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Winter Kills (film)

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Winter Kills
Film poster by John Solie
Directed byWilliam Richert
Written byWilliam Richert
Based onWinter Kills
1974 novel
by Richard Condon
Produced byDaniel H. Blatt
Fred C. Caruso
StarringJeff Bridges
John Huston
Anthony Perkins
Eli Wallach
Sterling Hayden
Dorothy Malone
Tomás Milián
Belinda Bauer
Toshiro Mifune
Ralph Meeker
Richard Boone
CinematographyVilmos Zsigmond
Edited byDavid Bretherton
Music byMaurice Jarre
Distributed byAVCO Embassy Pictures
Release date
  • May 17, 1979 (1979-05-17)[1]
Running time
97 minutes
CountriesUnited States
West Germany
Budget$6.5 million
Box office$1,083,799

Winter Kills is a 1979 satirical black comedy thriller film written and directed by William Richert, based on the eponymous novel of 1974 by Richard Condon. A fiction inspired by the assassination conspiracy theories about President John F. Kennedy, its all-star cast includes Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Richard Boone, Toshirō Mifune, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Belinda Bauer, Ralph Meeker, Elizabeth Taylor, Berry Berenson and Susan Walden.

The film simplifies the plot of the book somewhat, emphasizing humor. It follows the events surrounding the assassination of the fictional President Kegan (based on John F. Kennedy). Several years later, Kegan's half-brother Nick (Bridges) discovers leads which suggest there may have been a plot to kill the President.


Nick Kegan, half-brother to assassinated U.S. President Timothy Kegan, is pulled into an elaborate conspiracy 19 years after the event. Arthur Fletcher, a mysterious man, arrives on Nick's father's oil tanker to reveal that he and another gunman were hired to assassinate President Kegan in 1960. Fletcher dies before he can give more details but not before claiming to have hidden the murder weapon in Philadelphia.

Nick goes to Philadelphia with two companions to retrieve the rifle but they are ambushed; Nick survives and his friends are killed. His father, Pa, initially dismissive, later pledges to help solve the mystery. Nick meets a series of characters who offer conflicting narratives: Z.K. Dawson, a wealthy rival to his father, implicates a dead police captain and his aide Lt. Roy Doty. Doty confirms the police's corrupt involvement and a mafia connection that funded Kegan's campaign.

Irving Mentor, a gangster Nick meets in Cleveland, adds another layer, linking the assassination to a Hollywood studio's financial loss due to an affair between the President and a movie star. Nick's girlfriend, Yvette, supposedly an employee at National Magazine, turns out to be a fraud.

Back in New York, Cerruti, the family accountant, offers versions of the assassination, at one point implicating Nick's father, who according to Cerruti, was dissatisfied with his son's liberal policies and had him killed. Cerruti suggests that the conspiracy, including Yvette's role, was designed to keep Nick confused.

Nick confronts his father, who blames Cerruti for the assassination and ensuing blackmail. As they argue, Keifetz, a family associate, bursts in with orders to kill Nick. In the ensuing struggle, Keifetz and another officer are killed, and Pa falls to his death from a high-rise balcony while clutching an American flag. In his last words, Pa advises Nick to invest in South America.


Screenwriter and John Huston collaborator Gladys Hill played Rosemary, the character actor Joe Spinell appeared as Arthur Fletcher and singer/songwriter Lissette Álvarez portrayed Soledad. Other small appearances include Byron Morrow as the Secretary of State, Tisa Farrow as a nurse, Gianni Russo as an airline pilot, Kim O'Brien as a blonde girl and Erin Gray as "beautiful woman". John Warner played the ill-fated Timothy Kegan and Elizabeth Taylor makes an uncredited cameo as Lola Comante.



Leonard Goldberg and Robert Sterling optioned the book from Condon for $75,000 plus 5% of proceeds and 10% of home video.[2]: 74  William Richert convinced the producers to let him direct the film after he had adapted Condon's novel. Richert convinced Jeff Bridges to star in the movie by moving on to the road in Malibu where he lived and acting out scenes for him at a local delicatessen.[3]


Filming began on December 13, 1976.[2]: 76  Many of the film's interior scenes were shot in 1977 at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, then home to the American Film Institute's film school.[4] Richert wanted to film Huston's death at the Pan Am Building but claims he was denied permission by an irate employee who threatened that the film would not be allowed within 20 blocks of the building because the "Kennedys have offices here".[2]: 80 

Sterling and Goldberg were drug dealers with very little film experience. They had previously worked on releasing the French softcore Emmanuelle films in the U.S.[5] Winter Kills was under-capitalized. Needing a budget of $6 million, Sterling and Goldberg only ever raised $2.3 million. Many actors were never paid or only received the 20% of their fee that was held in escrow. Elizabeth Taylor insisted on being paid her $100,000 fee up front.[2]: 75–6  Some cast and crew reported that they began receiving their pay by being called to a hotel room where they were given envelopes of well-used bills. Eventually, people were working for free until union officials heard of this arrangement. In March 1977, unions shut down the production, forcing it to declare bankruptcy. Goldberg was murdered just before the movie's opening and Sterling was later sentenced to 40 years in prison for marijuana smuggling.[6][5]

Bridges and Bauer went to Germany to work on Richert's next film, The American Success Company. Richert was able to use money from that production to resume work on Winter Kills. On December 18, 1978, production resumed and filming was finished in two weeks. The director explained his devotion to the project by comparing Winter Kills to "cinematic cocaine".[2]: 77  John Bailey filled in as cinematographer because Vilmos Zsigmond was working on another film. The film's distributor, Embassy Pictures, controlled the final cut.[5] The film was the last acting appearance for Candice Rialson.[7]


