Based on a novel by Richard Condon, the feature film Winter Kills (1979) reimagined the JFK assassination and the paranoia unleashed by that history-changing event, as black comedy. Though a New York Times‘ critic compared it to Citizen Kane, the rest of the world turned a blind eye on the dark comedy starring a young Jeff Bridges and an all-star cast of Hollywood has-beens, from John Huston and Richard Boone to Liz Taylor and Sterling Hayden. PKM’s Mark Jacobson, an expert on conspiracy theories, explores the film while setting it in historical context and offering a sober lens through which to view the current political climate in America.
Almost from that singular dumbfounding moment more than 56 years ago when the disembodied voice of Mr. Lodoto, the rarely if ever seen principal of Francis Lewis High School in Queens, New York came on the loudspeaker to inform us tenth-grade geometry students that President Kennedy had been “shot and killed in Dallas, Texas,” I have taken it as an article of personal faith that the most famous murder case in the history of The Republic would never be solved.
Not that a myriad of solutions to the case weren’t presented in the feverish years that followed. There was the Warren Commission Report, which concluded Lee Harvey Oswald, a poor soul/failed Commie drifter best known for handing out “Fair Play For Cuba” leaflets on Camp Street in New Orleans, was the lone gunman, firing the fatal magic bullet with his mail-order Italian Mannlicher–Carcano from the sixth-story window of the Texas Book Depository. The 888-page Warren Report was the hardcover of the cover-up, what has now come to be called “the official story,” predecessor of another widely disbelieved “official story,” namely that 19 men with boxcutters knocked down the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people and destroying thousands of Security and Exchange Commission documents that had not yet been digitalized in the bargain.
Over the years the John F. Kennedy case has engendered a virtual-line up of usual suspects: Mafia chieftains Santo Trafficante and Carlo Marcello, Jimmy Hoffa, CIA operatives of the James J. Angleton stripe, the disgruntled Cuban exiles, Castro himself, right-wing plutocrats like H.L Hunt, and the entire dramatis personae of Oliver Stone’s kinky JFK. Motives came hot and heavy, both reasonable and occult. Many suggested Kennedy was killed because he was going to stop the Vietnam War, thereby depriving military-industrial complex titans like General Dynamics and Raytheon of expected windfall profits. Later, others came to believe Kennedy had to go because he was about to expose the UFO cover-up, revealing, among other things, that the government had entered into a trade agreement with space beings, a deal in which the aliens gave the U.S. advanced weapon technology in exchange for the right to perform illicit operations on abducted American citizens.
Nutty as it got, there was a poignancy to the quest for Kennedy truth. For many of my generation, the Assassination was the biggest public event of our then young lives. A degree of democratic transparency was to be expected in the land of the Free to which we pledged allegiance each morning, hands over our hearts. Instead, they gave us Oswald and sealed the results of the Presidential autopsy for 75 years, which comes out to 2038. Ask a couple of questions and they branded you an eye-bugged R. Crumb paranoid digging ever deeper into a rabbit hole of your own making.
Still, how much “independent research” could one take? It got so that it seemed as if the only credible scenario was tucked away in the lysergic pages of The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, former editors of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy. What really happened on November 22, 1963, Wilson and Shea said, was this: one representative of every then extant theory of the Assassination, the mob, the CIA, Cubans, etc., arrived in Dallas at high noon and took up their assigned places upon the Grassy Knoll, the Triple Overpass and assorted rooftops. When the Umbrella Man (look him up) jabbed his black brolly toward the cloudless sky, the sundry shooters cut loose like a firing squad in a house of mirrors, thereby proving every Kennedy assassination theory, no matter how far-fetched and shoddily constructed, to be equally true.
Hmm…Sometimes, I thought, when the Crime of the Century, the murder of the most famous man in the world, occurs in front of hundreds of eyewitnesses and more than a half century later still no one can say for sure what happened, it was better to just let the mystery be.
