There's a peculiar irony, in that two films derived from best-selling novels by Richard Condon were beset with troubled releases: "Manchurian Candidate," pulled from distribution, partly out of respect for the Kennedy family, after John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas; and "Winter Kills," a conspiracy movie about a Kennedy-like family, made by naïve producers, and ultimately pulled from wide release by the film's indie distributor, in spite of high praise from major film critics.
According to writer/director William Richert, executive producers Leonard Goldberg and Robert Sterling had sought more mainstream projects after enjoying the financial rewards from the "Emmanuelle" franchise, and assembled a $6 million production, with Avco Embassy as their distributor. It's easy to understand, from listening to Richert's inimitable, Ralph Kramden-like voice, why so many stars agreed to appear in the film; ebullient and excited to approach many of his acting idols, Richert swayed many veterans to appear in short but highly memorable scenes, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Boone, Ralph Meeker, Dorothy Malone, and Anthony Perkins. Three times the money ran out, and during the production's financial crises Stirling was found shot in the head, when alleged ties to marijuana money men went bad. In the end, Richert and stars Jeff Bridges and Belinda Bauer used the profits from their next film, "The American Success Company," to finish "Winter Kills," only to have their efforts destroyed by lousy distribution.
In the interview segments of Disc 2's featurettes, Richert bubbles with joy, knowing this DVD is giving his film a new life, with the bizarre production history as a second featured attraction. Richert's feature film debut - having started off as a documentarian and producer - was highly auspicious (just glance at the cast and your jaw will drop two feet), but the film's box office failure resulted in a non-career, with just a few directorial works since 1979, and some acting gigs.
Though the lean years between projects aren't addressed in the featurettes or by Richert himself, it is fitting that the creator of such a well-crafted, surreal political thriller is getting his due via an excellent 2-disc release from Anchor Bay.
The commentary track, with a few gaps here and there, still covers a lot of ground, from casting coups and production woes, with generous praise for his amazing crew. Every actor is singled out - including bandaged Joe Spinell, who manages to steal a scene with his fierce eyes - and assigned a unique tale that frequently evokes a solid laugh.
Disc 2's featurettes duplicate some of the material, but Richert's awareness of the set's supplementary materials keeps the repetition to a bare minimum. "Who Killed Winter Kills?" is titled after Richard Condon's New Yorker piece after the film disappeared into celluloid purgatory, and is the best of the three featurettes. Superbly edited and paced, interviews include Richert, stars Bridges and Bauer, production designer Robert Boyle, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; you can tell everyone was allowed to talk candidly and at length about their experiences making the film, because the counter-punctual edits flow as one fluid narrative, with each participant filling in key setups for some incredible punchlines. (The best, however, remains Richert's imitation of Zsigmond, frequently intercut with the real and more composed Zsigmond.)
"Reunion" is a short segment between Bridges and Richert, and it's plain why the cast and crew stuck around when the cheques bounced to the moon, and reassembled months later to finish the film. "Star Stories" is even funnier, with Richert recounting hysterical tales of Taylor's ploys to get a special coat, Sterling Hayden's preferred tobacco, and Richard Boone's pre-production fishing trip. All of the featurettes are backed up with film clips and production stills, and Richert recorded some added narration to help bridge shots and smoothen edits.
The massive still gallery is largely from Richert's personal collection, and includes production, behind-the scenes, and cast portraits, including some name models that appear in a society scene with Taylor (including Erin Gray, and ex-Mrs. Robert Evans, Camilla Sparv).
Finishing off the disc are stills from Robert Boyle's production sketches, the film's advertising materials (note the increasing pull-quotes-to-poster art ratio, and Bauer's 'no-boobs' pose for lobby patrons), and stills from a deleted hospital scene involving weird doctors and a bandaged Belinda Bauer (which may be present in the screenplay, that's archived as a .PDF file on Disc 2). Anchor Bay's superb release is bound to put some life back into this gem of a film.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan