-leave-it presence that allows the viewer to impose their own ideas on her presence. Not that I think heavy-handed is necessarily bad; the climax in which Pa tears through the US flag as he falls to his death couldn’t be more blatant, which is why it’s so funny.
Frank Mayo: Mr. Keegan, you are getting the runaround here.
Anyone seeing Winter Kills after JFK might view the former as some sort of acid trip cartoon version. Both films share an ethos of throwing every possible theory at the wall, as if to ensure they are all witnessed by the broadest possible audience. Richert both reheats the JFK assassination and satirises the baggage of conspiracy theories. Throughout, the ability of the truth-seeker to wade through the multitude of conflicting evidence is questioned and, as takes place now, characters mock the mindset of those even open to the idea of such perfidy. As a satire, it is less consistent and tonally sure of itself than (say) The President’s Analyst. It also spends a little too much time on its flashbacks, nursing fidelity to the strands of possible provocation at the expense of truly jumping off the deep end of plot potential. Then, it’s a difficult juggling act and perhaps the choice to limit the blame to the patriarch, for the sake of tidiness, sawed of a little too much potential for all-encompassing paranoia.
The lurching tone is sometimes successful, sometimes not so; when the assassin maid grapples with Nick and has her blouse torn off, she flees the scene topless. There’s something cheerfully crude about the scene, as if it has strayed on set from a John Landis picture. And, while Richert may have been uneasy about shooting love scenes between Belinda Bauer (her first film, and she hooked up with the director during production), he fails to recognise that this plotline mostly doesn’t work. There are memorable moments; Nick attempts to stifle her orgasmic rapture by muffling her face with a pillow; an amusing scene where she removes her trousers in a restaurant after the maître d’ informs her women must wear skirts. But the relationship bears the tell tale signs of inclusion because you need romance to sell the picture. Maurice Jarre’s score varies from rather overegged sentiment to funereally militaristic to eerily evocative.
Winter Kills might be a little too ramshackle to be held up as forgotten classic, but it’s a fascinating, idiosyncratic, often very funny take on the 20th century’s most famous conspiracy theory. If Richert never quite nails the mismatched tone (I’m unsure that he would have, even if production had gone like clockwork), individual scenes and performances surprise and delight. As ever with a picture such as this, there are anecdotes that, yes, someone in the know said they nailed the truth of it all. But that seems to be missing the thrust of the movie. Winter Kills falls short of suggesting the quest for answers is hopeless, but it might be the last word in depicting the quagmire set to envelop anyone attempting to get to the bottom of an arcane plot.