By the end of the ’70s, conspiracy thrillers had started to evolve from provocative political thrillers to wild escapist romps, because as fictional conspiracies grew more outlandish, the derring-do required to survive them grew to equally unbelievable proportions. For instance, consider the credibility gap separating the best-known adaptation of a Richard Condon conspiracy novel, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, and the least-known adaptation of a Richard Condon conspiracy novel, 1979’s Winter Kills. Whereas the former is a chilling story about political assassination made just before the real-life death of John F. Kennedy, the latter is a whimsical oddity made at the end of a decade during which the public overdosed on real-life political corruption. In fact, Winter Kills somehow manages to be both a conspiracy movie and a spoof of conspiracy movies, delivering a narrative so preposterous that it provides sardonic commentary on the whole premise of searching for wheels within wheels while scrutinizing the body politic.
An obvious riff on the Kennedy clan’s woes, the picture follows directionless young blueblood Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), the younger brother of assassinated U.S. President Timothy Kegan. Nearly 20 years after the killing, Nick meets a dying man who claims to have pulled the trigger, which starts Nick down an investigative road that reveals how deep the roots of political murders reach. As written for the screen and directed by the clever William Richert, the picture follows Nick into a quagmire involving a crazy millionaire with a private army (Sterling Hayden), a tweaked behind-the-scenes power-monger who operates out of a computerized secret lair (Anthony Perkins), and other strange characters who are all vaguely connected to Nick’s super-rich father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), a modernized doppleganger for legendary patriarch Joseph Kennedy. Nick also gets involved with a mysterious woman (Belinda Bauer) who may or may not be a femme fatale, and he spends plenty of time getting assaulted, shot at, and threatened by various bad guys.
Richert’s script is brilliant in flashes but muddy overall, providing a number of memorable scenes even though the main narrative is unnecessarily convoluted. Still, the whole thing goes down quite easily thanks to splendid widescreen cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and thanks to a number of thoroughly entertaining performances. Bridges is exasperated and intense, desperately trying to prove his manhood while he’s digging for the truth, and Bauer is powerfully seductive (that nude scene!) in her first movie role. Huston, by this point in his career a seasoned pro at playing oversized villains, barks and growls in that special style of avuncular menace he did so well. The supporting players are just as good. Hayden is funny as a militaristic kook, recalling his role in Dr. Strangelove, while Perkins is slyly robotic, coolly delivering dialogue even as he withstands physical assault. As an added bonus, watch closely for Elizabeth Taylor, whose droll cameo is one of the movie’s sardonic highlights.
Winter Kills: GROOVY