For many of my generation, the Assassination was the biggest public event of our then young lives. A degree of democratic transparency was to be expected in the land of the Free to which we pledged allegiance each morning, hands over our hearts. Instead, they gave us Oswald and sealed the results of the Presidential autopsy for 75 years,
It was around then I got a phone call from Legs McNeil, co-author of Please Kill Me and King Shit of this website you have just clicked upon. With his trademark civility, Legs ordered me to see Winter Kills, a Kennedy Assassination movie made in 1979.
Transporting the time and place to 1960 and Philadelphia, Winter Kills tells the basic Kennedy story with the “Kegan” Family standing in for the storied real thing. Starring the young Jeff Bridges as the amiably numb nuts Nicholas Kegan, half-brother of the slain, unseen President Tim Kegan, and the then 73-year old John Huston in the role of clan patriarch Thomas Kegan, a.k.a. “Pa,” Winter Kills first appeared in 1979 to a chorus of curiously giddy raves from establishment arbitrators. Vincent Canby of the New York Times loved the picture, comparing it, not unfavorably, to Citizen Kane. In The New Yorker, Brendan Gill said he was so entranced by the picture that he sat through it twice. Audiences were less enthusiastic. Some thought it was jumbled and hard to follow, but the main criticism owed to what many thought was Winter Kills’ scabrous treatment of the Kennedy Family. The movie quickly passed from view, eventually acquiring a fair-to-middling sized cult during its DVD and streaming life, where it can be currently can be found on Amazon as a $1.99 rental.
The official trailer for Winter Kills:
I told Legs that I’d seen Winter Kills, back when came out. I didn’t need to see it again.
“Yes, you do!” Legs commanded.
Any investigation of Winter Kills rightly begins with Richard Condon (1915-1991) who wrote the novel it is based on in 1973. Born in upper Manhattan to immigrant parents at the outset of World War One, Condon lived a classic 20th-century working writer’s life, graduating from De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, serving a stint in the Merchant Marines which was followed by a move to Hollywood where he spent two decades as a studio PR man, writing advance copy for Walt Disney’s Fantasia and many numbingly lesser works. Already on his second duodenal ulcer and recognizing that “all I could do was spell,” Condon quit the flackery business and started writing novels, turning out two dozen potboilers of both the high and low brow persuasion over the next three decades, mixing antic storyboard plotting with an underlying thrum of topical black comedy that grew darker over the passing years.
The titles of these books—The Oldest Confession (1958), Some AngryAngel (1960), An Infinity of Mirrors (1964), The Vertical Smile (1971), The Star-Spangled Crunch (1975), The Whisper of the Axe (1976) and The Final Addiction (1991, the year of the author’s death)—hint at the mordant cynicism within. Several of Condon’s novels were made into movies (apparently the goal all along) including the 1985 mob fantasy Prizzi’s Honor with Jack Nicholson. But Condon’s watershed contribution to the claustrophobic headspace of the current age is unquestionably The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959.
Herein we get the ultimate Cold War mind control narrative, the saga of Raymond Shaw, the Korean War GI who is given the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroically risking his life to save his entire platoon in the heat of battle. Shaw is so beloved by his fellow GIs that the mere mention of his name is enough to make them say, sometimes in unison, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”
The trailer for The Manchurian Candidate:
Except, of course, Raymond Shaw is none of these things. He’s a sour-pussed loner, a priggish hard-on. No one likes him. Nor did he ever save his fellow warriors. That story that has been drummed into the heads of the soldiers who were captured by North Korean troops and submitted to months of Pavlovian-style behavioral conditioning in a starkly lit commie psych ward in the Manchurian tundra. Son of the diabolical, domineering, consummately conniving fixer Eleanor Iselin who is (re)married to Johnny Yerkes Iselin, a buffoonish faux Joseph McCarthy US Senator, Raymond has been turned into brainwashed political assassin. Given a deck of cards, he will robotically “pass the time by playing some solitaire.” When he turns over the red Queen, that’s the trigger. He’s ready to do his handler’s bidding.
