[Originally published in The Weekly, September 15-21, 1982]
Bill Richert and Tony Perkins were standing on top of the world when somebody cut the power. From this eyrie, banked by vast computers and embraced by a luminous diorama of the solar system, John Cerruti (Perkins) could monitor every salient fact on the face of the globe, catalogue it, and consider its implications for the financial and political future of the Keegan dynasty—the Kennedyesque family and megaconglomerate whose ins and outs define the texture of modern reality in Richard Condon’s dazzling novel Winter Kills. Richert had whipped this kaleidoscopic narrative into a fluid screenplay and was halfway through the process of realizing the film itself. But in the giddy orbits of other, less reliably monitored galaxies, the source money twinkled away. Now, on the soundstage floor far below, studio representatives with no sense of irony were killing the lights, shutting his picture down. It stayed shut down for a year and a half.
It’s been like that throughout the history of this brilliant film. The $6.5-million project was announced in 1976: a major production to be shot on locations round the globe, and literally all-star at every level. Jeff Bridges and John Huston headed a cast that also included Perkins, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milian, Ralph Meeker, and an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor. The production designer was Hitchcock mainstay Robert Boyle; the cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond. Maurice Jarre would compose the score. And the story! Just as Richard Condon had anticipated the assassination era with his Manchurian Candidate, so in Winter Kills had he supplied the perfect metaphor for life after Watergate—a surrealistic study of Power from an incestuous inside view, with lashings of assassination conspiracy arcana and roman à clef titillation. A more unlikely candidate for shelving would be hard to imagine.
Yet shelving is essentially what happened to Richert’s Winter Kills. Corporate holdings are as elusive in Hollywood as they are in the world described by Condon and Richert. By the time the film was completed and ready for release, in the summer of 1979, it had passed to a distributor, Avco-Embassy, which neither understood nor cared about what they had on their hands. To Avco, Winter Kills was nothing but a convenient filler to throw on exhibitors’ screens for a week until their big summer offering, the Susan Anton vehicle Goldengirl, was due to open. Winter Kills drew favorable, and in some cases ecstatic, reviews, but by the time they appeared the film was nowhere to be seen.
For the past year or so, Richert has been scrambling to change that. He chivvied and wheedled until he had pried the distribution rights away from Embassy (in the meantime, fittingly, “Avco” had become merely a name on Hollywood’s celestial dustheap). He got a lock on the deal only two weeks ago—which is handy, since now the long-planned-for Seattle kickoff of the reissue campaign can legally take place. Richert is hopeful that audiences will take to Winter Kills in 1982, not only because they’ll have a fair chance to see it this time, but also because the Reagan administration has obligingly created a climate within which the picture’s masterful lunacy seems almost documentary.
Richert is an exuberant Black Irish sort just crowding 40—so exuberant that he literally bounces off the walls of whatever enclosure he’s talking from, be it a hotel room or a restaurant booth.
When I talked with him in Los Angeles a few days after he had secured the rights to Winter Kills, he was more involved with his other movie, Success, which had just opened there. It’s a much smaller movie than Winter Kills, a sort of fairy-tale screwball comedy set in Munich. A tax-shelter dodge for its West German backers, Success had never been released at all but now, four years late, was garnering appreciative notices from all the L.A. press—except Charles Champlin, the Times’ cinematic elder statesman, who had returned to the reviewing desk expressly to savage this picture. “He loathed it!” Richert exclaimed, wide-eyed. “Loathed it … LOATHED … loooaathed…” He tried out eight or nine different pronunciations. “How can you ‘loathe’ a little movie like that? It’s like screaming at moonlight.”
Richert started out as a writer, the author of a Beat novel “ten years behind its time.” He got into film in the late Sixties, producing a documentary about presidential offspring: “I had Tricia Nixon on film saying that John Kennedy stole the 1960 election, it was a plot with Mayor Daley of Chicago, and her father knew it, only he refused to make it public for fear of starting a civil war!” The TV folks who were interested in the project got cold feet and the film was “misfiled.”
Subsequently, Richert wrote and produced Ivan (Cutter and Bone) Passer’s second American film, Law and Disorder (1974), and rewrote Passer’s next, Crime and Passion (1975), sans credit, on location in Austria. Winter Kills was his own first film (though he prefers to regard Success, which was made during the production hiatus on Winter Kills, as his debut work).
On one level it’s a writer’s movie: Condon has never been better translated to the screen, and the script is witty and tensile. But unlike a lot of writers turned director, Richert has an assured camera sense, an eye that perceives sharply, along an idiosyncratic bias, and hustles on to the next perception. (It’s worth noting that in Winter Kills he got cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to work—and excel—in a bright, epic style at polar remove from the poetic tones and textures of his Altman films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye.) Richert’s movies are irrepressibly quirky, but they don’t pause for their quirkiness to be chuckled over. He clearly loves leading an audience into a world of his own extravagant imagining, but he also knows that you have to keep moving through such a world or it will turn cute.
“My movies are incredibly simple if you take them apart,” he says, “because every scene has a central line.” True enough, but Richert’s bravura shifting of moods and modes—for instance, going for comedy in the thin atmosphere of Winter Kills‘ paranoia—offers audiences a headier experience than they sometimes find it comfortable to accept. I mentioned to him that, after Winter Kills had played in the latest Seattle Film Festival, a couple behind me made enthusiastic noises for a few moments, then started trying to figure out just what had been going on in the wildly (but coherently) plotted film. They became unsure of themselves, and gradually were well on the way to resenting the movie for having perplexed them. “People can have a great time going with a movie,” I concluded, “and then ruin it for themselves by trying to explain, and not being able to.” Richert nodded: “Everybody who sees it will go out and tell the story differently. But it isn’t the story that counts. What counts is what happens to you while you’re watching.”
Copyright © 1982 by Richard T. Jameson