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The conspiracy movie financed by drug money and destroyed by its distributors

There can’t be many 1970s movies which had Elizabeth Taylor in the cast yet which did not bill her in the credits. But, then, Winter Kills has a production history so quirky and so labyrinthine that it is worthy of a movie about its own production.

I saw it once about 25 years ago and – believe me – see it once and you don’t forget it.

I saw it again last night at the National Film Theatre in London.

Winter Kills is a baroque fictionalised fantasy about the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. It is so quirky that it can be described (although this is slightly misleading) as a black comedy.

It is based on a book by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate – a book also about a political assassination but published before Kennedy’s death.

With an iconic cast and crew to die for, Winter Kills was produced by two wealthy drug dealers – Robert Sterling and Leonard Goldberg – who had made their names and a lot of money by releasing the Emmanuelle soft core porn movies in the US.

But they did not actually have the $6.5 million budget needed to make Winter Kills themselves.

Leonard Goldberg believed that, if you borrowed a large enough amount of money, the debtors would have to let you finish the movie to ensure getting their money back. The problem was that the film went at least $4 million over budget and, at one point, the production manager had a sawn-off shotgun shoved under his chin until he paid for a generator.

Eventually, in mid-production, Goldberg was murdered by the Mafia – his brains shot out, handcuffed to his bed – for failing to pay his debts – and, later, Robert Sterling was sentenced to 40 years in prison for marijuana smuggling. The production went so far over budget that it was shut down three times – twice by the unions – and it declared bankruptcy.

First-time director William Richert and several of the cast and crew eventually went to Germany and filmed a comedy called The American Success CompanyThey sold distribution rights on that movie, which made them enough money to finish shooting Winter Kills after a two-year hiatus.

Although “quirky and idiosyncratic” is an understatement for the Byzantine plot, the movie got good – occasionally rave – reviews when it was released.

The New York Times called it “a funny, paranoid fable… furiously funny”.

Rolling Stone labelled it “Boisterous Burlesque”.

Newsweek’s rave review said it was: “flamoyantly absurd, extravagantly confusing, grandiosely paranoid and more than a little fun”.

The New Yorker critic was so bemused that be went to see the movie a second time and then said – admiringly – that it  “was like listening to some marvelous, entertaining drunken storyteller”.

But it made little money because it was pulled quickly from cinemas after distributors Avco Embassy Pictures told director William Richert: “It’s not really in the best interests of Americans to watch a picture like this.”

Richard Condon, author of the original bestselling book, wrote an article in Harper’s magazine titled Who Killed Winter Kills? in which he pointed out that the Avco Embassy conglomerate had major defence contracts in which the Kennedy family were involved and that assassinated President John Kennedy’s brother Edward was thought likely to run for President in the near future.

Avco Embassy certainly chopped some scenes out (including Elizabeth Taylor’s two scenes) which William Richert re-inserted when he eventually bought his film back and re-released it on DVD.

Winter Kills is a bizarrely-plotted semi-fantasy film with strangely-scripted lines perfectly delivered by A-list actors.

Anthony Perkins has some of the most interesting, including:

“People tend to accept the plausible if it is wondrously documented… We pioneered these methods in modern society until, today, as we see, our politicians and political structure could not survive without them. Life and truths have been turned into diverting, gripping, convincing scenarios.”

Winter Kills is a maze of fanciful plots and bizarre scenes. As Anthony Perkins’ character says: “the techniques of fiction playing like searchlights upon a fancied facade of truth.”

It gives some of Michael Powell’s weirder films a run for their money.

You can see a trailer here and a 37-minute feature on the making of Winter Kills here.

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Is “Killer Bitch” worse than hardcore pornography and what does the dead poet William Blake know about it?

The actor Jack Nicholson said of film censorship: “The reality is, if you suck a tit, you’re an X, but if you cut it off with a sword, you’re a PG.”

As if the power of the tabloid press to overcome common sense and logic needed to be proved, consider the case of the movie Killer Bitch. (I was always a fan of early Roger Corman movies…)

This much-pre-publicised modern-day B-movie was attacked before it was even finished as “vile” porn by newspapers from London to Sydney to New York to New Delhi (yes, literally those places) by journalists who had never seen even a single frame of it. Indeed, the attacks started in the News of the World just two weeks after shooting began: subsequent news reports assumed what had been written the the News of the World was true.