The film performed well wherever it was shown but it never received the wide distribution required to make it a box office success.[2]: 80  It made $1 million on a $6.5 million budget.[8] Embassy Pictures limited the film to preview screenings in a few cities, foregoing the national and international markets. Condon and Richert thought that Avco-Embassy killed it to avoid threatening Avco's federal contracts which totalled nearly $864 million in 1979.[2]: 80  The quality of Winter Kills, combined with its extremely limited theatrical release, created a cult following for the film.[9]

Winter Kills was a critical favorite. Janet Maslin of The New York Times compared the film to M*A*S*H and Dr. Strangelove, writing, "'Winter Kills' isn't exactly a comedy, but it's funny. And it isn't exactly serious, but it takes on the serious business of the Kennedy assassination".[10] The Times' Vincent Canby also praised the film, complimenting writer/director William Richert's imagination.[11] Brendan Gill of The New Yorker saw the film twice and reported that "I enjoyed it even more the second time, but I cannot pretend that I understood it any better. It is like some intricately embroidered misadventure recounted by a superb, somewhat tipsy storyteller late at night in the library of a big country house, with the cold rain of an enemy night lashing against the windows, and a cozy ruin of red fire red upon the hearth".[12] David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, "In keeping with a morality tale on the excesses of wealth and power, it is extravagantly confusing, grandiosely paranoid, flamboyantly absurd and more than a little fun. Though it utterly lacks the internal consistency that 'good' movies require, as a wild-goose chase it maintains a certain lunatic fascination".[13]

The film is a satire that led a few critics to dismiss the film.[14] Variety magazine wrote of the film, "If there’s a decent film lurking somewhere in Winter Kills, writer-director William Richert doesn’t want anyone to see it in his Byzantine version of a presidential assassination conspiracy".[15] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 1 star out of 4 and wrote, "'Winter Kills' rapes the memory of President John F. Kennedy while giving his late father a few dozen kicks in the head, too ... It revels in its every degrading scene. One feels a little less clean just having seen this picture".[16] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called it "the kind of conspiratorial caper you like for its continual surprises or hate for its escalating confusions ... It is a Gee Whiz item, expansive, impersonal, never dull".[17] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it an "extravagantly kitschy" film with a "fairly repulsive" story.[18]

Rotten Tomatoes rates it 92% fresh based on 24 reviews with the consensus: "A singularly strange roman à clef rich with paranoia and black humor, Winter Kills views the political skullduggery of the late 20th century with a sharp, jaundiced eye.".[19]


In 1983, Richert acquired the rights to the film and re-released a director's cut.[5] The second version included a new ending and additional footage of Elizabeth Taylor.[20][21] In 2023, Quentin Tarantino spearheaded another re-release of Winter Kills featuring a new 35 mm print. John Bailey oversaw the project, which was completed at FotoKem.[22]


Who Killed 'Winter Kills'? is a 2003, 38-minute documentary film, directed by Perry Martin and distributed by Anchor Bay, about the production of the film.[23]


  1. ^ "Winter Kills - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Condon, Richard. "Who killed Winter Kills?" Harper's (May 1983).
  3. ^ Chase, Chris. AT THE MOVIES; A persuasive producer and his 'Success.' New York Times. March 18, 1983.
  4. ^ "Winter Kills - Filming Locations". IMDB. Retrieved 2023-09-12.
  5. ^ a b c d Axemaker, Sean. "Winter Kills," Turner Classic Movies. Accessed Nov. 3, 2017.
  6. ^ "Judge hits millionaire pot smuggler with 40-year sentence," UPI, October 23, 1982
  7. ^ Vagg, Stephen (November 26, 2019). "The Cinema of Exploitation Goddess Candice Rialson". Diabolique Magazine.
  8. ^ "Winter Kills," Box Office Mojo.Accessed Nov. 2, 2017.
  9. ^ Clark, Graeme. "Winter Kills". The Spinning Image. Retrieved 2023-09-12.
  10. ^ Maslin, Janet. "MOVIE REVIEW: Movie: 'Winter Kills,' a Serio-Comedy: Spring Fever Time," New York Times (May 18, 1979).
  11. ^ Canby, Vincent. "FILM VIEW," New York Times (MAY 27, 1979).
  12. ^ Gill, Brendan (June 4, 1979). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 154.
  13. ^ Ansen, David (June 4, 1979). "On the Trail of the Wild Goose". Newsweek. 76.
  14. ^ Castrillo, Pablo, and Pablo Echart. “Towards a Narrative Definition of the American Political Thriller Film.” Communication & Society, Oct. 2015, p. 118.
  15. ^ Variety staff, "Winter Kills," Variety. Accessed Nov. 3, 2017.
  16. ^ Siskel, Gene (May 24, 1979). "Kennedy clan film is no 'Camelot' for sure". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 13.
  17. ^ Champlin, Charles (May 13, 1979). "Going For Baroque in 'Winter Kills'". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 39.
  18. ^ Arnold, Gary (May 19, 1979). "'Winter': Crazed Kitsch". The Washington Post. B5.
  19. ^ "Winter Kills (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 13, 2023.
  20. ^ Chase, Chris. AT THE MOVIES; French actor remembers Hitchcock. New York Times. January 7, 1983.
  21. ^ Camus. "Conspiracy queries". Cineoutsider.
  22. ^ "Winter Kills". Film Forum. Retrieved 2023-09-12.
  23. ^ Martin, Perry, director. Who Killed 'Winter Kills'? (Anchor Bay, 2003).

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