Like shrapnel from a pipe bomb, the cast and crew of Winter Kills (1979) hurl themselves in a dozen different directions, variously sailing past one another or colliding for brief, brilliant bursts. Jeff Bridges stars in a grounded deep state thriller as an All-American failson uncovering national rot, while John Huston romps around in a screwball comedy as an oligarch tuned to the frequency of underground comix. Anthony Perkins and Belinda Bauer pitch themselves as James Bond archetypes with a single foot each hovering over the hazy line separating Dr. No from Dr. Evil. It’s not entirely clear what Toshiro Mifune is doing. Half of the fun of William Richert’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel is imagining a more finely-calibrated exercise, which would surely have been more satisfying but infinitely less fun. For bonus jollies, pregame a screening at Film Forum with this jailbroken DVD bonus feature documenting the film's fittingly nutso production.
Bridges plays Nick Kegan, surviving brother of an assassinated American President. Twenty years after the murder, for which a lone gunmen had been blamed, Nick is presented with evidence that a second shooter was involved. A conspiracy unspools as Nick pursues the lead, which propels him toward encounters with the Cleveland mob, a Philadelphia wig shop, wealthy Midwestern war reenactors, Hollywood studios, opulent C-suites, and unnamed intelligence agencies. Flashbacks attempt to clarify the plot’s convolutions and introduce a telethon’s worth of beloved character actors in gleefully garish cameos. Richert’s search for precise coordinates along the axes of madcap satire and gripping political thriller comes up short, but he finds a proximal area in which national neuroses are primally screamed in cathartic chaos.
Overlaying Winter Kills atop our own insufferably spectacular reality produces a blurry though dispiritingly recognizable portrait of extravagant paranoia decaying to hopeless resignation. The film is too righteous to criticize and too vivid to ignore. Back on screen on glorious celluloid, Winter Kills exemplifies one of the best things in life: a wild time at the movies.
A new 35mm print of Winter Kills is now showing daily at Film Forum