Cult 70s Thriller Winter Kills to Return to Theaters

Jeff Bridges in Winter Kills. Photo: Rialto Pictures.

Winter Kills, the rarely screened late-1970s black comedy thriller directed by William Richert, is returning to the cinema. New York-based Rialto Pictures will release newly-struck 35mm prints presented by author and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, owner of the New Beverly and a longtime Winter Kills fan and champion.

Starring Jeff Bridges and John Huston, Winter Kills alludes to the JFK assassination with Bridges as Nick Kegan, scion of wealthy and powerful family patriarch Huston, a character rumored to be based on Joe Kennedy. Bridges must unravel the conspiracy behind the suspected murder of a U.S. president, his older half-brother. With a more comedic bent than most, Winter Kills concluded a decade of consiracy thrillers in the wake of Watergate: it was met with mixed reviews upon its release and bombed at the box office, but in the decades since has developed a cult following more receptive to its hyper-paranoic edginess and all-star cast, with some elements of its plot proving uncannily prescient in our contemporary political era.

Alongside Bridges and Huston feature an impressive roster of figures including Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milian, Ralph Meeker, Richard Boone, and Toshirō Mifune. Australian actress and model Belinda Bauer plays Bridges’ love interest in her feature film debut. A then-unbilled Elizabeth Taylor plays a character inspired by JFK’s reputed mob mistress Judith Exner.

Jeff Bridges and Dorothy Malone in Winter Kills.
Jeff Bridges and Dorothy Malone in Winter Kills. Photo: courtesy Rialto Pictures.

Among the crew are composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago), production designer Robert Boyle (North by Northwest, The Birds), and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter). Screenwriter and director William Richert (1942-2022) has been described by Film at Lincoln Center as “a bold, brash uncompromising figure in the tradition of Orson Welles and John Cassavetes.”

According to a Rialto press release, the film’s release was beset with issues. The two main producers went bankrupt—one was later sent to a federal prison for drug trafficking, the other tied to his bed by a creditor and shot in the head—and production was suspended for two years while Richert raised the completion money. Additional photography was taken over after the hiatus by camera operator John Bailey, later DP of Cat People, The Big Chill, Groundhog Day, and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Says Bailey, “When I saw it back in 1979, I was somewhat flummoxed… but today I see it as not only very relevant but eerily prescient. Huston’s sick, purely transactional personality too closely predicts not only the mores of society today but that of a recent tenant of the White House.”

The film earned rave reviews from Brendan Gill in The New Yorker and both Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin in The New York Times but was then dumped by its original distributor, according to Rialto, allegedly because of its parent company’s investment in Kennedy family projects. In the early 1980s, Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate, Prizzi’s Honor), writer of the original novel, detailed the film’s behind-the-scenes intrigue in a Harper’s article “Who Killed Winter Kills?” (later adapted into a short documentary), and the film’s trivia section on Internet Movie Dababase details its many conspiracy-minded interpretations in the decades since its release.

Anthony Perkins in Winter Kills.
Anthony Perkins in Winter Kills. Photo: courtesy Rialto Pictures.

Rialto’s new 35mm prints, the first struck in over 40 years, were recently completed by colorist Don Capoferri and Lab Expediter Steven Mitchell at FotoKem in Los Angeles, under Bailey’s supervision. A new trailer edited by William Hohauser and produced by Bruce Goldstein, Rialto Pictures founder and co-president, has been specially created for Rialto’s 2023 release.

About Rialto Pictures

Described by Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan as “the gold standard of repertory distributors”—a small field the company re-defined—Rialto Pictures was founded in 1997 by publicist and programmer Bruce Goldstein, the award-winning founding repertory artistic director of New York’s Film Forum. Goldstein was joined in 1998 by partner Adrienne Halpern and in 2002 by national sales director Eric Di Bernardo.

Rialto’s recent hits include Jacques Deray’s La Piscine, a 1969 French film that became a post-pandemic phenomenon, and a new restoration of Godard’s Contempt, which for the past two weekends has posted the highest per-screen average of any arthouse film in the country.
The Museum of Modern Art recently celebrated the company’s 25th anniversary with a one-month retrospective called “Rialto at 25.” Mr. Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema will host a Rialto 25th anniversary tribute of its own in August.

The Critics on Winter Kills

“FURIOUSLY FUNNY. Almost everyone in Winter Kills is larger, meaner or more lunatic than life. This is, I suspect, why everyone in the film is so entertaining.”—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“EVERY INCH OF IT IS GLORIOUSLY ALIVE… Like some intricately embroidered misadventure recounted by a superb, somewhat tipsy storyteller… I turned around and went straight back to the theater and saw the movie again. The fact is that I enjoyed it even more the second time.”—Brendan Gill, The New Yorker.


“ENORMOUSLY ENTERTAINING.”—Michael Sragow, Rolling Stone

The restored, remastered prints of Winter Kills will be unveiled at New York’s Film Forum on August 11 and L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema on August 25, 2023.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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