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 Company. They 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.