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Winter Kills (film)

Winter Kills is a 1979 American black comedy film directed by William Richert, based on the novel by satirist Richard Condon. A black comedy fictionalising the assassination conspiracy of 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.

Winter Kills
Winter kills imp.jpg
Directed byWilliam Richert
Produced byDaniel H. Blatt
Fred C. Caruso
Written byRichard Condon (novel)
William Richert (screenplay)
StarringJeff Bridges
John Huston
Anthony Perkins
Eli Wallach
Sterling Hayden
Belinda Bauer
Dorothy Malone
Tomás Milián
Music byMaurice Jarre
CinematographyVilmos Zsigmond
Edited byDavid Bretherton
Distributed byAVCO Embassy Pictures
Release date
  • May 11, 1979 (1979-05-11)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6.5 million
Box office$1,083,799

The film simplifies the plot of the book somewhat, emphasizing humor. It follows the events surrounding the assassination of President Kegan (patterned after 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.

Most of the film was photographed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and the production designer was Robert F. Boyle, who cited the film as one of his favorites.[citation needed] Although Winter Kills was a box office bomb,[1] it has since become a cult classic.[2]


Plot summaryEdit

Set in the contemporary 1979 but in a different reality, Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges) is on board his millionaire father's tanker ship when he phones his lover, Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer), who lives in New York City and leaves a message on her answering machine just to hear her soft and seductive voice. Just then, a family associate named Keifetz (Richard Boone) arrives on the ship by helicopter with an injured man whose face is wrapped in bandages. Inside a doctor's office, the injured man, Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), mutters a confession as an orderly transcribes; Fletcher had assassinated Nick's half-brother, the President of the United States, 19 years earlier on February 22, 1960. Fletcher claims that he and another gunman were hired by a man named Casper, Jr., for the job, after which Fletcher hid his rifle in Room 903 of the Engleson Building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where the assassination happened as the President was riding in an open limousine beside Philadelphia's City Hall building. Fletcher confesses to the killing because he claims that he wants to be able to prove that he was the real killer. Nick inquires about Willie Arnold, the assassin who was determined to be the lone gunman by the Pickering Commission. However, Fletcher dies before he can answer, so Nick heads to Philadelphia to look for the rifle.

At the Engleson Building, Nick uncovers the weapon, but, just as he and his companions prepare to leave, a young woman on a bicycle (Barbara Richert) rides past their vehicle and pops her chewing gum. In an instant, Nick's associates are shot dead by an unseen sniper. Panicked, Nick runs to call his father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), but instead is connected to John Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), the mastermind behind the Kegan empire. When Nick reports the incident and his whereabouts, Cerruti promises to send help, but the vehicle and the rifle inside are stolen by an unseen person as Nick waits.

Sometime later, Nick is chauffeured to Pa Kegan's desert estate in California, where he is greeted by the Japanese butler, Keith (Toshirô Mifune). Later that evening, Nick sees his emotionally unstable mother, Emma (Dorothy Malone), and is rebuked by his father for leaving the ship. When Nick reports Fletcher's confession and the incident in Philadelphia, his father storms away. However, Pa wakes Nick in the morning with a plan to expose the assassination conspiracy.

Sometime later, Pa sends Nick to meet his former political rival and one of the richest men in the U.S., Z.K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden). Driving into Dawson's Tulsa, Oklahoma, ranch, Nick is cornered by WW II tanks. Dawson surfaces from a hatch, arguing that he was not involved with the assassination and implicating the Philadelphia Police Departments Captain Heller and his sidekick, Ray Doty.

On an airplane to New York City, Nick receives a call from Pa, who reports that they no longer have witnesses to Fletcher's confession; Keifetz was killed and the ship's orderly broke his neck in a fall. Sometime later, Nick meets Doty, who remembers that the man implicated in Fletcher's confession, Casper, Jr., was connected to the Philadelphia police through a nightclub owner named Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach) who murdered Willie Arnold two days after the assassination. According to Doty (in a long flashback sequence to the 1950s), Diamond bribed Captain Heller (Brad Dexter) for access into the police station so he could kill Willie Arnold after the presidential assassination. Gangster Gameboy Baker (Ralph Meeker) arranged the assassination because the president did not return favors for the mafia's $2 million campaign contribution and Arnold was their scapegoat. Diamond died in prison four years after the assassination and the killing of Willie Arnold

Sometime after his meeting with Doty, Nick returns to New York City and makes love to Yvette. In the throes of passion, the young woman agrees to marry him but later retracts her promise, claiming that Nick is more intimate with her answering machine. When Nick returns home to his apartment, he is attacked by his maid, but he gains the upper hand and has her arrested.

At lunch the next day at a fancy restaurant, Nick asks Yvette to help him track down information about Joe Diamond through National Magazine, the magazine for which she works. Soon, Yvette directs Nick to a Cleveland, Ohio, diner, where he meets gangster Irving Mentor (Irving Selbst) and bribes him for information. Mentor reports that Casper, Jr., figured in the assassination because he was connected to a Hollywood studio that lost $50 million when one of their stars killed herself over an affair with the president. Just then, the same woman on the bicycle who popped her chewing gum before the shootings in Philadelphia brings a dead cat into Mentor's diner and Nick chases after her as the restaurant explodes from a bomb. The unknown woman again gets away.

Nick returns to New York City, where Pa debunks Mentor's story and orders Nick to meet with imprisoned gangster Frank Mayo (Tomas Milian), who was given special leave for the interview. When Mayo suggests that Nick is being misled, Nick heads to National Magazine headquarters and learns that Yvette is not actually an employee. Later, the hostile doorman at Yvette's apartment insists that she does not live there.

