‘Winter Kills’: All of the Plots Thicken

Part black comedy, part paranoid thriller, the 1979 movie returns after four decades in a new 35 mm print at Film Forum.

By J. Hoberman

A madcap riff on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, “Winter Kills,” adapted by the director William Richert from Richard Condon’s 1974 best seller, is part black comedy, part paranoid thriller and — an evocation of cosmic conspiracy that boasts its own conspiratorial back story — part carnival hall of mirrors.

The movie, first released in 1979, and then again in 1983 (with its ending supposedly altered), returns after four decades in a new 35 mm print.

The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission and established in 1963, was still hotly contested when Condon wrote his novel, a precursor to literary treatments of Kennedy’s death like Don DeLillo’s “Libra” and James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid.” The movie is redolent of Watergate-era films like “The Parallax View” from 1974, but in the age of QAnon it scarcely seems dated. One of the novel’s favorable reviews quotes Condon to the effect that, in contemporary America truths are less important than “the illusion of truths.”

Jeff Bridges plays Nick, the younger half brother of a charismatic president murdered by a lone assassin in downtown Philadelphia. Given evidence, years later, of a second gunman, Nick is dragged down a rabbit hole, at once aided and thwarted by his all-powerful father (John Huston, essentially reprising his role in “Chinatown”).

A greater mystery than the plot may be the cast assembled by Richert, directing his first nondocumentary, and his shady producers, whose major credit was the soft-core movie “Black Emanuelle.” The always sympathetic Bridges and the ineffably sleazy Huston are supported by the veteran heavies Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden and Ralph Meeker; the international stars Tomas Milian and Toshiro Mifune; and the reliable wackos Anthony Perkins and Eli Wallach, plus the ’50s melodrama queen Dorothy Malone, with the supermodel Belinda Bauer as the requisite woman of mystery. Elizabeth Taylor (uncredited and silent save for a single angry word) was canny enough to take payment upfront. The rest of the cast seems to have been strung along for the duration of the start-stop shoot.

As chronicled by Condon in a 1983 Harper’s article no less sensational than the movie, as well as a documentary found on the Blu-ray release, “Winter Kills” was six years in production, during which it was repeatedly shut down for lack of cash. (Drug money was involved. One producer was later murdered, his partner wound up in jail.) While these travails may not be evident onscreen, knowledge of the saga adds to the movie’s sense of imperial hubris — the “Game of Thrones”-style credits announcing the stellar cast, the spectacularly superfluous locations shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (between “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter”!?).

“Winter Kills” is not always easy to follow — Condon’s convoluted plot has been simplified and the film is consequently riddled with narrative lacunae — but from beginning to end, the gist is always clear. The movie “doesn’t make a bit of sense, but it’s fast and handsome and entertaining,” Janet Maslin wrote in her 1979 review in The Times. Preposterous as it is, its vision of total surveillance, constant subterfuge and plutocracy run amok has a measure of social realism.

If paranoid thinking is the antidote to chaos, “Winter Kills” demonstrates its appeal. The movie is an article of faith. That it exists at all is something of a miracle.

Winter Kills

Aug. 11-24 at Film Forum, Manhattan; filmforum.org.

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