But Condon’s watershed contribution to the claustrophobic headspace of the current age is unquestionably The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959.
The 1962 movie version of The Manchurian Candidate (avoid the 2004 Denzel Washington remake at all costs) stands as a miracle of American popular culture, so much so that the title alone has entered the contemporary lingua franca, duplicity division. As with phrases like “he really drank the kool-aid,” you don’t need to know where it comes from to know what it means. Condon’s highly readable text is key, but George Axelrod’s (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Lord Love a Duck) cannily subversive script, John Frankenheimer’s post-Twilight Zone no-nonsense TV style direction, beatnik grandee David Amram’s music along with career best performances by Frank Sinatra as the ravaged, do-right Major Marco, Angela Lansbury’s black widow commie Mom, and Laurence Harvey, a.k.a. Zvi Mosheh Skikne of Joniskis, Lithuania in the pivotal Shaw role all mightily contribute to a paranoiac stew that only become more creepily resonant in the current techno climate.
The trailer for The Manchurian Candidate upon its 2010 re-release:
Sometimes things just work out. In the early casting, Sinatra was holding out to hire Lucille Ball to play the Eleanor Iselin role that went to Lansbury. No knock on Lucy, but somehow I don’t see delivering lines like how she and her cabal will be swept up “into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy” with the same steely preen as Lansbury does giving her conditioned son his final instructions before he enters the arena with his rifle. Then again, anyone who saw the 17-year-old Lansbury play a key role in the 1944 proto-mind control film Gaslight would have known that when it came to gaslighting on a macro scale, she had the right pedigree.
Perhaps most pertinent to present investigation was at least that The Manchurian Candidate preceded the shooting in Dallas. The movie was still grinding through its second and third runs on November 22, 1963, which gave the movie, and the on which it was based, an eerily prophetic hue.
The Manchurian Candidate largely disappeared from view after that. Many said Sinatra, close with the Kennedys and largely responsible for getting the picture done to begin with (his fee was half the budget) personally intervened to have the film pulled from theaters. The picture didn’t return to a semblance of regular circulation until 1987, when it was shown at the New York Film Festival, hailed as one the truly great American movies of the post-World War Two era. It was during this dark period for The Manchurian Candidate, that Condon, then living in Ireland and more or less through with the nation of his birth, wrote Winter Kills, in which the author sets out to solve the crime he was said to have predicted thirteen years before.
The Manchurian Candidate preceded the shooting in Dallas. The movie was still grinding through its second and third runs on November 22, 1963, which gave the movie, and the on which it was based, an eerily prophetic hue.
That was the news in Winter Kills: who did it, the name of the person you gave the order, the Mr. Big who took out of the contract on the President of Camelot. It was “Pa,” Thomas Kegan, a crotchety old oligarch who couldn’t be anyone else but Joseph Patrick Kennedy, father of Jack, Joe Jr., Bobby, Teddy and the rest.
This was a breakthrough of sorts: much overheated material had come from Assassination researchers over the years, a lot of it in questionable taste. But very few researchers, no matter how zealous, had mustered the temerity to insist that Joe P. Kennedy was responsible for killing his own son.
This was, in fact, odd, considering that by most conspiratorial mastermind criteria, Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969) checked a lot of boxes. A billionaire several times over, partner of notorious post-Gilded Age global plutocrats Bernard Baruch and JP Morgan, the elder Kennedy made a fortune by selling short right before the 1929 stock market crash. But this did not prevent his one-time friend, then enemy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt from appointing Kennedy to head the fledgling Securities and Exchange Commission which was supposed to prevent such insider killings. Likewise, there was little doubt that Kennedy had extensive dealings with the mob. Genovese Family head Frank Costello always claimed that Joe Kennedy was his partner in the bootlegging business, but this does not appear to be true. Rather than engaging in such high-risk activity, Kennedy merely positioned himself to corner the Scotch market once Prohibition was repealed, more proof of the billionaire’s vaunted grasp of the market.
