Friday, June 13, 2008

Assassination Week Pt. 5: Winter Kills

Winter Kills (William Richert, 1979)

Brought to the silver screen in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate related the assassination of a Presidential candidate with eerie similarities to the murders of both John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. Richard Condon penned Winter Kills twenty six years after he wrote The Manchurian Candidate. The latter serves as a fitting counterpoint to the former as Winter Kills is a fairly accurate, albeit fictionalized, recounting of the conspiracy to kill JFK.

Directed by former documentary filmmaker William Richert, Winter Kills stars Jeff Bridges as Nick Kegan, brother to slain President Timothy Keegan. Despite the Pickering Commission’s finding that assassin Willie Arnold acted alone in slaying the elder Keegan during a motorcade through Philadelphia, evidence to the contrary (brought forth by a bandaged Joe Spinell) comes forward throwing Nick into an ever-expanding web of corpse-strewn intrigue that will feel very familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Kennedy conspiracies.

An unusual mix of thriller and pitch black comedy, Winter Kills hinges on a bravura performance by John Huston as patriarch Pa Kegan. Part Joe Kennedy and Noah Cross (Huston’s role in Chinatown), Huston redefines cantankerous as the puppetmaster who seems to own half the world and buys his way out of every problem. He’s got mixed feelings about Nick investigating his brother’s death. At once he’s nonplussed and amused as his disappointing progeny blindly claws his way through the sordid details of the past. All the while Pa Kegan and his henchmen (including Anthony Perkins as crazed eavesdropper John Cerruti) steer Nick through the maze, giving him just enough information to keep him crazed.

Featuring a crop of character actors from Eli Wallach to Sterling Hayden to Ralph Meeker to Toshiro Mifune, Winter Kills resembles a trial run for Oliver Stone’s JFK. With beautiful photography from Vilmos Zsigmond, Richert’s film is an enjoyable fever dream of paranoia and pursuit with an awesome body count. Bridges demonstrates why he was a hot commodity in the early ‘80s as Kegan, acting with a good mix of righteous indignation and powerless exasperation.

Sadly, the production of Winter Kills was plagued with problems due to some shady backers. Not only did some of the actors never get paid, the film faired dismally on its initial, limited release. Released on DVD in 2003, Winter Kills is definitely worth a second (or first) look.

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