Although shot through with Condon’s trademark sense of dark humor, Condon’s original novel recounted this story in a mostly straightforward and serious manner. But in adapting it to the screen, first-time filmmaker Richert (who would only direct two more features, “The American Success Company”  and “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon”  and died in 2022) elected to shift it into a more overtly comedic mode, presuming that doing it as satire might make it somewhat more palatable to audiences. This approach may not have succeeded in terms of financial gain, but it does make the film work in a way it might not have had it been done more somberly. The ramshackle, wild-goose-chase-style plotting gives the film an almost revue-style feeling (one oddly reminiscent of the plot thread in Brian De Palma’s cult comedy “Greetings” involving the conspiracy nut played by Gerrit Graham) that weirdly fits the material at hand. “Winter Kills” does a highly impressive job of milking laughs out of a subject that most people might not find to be that funny (especially back in 1979) while still touching on the disillusion felt by many, both then and now, regarding the institutions they had been raised to believe in.
Although the episodic nature of the film may prove frustrating and confusing at times, it does offer up any number of brilliantly staged and often hilarious sequences: the quietly shocking aftermath of the rifle discovery; Nick riding a horse in the middle of nowhere so that he can safely shout “You stink, Pa!”; Yvette’s inventive circumnavigation of a snooty restaurant’s rules about women in trousers; the scene where Cerruti (who, as performed by Perkins, suggests what might have resulted if his character from “The Trial” had been working for the other side) calmly recounts a massive amount of exposition despite having just had both arms broken; and the moment when Pa advises Nick to put money into South America. The film is also aided by a fairly elaborate cast (besides those already mentioned, it also finds parts for familiar faces like Toshiro Mifune and Dorothy Malone and cult favorites like Joe Spinell to none other than Elizabeth Taylor in a silent but highly memorable unbilled cameo) who are all clearly having a lot of fun, especially Huston (who would go on to successfully adapt another Condon novel with his late-period masterwork “Prizzi’s Honor”), whose work here may outdo even his turn in “Chinatown” in how it personifies power and corruption in its most curdled form.
Unlike “The Manchurian Candidate,” which languished in obscurity for years after being withdrawn from distribution before returning to view in 1988 only to be enshrined as an American classic, “Winter Kills” is unlikely ever to have received a similar embrace. I adore the film, but even I recognize it is just too weird and messy and disreputable in most regards, even today, ever to achieve even a trace amount of that recognition. And yet, no matter how many times I have seen it, I remain consistently knocked out by its wit, courage, and audacity. I can only hope that at least some who come to check out this long-overdue re-release, even if it’s due entirely to the Tarantino imprimatur, will feel the same way.
Now playing in select theaters.