Beyond this was the old man’s politics. His offspring may be known for their profile-in-courage liberalism, but when the old man was appointed Ambassador to the Britain in 1938, he proclaimed democracy to be “finished” in Europe and sided with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. His friendship with American Firster Charles Lindbergh offered more fuel to the common perception that the elder Kennedy was soft on the Third Reich. Still, in 1960 when JFK managed to beat Richard Nixon by 112,827 votes out 68 million ballots cast—a margin of 0.17 percent—many said Joe Kennedy had retained just enough juice to put his son in the White House.
A billionaire several times over, partner of notorious post-Gilded Age global plutocrats Bernard Baruch and JP Morgan, the elder Kennedy made a fortune by selling short right before the 1929 stock market crash.
When Condon hired William Richert to write and direct Winter Kills (Milos Forman was the first choice) the director was in his late 20’s and had never been involved with a major production; Richert said he found the material “scary.” No doubt Richard Condon was a “visionary” who had his “pulse on what really greedy, powerful men were like.” But if he was going keep the film from becoming “a litany of accusation and conspiracy theory,” Richert said, the movie would have to be a comedy. “As a comedy, I could do it,” the director believed.
William Richert talking about the making of Winter Kills:
Besides, the money was up. The two guys who gave Condon $75,000 for the rights to develop the book, Lenny Goldberg and Robert Sterling, were basically unknown, having made their money, they said, distributing the 70’s French soft-core porn Emmanuelle movies, scoring particularly big on Black Emmanuelle. Winter Kills was budgeted at a seemingly chimerical $6.1 million. But Goldberg and Sterling assured Richert and everyone involved that getting the funds would be no problem. Plus, they always had really good weed.
Forging ahead, Richert used his considerable boyish charm to put together one of those Towering Inferno-style rosters of slightly past it actors. One by one they marched from the waxworks, Norman Bates himself (Tony Perkins) as a Don Knotts-mannered computer mastermind; Sterling Hayden, reprising his Jack D. Ripper role from Dr. Strangelove; Eli Wallach, the Ugly third of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as Jack Diamond. Ralph Meeker, Mike Hammer of the all-time noir, Kiss Me Deadly, was also on hand. But all that was nothing compared to getting Toshiro Mifune to do a two-minute cameo as Jeff Bridges’ houseboy. This was the star of Rashomon and Throne of Blood, the mightiest of all samurais, alter-ego of Akira Kurosawa for chrissakes! But this was topped by a brief, uncredited, sighting of Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed star of National Velvet and Cleopatra, now mostly known as the punch line for Joan Rivers fat jokes on The Tonight Show. It was in keeping with the general production values of the film that Taylor was paid with a mink coat, which had apparently fallen off some truck and was later repossessed.
But all that was nothing compared to getting Toshiro Mifune to do a two-minute cameo as Jeff Bridges’ houseboy. This was the star of Rashomon and Throne of Blood, the mightiest of all samurais, alter-ego of Akira Kurosawa for chrissakes!
No matter. Everyone seemed to want to be the Kennedy Assassination movie being shot by the master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and financed by a pair of dashing doctor feel-goods flying around the Everglades in tricked-out DCs and rawhide fringe jackets…at least until Lenny Goldberg turned up handcuffed to his bedpost, murdered in his midtown apartment and Robert Sterling was sentenced, under the federal RICO laws, to prison for forty years without chance of parole. Still, despite being shut down by unpaid union crews and eventually filing for bankruptcy, Richert persisted.
The tone of the film is set early on. It is nineteen years after the assassination. Bridges, as amiable as ever as Nick Kegan, is off the coast of Brunei, in charge of an oil tanker, hating his father even as he lives off his fortune. Richard Boone, the erstwhile Paladin of Have Gun Will Travel who, according to Richert, spent the entire Winter Kills shoot completely plowed, arrives to say he’s found a guy claiming to be “the second gunman” in President Tim Kegan’s murder. Nick listens as the supposed shooter says that the gun used is stashed in a steam pipe of a factory overlooking the roadway where President Kegan was shot. Nick finds the gun, only to have it stolen in a bloody ambush. For years Nick has avoided contact with his controlling father, but now, feeling an obligation to find his brother’s real killers, he visits the old man at the family’s Palm Springs compound, only to be told Pa is playing the back nine of his private course.
