Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), footloose scion of America’s most powerful political dynasty, is called out to one of his father’s offshore oil rigs to hear the dying confession of one Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), who admits to being the man who assassinated Nick’s big brother, President Tim Kegan, in Philadelphia in 1960. Fletcher expires before he can reveal whose orders he was acting on but his account of where he hid the rifle checks out. The cops who accompany Nick to locate it are shot and when he contacts his father (John Huston), he learns that both the men who witnessed Fletcher’s confession have also died. Plenty more fatalities follow as Nick pains-takingly unravels the mystery en route to the unbelievable, quite shattering truth…
“It’s a conundrum… riddles within riddles”, Nick is told by his father’s lieutenant Keifitz (Richard Boone): “They will run you dizzy, they will pile falsehood on top of falsehoods until you can’t tell a lie from the truth and you won’t want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power”. The fact that this advice is delivered by a character who’s already officially dead indicates the depths of labyrinthine intrigue goin on here…
You don’t have to be involved in film making to obsess about Kennedy conspiracy theories, but ever since Abe Zapruder found himself unwittingly filming the scoop of the Twentieth Century on the afternoon of 22nd November 1963 in Dallas, it has certainly helped, with offerings varying from Oliver Stone’s pedantically literal JFK (1991) to Tonino Valerii’s The Price Of Power (1969, below) which restaged the assassination and the speculations swirling around it as a Spaghetti Western. Brian De Palma has, of course, always been obsessed with the assassination and with those who obsess about it.
The difficulties that former documentarian William Richert encountered in completing Winter Kills and the film’s sporadic unavailability since it was released in 1969 have prompted some of these obsessives to suggest (suggestions amplified in much of the bonus materials on this release) that it’s been suppressed for somehow getting “too near to the truth”, whatever that is. Truth is, there’s nothing in Winter Kills (engrossing as it is) that’s not been mooted in countless and increasing (in this internet age) alternative forums. I think it’s fairer to say that while American audiences could just about cope with the dream of Camelot turning into a tragedy, they weren’t ready for the spectacle of it presented, in this adaptation of Richard (The Manchurian Candidate) Condon’s novel, as rollicking, amoral farce.
Throughout the bonus materials it’s confirmed what a gent John Huston was, which makes it all the more remarkable that he could play such convincing scumbags in the likes of this, Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Winter Kills benefits from an amazing cast, though many of them (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor, Eli Wallach) are seriously underused… the throwaway appearance of Toshirô Mifune as somebody’s butler is especially mystifying.
Anthony Perkins gets his twitchy teeth into the role of sinister Intelligence nabob John Cerruti but blink and you’ll miss Tomas Milian (who also appeared in Stone’s JFK). It seems particularly perverse of Richert to cast an actor as facially memorable as Joe Spinell in the Fletcher role then swathe his head in bandages. Another firm HOF favourite Tisa Farrow, who had already appeared in Alberto De Martino’s Blazing Magnum (1976) is briefly glimpsed here as a sexy nurse, before her Italian odyssey (Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Last Hunter, Anthropophagous, et al) kicked off in earnest.
Indicator’s handsome, limited (to 3,000 units) edition 4K restoration, a UK blu-ray premiere, comes with the expected glut of extras. There are two alternative cuts of the film, one with Richert’s optional audio commentary. The 2003 featurette Who Killed ‘Winter Kills’? includes many of the film’s principals and repeats many of the commentary track’s revelations about certain “colourful” aspects of the film’s production. There are shorter featurettes in which Richert talks about Winter Kills’ starry cast and is reunited with Jeff Bridges. In the new, half hour Things Happening in Secret critic Glenn Kenny contributes a useful overview of the history and legacy of conspiracy thrillers. Plus trailer, radio spot, image gallery… and a 36 page accompanying booklet, which I haven’t seen.