Winter Kills (1979) is one of the last movies in a cycle of assassination films which started with The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The source material of both were novels written by Richard Condon. Manchurian Candidate supported a scenario where a programmed killer shoots a Presidential hopeful, paving the way for a foreign agent to take over the candidacy. Infamously, Truman Capote offered this scenario on a talk show in the late Sixties/early Seventies to explain the killing of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.
Winter Kills offers a thinly veiled scenario for President Kennedy’s assassination. A patsy (Oswald) is accused of killing President Kegan (Kennedy) and then killed by a fringe Mafia figure (Ruby) while being held at the police station. The real assassin, on his deathbed, confesses to the former President’s brother, Nick (Jeff Bridges), and tells him where the rifle is hidden. Upon retrieving the rifle, the men accompanying Nick are shot and the rifle stolen. Then begins an odyssey to find the real perpetrators, except that Nick has entered a world where it’s difficult to discern the real from the simulated.
A major example of his problem: Nick’s longtime girlfriend, Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer), has been his part-time lover for years whom he now wants to marry. She works at a national news magazine and offers Nick important leads, contact with criminal underworld figures. When these men are killed by a bomb, Nick goes back to his girlfriend in New York City but can’t find her. Worse, there’s no trace that she existed. She never worked for the magazine nor lived in the apartment where he often visited her. What else has Nick seen or been told that may not have true or real? Apparently, a lot.
His inability to discern the false from the true marks the distinctive element in this from other assassination conspiracy films, although this the logical end for the scenarios in many of them (see the list at the bottom). A combination of governmental and corporate interests, during the movies in the 1970s, have an interest in controlling the seat of power for enormous profits (ideology is largely irrelevant). The darkest of these films is The Parallax View (1974) starring Warren Beatty and directed by Alan J. Pakula.
Pakula’s films – Klute (1971), All the President’s Men (1975), Rollover (1981), Presumed Innocent (1990), and The Pelican Brief (1992) – specialized in paranoia and conspiracy. The Parallax View featured a corporation that trained and hired out assassins. Beatty is a journalist who investigates the company and, instead of revealing their dark agenda, is himself framed for the murder of a candidate and then shot down.
Winter Kills ultimately distances itself from the potential reality of a conspiracy by taking many of the elements of the Kennedy assassination to extremes. One is nearly tempted to call the film a satire. However, Nick Kegan is played so straight by Bridges he is less of a caricature than the film’s singular, rational focus. It’s as if the world around him has gone crazy. In some respects, the production of the film may have been the weirdest, craziest, most unbelievable part of it.
- The producers, Leonard J. Goldberg and Robert Sterling, were novices whose main source of capital was selling marijuana.
- The film stopped production several times, often with no hope of starting up – but it did.
- The director, Richard Richert, was making his first major film but managed to secure a large and distinguished cast: John Huston as the Kegan patriarch (read: Joe Kennedy); Eli Wallach; Richard Boone; Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, Tomas Milian, Toshiro Mifune, Ralph Meeker, and Elizabeth Taylor.
- During the production, producer Leonard J. Goldberg was shot execution style in a hotel room.
- A few years after the film came out, producer Robert Sterling was jailed for 14 years for selling marijuana.
- After it opened in New York City to several good reviews, the film was pulled from distribution. Many believe the Kennedy family had put pressure on Avco Embassy. Richard Condon claimed that the Kennedys had tried to stop publication of his novel. I am skeptical of both claims, not to say the book or movie pleased America’s First Family. Especially, the man who orchestrated the assassination is the ex-President’s father.
The conspiracy cycle includes some of the following films from the 1970s:
Executive Action (1973): told totally from the viewpoint of the conspirators, a group of southern business oligarchs. Starring Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Will Geer.
The Conversation (1974): the man doing the surveillance (Gene Hackman) becomes the surveilled. Francis Ford Coppola made the film between the Godfathers.
Three Days of the Condor (1975) with Robert Redford. The C.I.A. is responsible for murdering their own analysts.
All the President’s Men (1976). We know who the bad guys are here. And they go down hard.
The Domino Principle (1978). A Stanley Kramer film, with Gene Hackman as a convict induced to becoming an assassination for a secret, powerful organization. More severe than The Parallax View.
Once we get into the 1990s, there’s a more direct approach to the conspiracy genre. Oliver Stone’s JFK mounts a monumental film on the back of several books that point to a black ops unit within the C.I.A. It’s view of the plan to kill Kennedy, with Oswald as the patsy, is detailed from many points of view. Unfortunately, one of these is Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner), who initiated one of the most grossly irresponsible prosecutions ever (the jury found Clay Shaw innocent within twenty minutes). Not once but twice the film strongly details how events transpired. First, an ex-spook (Donald Sutherland) details all the information for Garrison on a park bench in D.C. Then Garrison takes things to the limit in his summation to the jury. Stone’s manipulation of the facts is most problematic aspect of this highly persuasive and thrilling film.