Returning home, Nick finds Keifetz, who admits that he faked his death and encourages Nick to use Cerruti's intelligence connections to find Yvette. At Pa's financial headquarters, Cerutti tells Nick that Yvette was kidnapped by Casper Jr., and recounts a new version of the assassination. According to Cerruti (in another flashback sequence to 1959), a Washington, D.C. madam named Lola Comante (Elizabeth Taylor), who obliged the president's fondness for sex, offered him a $2 million campaign contribution from Mayo and his mafia associates. When the president discovered that Pa was behind the deal, he ended their relationship, leaving Pa financially and emotionally devastated.

Changing the story yet again, Cerruti confesses that he arranged for Nick to meet a fraudulent Z.K. Dawson in Tulsa. The real Dawson and his daughter, Yvette, were the true perpetrators of the assassination; Yvette, formerly known as Maggie Dawson, was the president's mistress. Nick discounts Cerruti's story and insists on learning Yvette's whereabouts. As Nick assaults and fractures Cerruti's arms with a baton, he breaks down. Cerutti claims that Pa spent millions of dollars to support his son's presidency because it benefited him financially, but he was displeased by the president's liberal politics and so it was Pa who had him killed. Pa created an elaborate hoax to confuse Nick, including the employment of an actress named Jenny O'Brien to play the role of Yvette. When Cerruti says that Jenny is "tied up" at Kegan Medical School, Nick leaves... only to find her body in the morgue.

Sometime later, Nick confronts his father in his office, but Pa claims that Cerruti masterminded the assassination to augment the Kegan coffers and blackmailed Pa into keeping quiet. When Nick attempts to call the police, Keifetz and an officer break into Pa's office and Nick thinks the men are there to back him up; however, Pa announces that Keifetz is an assassin with orders to kill Nick. Defending himself, Nick grabs the officer and uses his gun to fire at Keifetz, who shoots back at the officer as he dies. Nick chases his father onto the high-rise balcony and finds Pa clinging to the rail of an enormous American flag. As Nick reaches for his father, Pa falls to his death, tearing the flag in half with his body as he calls out to Nick: "put my money in South America!". Nick staggers away, but tells the secretary that he will return because he cannot escape his family ties. (In some versions after Pa Kegan's death, Nick has a final encounter with the mystery woman riding on a bicycle, with a young child riding in a child's seat, in a park outside the Kegan Building, waving at him before she rides away; the woman's identity is never revealed).

Sometime later in the final scene, Nick calls Yvette's answering machine to hear her voice one last time.



The film original producers were wealthy marijuana dealers Robert Sterling and Leonard Goldberg, who had previously worked on releasing the French softcore Emmanuelle films in the U.S.[3] 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.[citation needed] The production went so far over budget that it was shut down three times, having declared bankruptcy.[3] Goldberg was murdered (most likely by the Mafia) in the middle of production, for failure to pay his debts,[4] and Sterling was later sentenced to 40 years in prison for marijuana smuggling.[5][3]

Richert and Winter Kills stars Bridges and Bauer went to Germany and filmed a comedy called The American Success Company (released in 1980), whose distribution rights made enough money for Richert to fund a resumption of Winter Kills two years later.[3] All the same, the film's distributor, Embassy Pictures controlled the final cut.[3]

A few years later, Richert acquired the rights to the film and re-released a director's cut, with a new ending, in 1983.[3]


The film received mostly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 86% of 10 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7 out of 10.[2] Many reviewers pointed out that the film existed on the boundary of a comedy and a thriller.

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."[6] The Times' Vincent Canby also praised the film, complimenting writer/director William Richert's imagination.[7] On the other hand, 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."[8]

Influential publications, including Newsweek and The New Yorker, also gave the film positive reviews,[citation needed] but it made little money when released (barely over $1 million on a $6.5 million budget).[1] Distributor Embassy Pictures pulled the film from theaters soon after it was released; Condon and Richert hypothesized that Embassy killed it deliberately in order to avoid threatening legal defense contracts elsewhere within the conglomerate.[9]

The 1983 re-release (and distribution to video) included scenes not originally shown on screen, including the original ending,[8] and with additional footage of Elizabeth Taylor.[citation needed]


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.


  1. ^ a b "Winter Kills," Box Office Mojo.Accessed Nov. 2, 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Winter Kills (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 2, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Axemaker, Sean. "Winter Kills," Turner Classic Movies. Accessed Nov. 3, 2017.
  4. ^ Martin, Perry, director. Who Killed 'Winter Kills'? (Anchor Bay, 2003).
  5. ^ "Judge hits millionaire pot smuggler with 40-year sentence," UPI, October 23, 1982
  6. ^ Maslin, Janet. "MOVIE REVIEW: Movie: 'Winter Kills,' a Serio-Comedy: Spring Fever Time," New York Times (May 18, 1979).
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent. "FILM VIEW," New York Times (MAY 27, 1979).
  8. ^ a b Variety staff, "Winter Kills," Variety. Accessed Nov. 3, 2017.
  9. ^ Condon, Richard. "Who killed Winter Kills? The case of the vanishing movie involving a murder, a forty-year drug sentence, Liz Taylor’s repossessed fur coat, and possible skulduggery at the highest levels. The author of a satirical fantasy reflects on life imitating art," Harper's (May 1983).

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