Movies We Like
William Richert’s first feature was every young filmmaker’s dream. He was to direct Winter Kills, a big budget thriller based on a novel from best-selling author Richard Condon, starring Hollywood stars Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Eli Wallach, and Anthony Perkins as well as international luminaries Toshiro Mifune and Tomas Milian. He assembled a crew of professionals including Vilmos Szigmond, the cinematographer of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Robert Boyle, the production designer on three Hitchcock films. And he started dating the film’s female lead, model Belinda Bauer. On its release Winter Kills received rave reviews from The New York Times and The New Yorker, yet after a week it was pulled from theaters. What sinister force didn’t want the public to see it?
In the film Bridges plays the only scion of a wealthy and well-connected family with an enduring involvement in politics. 19 years ago his brother was the President of the United States, until he was shot by an unknown sniper. Now, the location of the murder weapon is uncovered and Bridges must use the money and power that he has distanced himself from. Huston plays his eccentric, megalomaniac father and Perkins is the enigmatic “man behind the curtain” who might be the only one who knows the truth. The pace of Winter Kills is unrelenting, yielding more secrets and false leads with every twist, then swiftly doubling back and denying them. In its desire to reconcile the characters’ contradictory testimonies, the film quickly becomes a black comedy satirizing the ineffectual inquiry into the JFK assassination and its consequent conspiracy theories, but the rising body count and spasms of sudden violence keep Winter Kills a riveting thriller as well.
By the time that Winter Kills was released more than a decade had passed since the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and Fred Hampton, and Americans knew as little about their deaths as the day they took place. Exhaustive police work had uncovered coerced confessions, cover-ups, and invasive government surveillance. The alleged killers were dead, exonerated, or claiming to be at the nexus of obscure conspiracies. More and more evidence pointed to FBI and secret intelligence agencies as playing some part in the deaths of the nation’s most progressive and charismatic leaders. From this miasma of fear the assassination thriller was born. The best of them were as vital as they were offbeat like John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Fred Zinnemann’s Day of the Jackal (1973) (both films were rewarded with silly remakes). Unluckily for Winter Kills, its inept and inexperienced producers had not raised enough money to pay the cast, crew, or its creditors for the entirety of the shoot. The production ran out of money and shooting was halted several times before it could be finished. When the film was completed distribution was secured by Avco Embassy Pictures whose parent company was Avco, a corporation with ties to the aeronautics and defense industry. Both Richert and Condon feel that the film’s aborted release was an attempt on Avco’s part to silence the film, but if that’s so, why did they buy it in the first place? Anthony Perkins probably took that secret to his grave.
The conspiracy thriller is still alive today, but the films of the 60s and 70s are unrivalled in their scope and paranoia.