Off the coast of Malaysia on a stormy sea, Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), the son of a rich businessman, is on a ship where he has been summoned to. A friend of the family, Keifitz (Richard Boone) flies in on a helicopter with a seriously ill man on board. The man has reportedly fallen off an oil rig and is heavily bandaged, but he is of great importance to Nick because he claims to be the assassin who shot Nick's brother dead. And who was Nick's brother? None other than the President of the United States some years before. Nick is baffled at the supposed killer's confession, but he is given a lead: go to Philadelphia where the shooting took place, and investigate a certain office, where the rifle used will be found hidden in a steam pipe. Little does Nick know that he is embarking on a journey which will leave a great many dead bodies in its wake, adding to those already dying in mysterious circumstances...
Written by the director William Richert from a book by the author of The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon, Winter Kills is a fiendishly complex and dizzyingly bizarre thriller which after troubled production history (being shut down three times before being completed) and limited distribution when it was first released, went on to gather a strong cult reputation as one of the most interesting films of the seventies. It was obviously influenced by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but don't take its garbled solution as the truth - the film is tricksier than that, even if it's about as difficult to pin down as its real life counterparts with connections to politics, big business and organised crime. Like most cult movies, it rewards, even demands, multiple viewings.
When Nick reaches Philadelphia, he heads straight for the area his brother was killed. With the assistance of a distinctly unhelpful police chief, Heller (Brad Dexter), they track the office in question to a wig maker's, and Nick does indeed find the rifle, wrapped in plastic, while Heller demolishes the radiator. As they go outside to their waiting car, Nick notices a woman with a child on a bicycle who pops bubble gum at him; he turns round to see everyone in the car apart from him has been shot dead. Panicking, he leaps out and runs across the road into a shop, calling for help on the telephone as he watches the car drive away. Now he knows he must call on his father, Pa Kegan (John Huston) because he won't work out his problems on his own. Huston is perfectly cast as the influential, womanising tycoon who loves the sound of his own voice and seems to know more than he's letting on.
In the world of Winter Kills, money rules, and you're already working on how to get more no matter how rich you are. Nick, however, is living a directionless life in the shadow of his father and deceased brother, an underachiever with no purpose. He is still intimidated by Pa, as seen by the sequence where he rides up alone onto a high mountain on his horse solely to yell, "You stink, Pa!", but would never cross him. The new evidence gives him a meaning to his existence, and soon he is following the leads, as suggested (and possibly hindered) by his father, so he visits the estate of Dawson (Sterling Hayden), a military man who drives around in tanks, and after brusquely giving Nick a name to follow up, chases him with his private army and fires shells at him.
There is plenty of strangeness in this film, but it all grows out of the story. Witness Nick's French girlfriend Yvette (Belinda Bauer), a magazine editor who screams her head off during sex with him as he tries to muffle her with a pillow, and then has a frank conversation about their relationship and where it's going while sitting on the toilet. Then there's the scene where Nick returns to his hotel room only to be attacked by the maid who tries to push him off the high balcony - he fends her off by tearing open her clothes, leaving her to flee practically topless from the room. Due to this attack, Pa offers Nick a selection of weapons for protection, including a pistol which he refuses. He takes the blackjack and the brass knuckles though, on instruction not to lose the brass knuckles as "they have sentimental value".
As the off kilter atmosphere builds swiftly, so does the insidious paranoia, and Nick increasingly finds his life in danger. The cast, featuring some well known faces, tend to be wheeled on like guest stars in a particularly weird television detective show: here's Eli Wallach in flashback as a Jack Ruby type, here's Anthony Perkins as the head of an all-seeing intelligence service, and here's Elizabeth Taylor in another flashback mouthing nothing but "son of a bitch". But as the plot grows ever more convoluted, it does resemble a genuine conspiracy theory with all the messy facts and twisted logic that entails, and one thing becomes clear: for the powerful to retain their power, they must organise a labyrinth of connections and misdirection. Oddly, the more confusing the plot gets the more authentic it feels. As a thriller, Winter Kills is an eccentric tragi-comedy, and if it falls slightly short of succeeding as either, it's a valuable, exhilarating experience. Music by Maurice Jarre.
American director, screenwriter and actor who began in documentaries such as Derby and A Dancer's Life, before moving on to fiction features, co-writing Law and Disorder and The Happy Hooker and making his directorial debut with the cult favourite Winter Kills. That film suffered such a troubled production that Richert and some of the cast and crew had to make another film, the equally strange American Success Company, to finance the funding of Winter Kills and get it finished. Richert also directed A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and The Man in the Iron Mask, and co-starred in My Own Private Idaho.