Despite this, when the movie was eventually submitted to the British Board of Film Classification (the UK film censors), I didn’t actually expect much of a problem. It was a  low-budget film, so there was no wildly explicit gore – lots of fake blood but no OTT gore, no bullets exploding on bodies, no exploding heads – and the sex, it seemed to me, though much hyped, was not especially explicit – not by current standards.

There IS a sequence in the film which shows actual sexual intercourse but it was edited soft-core and is far less explicit than many a Hollywood studio movie. Almost everything that is seen to happen in Killer Bitch had been passed by the BBFC in a more extreme and more realistic form in previous films and, since 2002, the BBFC have in fact been passing hardcore sex scenes for general distribution. Why the Daily Mail has never picked up on this as a sign of the utter disintegration of British moral culture I don’t know. I think the BBFC started doing it so quietly that, by the time the Daily Mail twigged, it was old news and not worth attacking.

As it turned out, though, there were major problems with the British film censors over Killer Bitch. We were told the BBFC was very concerned at the “content of the movie” and it was screened at least four times to various combinations of censors, eventually including the Chairman of the Board. I suspect it was just a case of a movie with a high-profile tabloid reputation being referred-up because each person was too scared to take the risk of passing it himself/herself…. At one point, a BBFC Examiner sent an e-mail to the UK distributor saying it was “more likely than not” that there would be several cuts.

I was amazed when I found out what they claimed the problem was. We were told there were two areas of concern:

The first was a glimpse of part of the erect shaft of porn star Ben Dover’s penis at the beginning of the movie. This gobsmacked me. Apart from the fact neither the director nor I had ever noticed this and the censors must have gone through it frame by frame with a magnifying glass (no reflection on Ben Dover), I have still never spotted the offending shot in the movie. The BBFC have been giving 18 certificates to hard core sex scenes (erect penises; visible sexual penetration) since 2002. This was, apparently, a glimpse of part of a shaft.

The second problem was the scene which had got the tabloids worldwide into such a tizzy when (without ever having seen it) they had denounced it as a ghastly and “vile” rape scene. What the BBFC was worried about was not the actual sex scene itself (which was not a rape scene at all) but the pre-amble to the sex scene, in which leading lady Yvette Rowland initially resists Alex Reid then melts in his arms.

I understand the BBFC’s worry to an extent though, really, it’s not much more than 1950s/1960s James Bond sexism – a rugged hero takes woman roughly in arms; kisses her; she resists very briefly then melts in his mouth. Arguably sexist, but repeated a thousand times in other movies: hardly a hanging offence. Especially considering what the BBFC have been passing uncut since 2002. This is one description by  critic (not by me) of Willem Dafoe’s 2009 arthouse film Antichrist which was passed uncut by the BBFC:

“After knocking him unconscious, Gainsbourg bores a hole in Dafoe’s leg with a hand drill and bolts him to a grindstone to keep him from escaping. Then, she smashes his scrotum with some sort of blunt object (the moment of impact happens slightly below the frame). We don’t actually see his testicles become disengaged from this body, though it’s implied. Next, she brings him to a climax with her hands and he ejaculates blood (yes, it’s shown). But that’s not all! Later, in an extreme closeup — lensed by Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle! — Gainsbourg cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors.”

The girl’s masturbation of the erect penis is in close-up and is real plus it’s an erect penis that is ejaculating blood.

Killer Bitch and Ben Dover’s imperceptibly-glimpsed bit of shaft should almost get a U if Antichrist gets an 18…

There IS a rape scene in Killer Bitch (which in no way glamorises nor diminishes the horror but it is not the scene the tabloids got into a tizz about). And someone DOES get his cock cut off in vision. But apparently neither of these scenes worried the censors.

What seems to have worried them was the movie’s reputation. It worried everyone. It was, ironically, passed uncut by the BBFC, but banned from display on the shelves of ASDA, Morrison’s, Sainsbury, WH Smith, Tesco and others (although most of those sell it online). It was even withdrawn by iTunes after two days on sale for rather vague reasons. HMV remained a sole beacon of high street retail sanity and online retailers like Amazon and Play.com never had any problem.

Is the movie Killer Bitch really so much worse than hardcore pornography? Or did tabloid perception overcome reality?

William Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is.”

But, then, what the fuck did William Blake know about anything?

Although he did know a lot about dreams… and I do think it’s slightly odd no-one has noticed Killer Bitch can be seen as an OTT surreal dream by the heroine who may or may not awake, terrified, from unconsciousness early in the movie.

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