Who really killed our president?
One of the most underrated black comedies ever made, Anchor Bay resurrects Winter Kills in a good, if not exactly special edition.
Facts of the Case
Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges, excellent as usual), brother of assassinated President Timothy Kegan, is serving on a Navy vessel when an injured man is brought in by helicopter. Dying, the man confesses that he was the second gunman who helped in the assassination.
Back in Philadelphia and New York, Nick begins an investigation, uncovering a wide reaching conspiracy. He's on the right track, but are his efforts being hindered by someone close to him? Will he discover the truth? Or will he regret ever delving into this mess?
You're going to have to watch the film to find out. I would tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.
If the above description sounds eerily familiar, it should. Richard Condon, the author of the original novel, based it on the Kennedy assassination and even offers his own solution to the mystery. Condon was a master of darkly comic novels, as The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi's Honor were also turned into excellent films.
For some, this film will work as a straightforward thriller. But writer/director William Richert also adds a sly level of black comedy into his film. To me, that's the level in which this film works. Some scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the orgasm sequence. Others are funny in a very drier sort of way, such as some of John Huston's dialogue. Richert himself describes the film as a political Alice In Wonderland, and there is that Carrolleseque element of surprise and danger in this film. The conspiracy is filled with a group of grotesques that recall the population of Wonderland.
The performances are excellent all around. Jeff Bridges was one of the most underrated actors of the 1970s. His films may not have been huge hits, but he amassed a gallery of wonderful performances along the way. His performance here as Nick Kegan could have been a great failure, but Bridges manages to touch all emotions and even make looking surprised and shocked look realistic instead of goofy. John Huston is brilliant as Bridges' father, a shady tycoon who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Anthony Perkins adds to his collection of weird portrayals as a Big Brother type. Toshiro Mifune is strong in one of his rare English-language roles as Bridges' butler. Then-newcomer Belinda Bauer holds her own as the object of Bridges' affections.
As good as this cast is, the real star of Winter Kills may be Robert Boyle. A former production designer for Alfred Hitchcock, he created some incredible sets for this film. To me, a great set isn't just practical; it should be a character in its own right. Boyle has accomplished just that, enhancing all the ingredients to make this an even stronger film than it is already. This was work worthy of an Academy Award, if the film hadn't been mishandled by its distributor.
Most of the film was shot in 1976 until a series of events began to occur. As the climatic scene with Bridges and Perkins was in progress, the production was shut down. The producers ran out of money. Richert retreated to Philadelphia, shooting more footage until he ran out of money. The producers, soft-core financiers whose biggest hit was Emmanuelle, found some more money and shooting resumed until they ran out again. Two years passed by and Richert made another movie with Bridges and Bauer, The American Success Company. The profits from that picture financed the remainder of shooting on Winter Kills, which finally wrapped in 1979.
If you've never heard of Winter Kills, it's not your fault. Avco Embassy, the film's distributor, allowed the film to sink without a trace at the box office. The reasons remain unclear, although Richert has an idea (which I'll leave you to discover). I discovered it on video during one of my visits to a used video store.
I had read in some reviews that the film was reedited and reissued in 1983. No mention is made in the commentary or documentary. If anyone has any information about this, please contact me.
Anchor Bay has given Winter Kills a wonderful package for its DVD debut. Disc One contains the first-ever anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film. Vilmos Zsigmond's Panavision photography is presented in all its 2.35:1 glory. The image is quite wonderful, with crisp clarity and vivid colors intact. Only one flaw: one scene an hour into the film is loaded with grain and defects. No explanation is given as to why this scene looks so terrible, but my guess is that the original elements for that particular scene no longer exist. Still, this is a very, very, very good transfer.
Anchor Bay gives us a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix. Very good work done here on the soundtrack, but would it have killed them to include a stereo mix? It would have made the dialogue a lot easier to digest.
The extras are spread over two discs. Disc One features a commentary track with writer/director William Richert. Richert is a very enthusiastic and animated speaker and he leaves few gaps in his commentary. He supplies lots of information on all stages of the production, talks about working with the incredible cast he assembled, and a good deal about the troubles he encountered. Perhaps the best commentary I have heard to date.
Disc Two gives us the remainder of the extras. A 50-minute documentary titled "Who Killed Winter Kills?" is first. Featuring interviews with Richert, Bridges, Bauer, Zsigmond, and Boyle, this repeats some ground covered by Richert in his commentary but there is still a wealth of information to find here. Watch this, but only after you've seen the film.
Two featurettes are next. "Reunion" features Richert and Bridges reminiscing about the production for nine minutes. Their camaraderie is infectious and it is worth watching for that alone. "Star Stories" runs for eight minutes and features Richert giving us tidbits on how he managed to assemble the cast he did.
Several still galleries are included, giving you a sense of what the production was like. The film's theatrical trailer is included and is in very good shape.
Richert's original screenplay is included in DVD-ROM form. Reading it, you'll see that a very different film would have been made had the production not been a troubled one.
Winter Kills' retail price is a steep $29.99, especially when all this material could have easily fit on a single, double sided disc. Stores sell this for $26.99 and under, which is a little better. I recommend it as a rental first. If you like it, then by all means, buy it.
Not guilty! Next!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary by William Richert
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