Thursday, May 28, 2009

Winter Kills

Some films are damned by nature like an ugly child, malnourished and abandoned. Other movies earn their damnation the old fashion way, they work for it. The 1979 production of Winter Kills is an example of the latter. The movie's mix of intense paranoia, Kennedy-conspiracy theories, and outrageous deadpan ironies resulted in a black satire darker than a moonless night. Odd thing, the film is also a hoot to watch - at least it is once you are clued into the joke.

Freely adapted from the novel by Richard (The Manchurian Candidate) Condon, Winter Kills presents some of the greatest bits from various Kennedy conspiracy theories. Beginning with the bizarre opening as the late President Kegan's younger half-brother (Jeff Bridges) is confronted with the dying confession of the second gun to the assassination 19 years earlier in Philadelphia, Winter Kills precedes on a wild and star-studded meander through the American political subconscious.

As Bridges' character finds himself compelled to follow one weird lead after another, he finds himself stumbling through the scandals of his own family as well as a secret political culture that is running out of control. All the while, he is dogged by a mysterious series of murders that is seemingly preceded by the appearance of a young girl and child on a bicycle, popping gum in time to the gun shots. He is egged on by his own father (John Huston in a performance that delivers new meaning to the phrase “filthy old money”) even though the investigation is bound to unlock family secrets that old man Kegan has previously killed to suppress.

Long rumored to have been railroaded by the Kennedy family during its production and release (which is actually true - check out the best article documenting this case in the March 11, 1985 edition of the London Times), Winter Kills also has the particular distinction of going through several studios during its filming, having two producers who were financing the movie with drug trade money (one of them went to prison and the other ended up with the gun, not the cannoli), and a final release that was so low key even the theater owners didn't know it was playing. I only saw the film during its brief release because I had already seen everything else that was playing.

At times, the surreal humor of Winter Kills veers close to being a Mad magazine parody. But the movie also has a strange melancholia that at the oddest moments touches a sentimental nerve. Basically, we all know that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy. Heck, it doesn't even require a mastermind to narrow the list down to the overwhelmingly obvious suspects. The Warren Report, and all of the rest of the official denial, is just a load of horse hockey (something that even Lyndon Johnston stated in private conversations). But this act of public murder and phony denial has been the underpinning to contemporary American history. And to be honest, the denial sort of makes us all co-conspirators.