Winter Kills is a 1979 political thriller/black comedy film directed by William Richert, adapted from the 1974 novel of the same name by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate). The story is inspired by the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and subsequent conspiracy theories surrounding it. Jeff Bridges, John Huston, and Anthony Perkins head the cast.
The film opens with Nick Kegan (Bridges), the half-brother of the young President who'd been assassinated nineteen years earlier, hearing the confession of a dying man who claims to have been a second shooter in the assassination, giving as proof the location where he stored his rifle. Nick goes with a friend and the police to retrieve the rifle, but they are shot by a sniper and the evidence is stolen.
Nick tells his father's aide John Cerruti (Perkins) and goes home to inform his intimidating father (Huston) of what he's discovered. "Pa" Kegan vows to uncover who killed his son at any cost.
Nick confronts eccentric industrialist Z. K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden), named by the dying assassin as part of the plot. Dawson is engaged in a war game with real tanks, and though admitting he didn't like the late President, denies having anything to do with his assassination, naming the Philadelphia Police Department instead. He then chases Kegan off his ranch with the tanks firing live shells.
Meanwhile, people connected with the assassination keep dying, including the man who wrote down the confession. Kegan speaks to Ray Doty, a former Philadelphia police officer with knowledge of the plot. He relates how Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach), a small-time hood in debt to the Mafia, was ordered by them to kill Willie Arnold, the patsy assassin, after he was arrested by police.
When Nick returns home after seeing his girlfriend in New York, a hitwoman in a maid disguise tries to kill him. After contacting the Mafia, he pays them to give him the name of the mobster who ordered the hit, after which they are killed by a bomb blast he barely escapes.
Next, his father arranges to have another imprisoned mobster released and meet with Nick under guard. The mobster tells him that he's been fed false information about the assassination. Then he finds all record of his girlfriend at her work and home has mysteriously disappeared. The friend who brought him the assassin, who Nick heard was killed, turns up alive, having faked his own death to protect himself. He warns Nick of the same thing as the mobster, that he's been led astray and won't be able to tell the truth from lies.
Nick talks with John Cerruti, who says that Hollywood actress Lola Comante (Elizabeth Taylor, in a brief uncredited cameo role), ordered him killed after he refused to pay back the Mafia for their help in getting him elected. The President was not aware of this, as his father had done the deal without him knowing, and breaks off contact over it. Cerruti also reveals that Nick actually never met with Z. K. Dawson, but that it was a "skit" he arranged, explaining the bizarre tank chase. The real Dawson, he says, is in fact his girlfriend's father, and she ordered the President's assassination. Nick finally loses it at these mind games, and beats the truth out of him, leading up to The Reveal and Twist Ending.
This film contains examples from the following tropes:
- Bittersweet Ending: Nick learns the truth about his brother's death, but is left with the Awful Truth that his entire family (and the American political system as a whole) is complicit and even if he can somehow prove it, there's not much that can be done. Furthermore; his father is dead, The Man Behind the Man is still very much alive and very much in control, the woman he loved was actually a Honey Trap who was killed after she ceased to be useful, and Nick has little choice but to take up his family's twisted mantle and continue their deeply corrupt and toxic legacy.
- Black Comedy: The film has quite a bit of this.
- Conspiracy Thriller: One filled with so many twists and turns that by the end the audience will probably still be as anxious as they were at the beginning.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Z. K. Dawson, apparently, engaging in war games with real tanks and firing live shells. Later we learn this wasn't the real Z. K. Dawson, and this was probably done to intimidate Kegan, along with putting him on a false lead.
- Dress Code: When Nick meets Yvette at a fancy restaurant for lunch, the maître d' refuses to seat her because she's wearing a pantsuit. She gets around this by removing her pants on the spot.
- Excuse Plot: The story exists for little more reason than to take Nick from one bizarre setpiece to the next.
- Expy: Timothy Kegan for President John F. Kennedy, "Pa" Kegan for Joseph P. Kennedy, Willie Arnold for Lee Harvey Oswald, and Joe Diamond for Jack Ruby.
- Film Noir: Albeit in the frame of a political Conspiracy Thriller with heavy doses of (pitch black) comedy.
- The Ghost: Timothy Kegan. He's never seen aside from his hands in one scene, and never speaks as his father is talking to him.
- The Man Behind the Man: John Cerruti.
- Kudzu Plot: The film is so full of red herrings, one-off characters, and conspiracies within conspiracies that by the end of the film the audience is still left with unanswered questions. Probably intentional by the filmmakers, as part of the film's message about the absurdity and complexity of post-JFK political culture and conspiracy theorizing.
- Lighter and Softer: The film emphasizes comedy much more than its source material. Director Richert chose to play it this way because he found the novel to be too dark and tragic.
- The Reveal: John Cerruti, "Pa" Kegan's aide, ordered Timothy Kegan, the President, assassinated, using the senior Kegan's men and money, with the profit going into his companies, so it looks like he did it. "Pa" Kegan reveals that Cerruti has actually run everything since the President was shot, with Kegan himself being nothing but a front.
- The Un-Reveal: We never learn who the woman on the bike is, or how she factored into the conspiracy.
- Rule of Symbolism: "Pa" Kegan dies by tearing through an American flag he was hanging from off a balcony.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: Almost the entire plot is a Wild Goose Chase orchestrated by the Big Bad and Nick's father to keep him from learning the truth about his brother's death. Even after learning the truth, he's no closer to getting justice against those responsible.
- Twist Ending: After confronting his father, Nick is almost killed again. Then his father drops to his death from a balcony, after warning Nick to save himself.
- Who Shot JFK?: The inspiration for the film's plot.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The rifle used to kill President Kegan and its subsequent theft is set up to be a major MacGuffin, but is almost immediately dropped after it's introduced and is only briefly mentioned a few scenes thereafter.