Nick waits as a phalanx of golf carts approach, headlights glowing in the desert dusk. Pa is in lead, as always, a compliment of bimbos seated on either side of him. “You all know my son Nicholas,” Huston’s Pa says to his highball-drinking companions. “Not a global figure like his brother was. No interest…Nick’s a seafaring man, like you Admiral.”
It was in keeping with the general production values of the film that Taylor was paid with a mink coat, which had apparently fallen off some truck and was later repossessed.
Then, flashing a horsey smile, Huston asks Nick, “what do you think these girls are doing under this blanket, son? Think they’re playing with my nuts?” It is another dig. Like his supposed model Joe Kennedy, who cavorted with Gloria Swanson and Marlene Dietrich, Pa is no small cocksman himself but always got special pleasure when Tim shared stories of his Oval Office conquests. In comparison, Nick, a failed jazz pianist mooning after some chick who won’t even pick up her answering machine when he calls, is as celibate as a Franciscan father. “Got to talk to you, Pa,” Nick says to Pa, who barks, “you better believe it” as he roars by, the other carts following him over the plush carpet of green a hundred immigrant gardeners have coaxed from the parched dirt.
In 1979 this scene and most Winter Kills was played for laughs, a grotesquerie on the American way of wealth. The vibe was not dissimilar to another satire of the time, Capricorn One. Made only a year earlier and featuring Elliot Gould as a goofball reporter who stumbles on the fact that a multibillion-dollar NASA mission to Mars never really happened but rather had been staged on a remote sound stage, the film later became the basis of the now widely believed conspiracy trope alleging that the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing was faked, quite possibly with outtakes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. Forty years after its original showing, Winter Kills is open to similarly ominous reinterpretation.
Much of this revisionist darkness stems from the mendacity Huston infuses into Pa. In 1974, the director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre appeared as Noah Cross in one more classic treatise on American avarice, Chinatown. After learning that Cross has fathered a child with his own daughter, Faye Dunaway, and murdered many to reroute Los Angeles water supply for personal gain, Cross is asked by Jack Nicholson’s detective J.J. Gittes, no angel himself, why he acts as he does.
“How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?,” Gittes wants to know. Cross who long ago realized that in a certain time and place, he was capable of “anything,” takes a beat before offering his memorably appallingly justification for needing more, more, more.
“The future, Mr. Gittes. The future,” Cross/Huston says, a line whose meglomanical resonance has grown exponentially, especially in these Trumpy times of unchecked, lionized greed.
As channeled by Huston, who trundles through Winter Kills in the form of walking picket fence, all flailing arms and legs, pausing only to pat his pasha’s pot belly, it is no big stretch from Noah Cross to Pa Keegan. Every six months he gets a full body blood transfusion, feisty incoming hemoglobin courtesy of selected students from Amherst. Cost a fortune, but what does Pa care? He owns the hospital, along with everything else. Great business hospitals, Pa tells Nick. “No customer credit, pay in advance or get out. It’s a unique product: pain.”
As the net begins to descend over his equine, liver-spotted noggin, Pa keeps lying. Of course he “accepted” the patently bogus Pickering Commission Report, he tells Nick, storming around the room in a fire engine red speedo. e was an old He was What was he supposed to do when they said Willie Arnold killed his son? “Point a finger at the Russians? Start a World War, a Civil War?” How would that serve the greater good? “I’ve got interests in this country,” Pa implores.
Later, when even a sap like Nick learns the truth, father and son face off in Pa’s office on the 50th floor of what used to be the Pan Am building, the one with the 100-foot-long American flag hanging out the window. Still, Pa denies being behind the murder, blaming Cerruti, the computer man, the whole surveillance state. Does Nick think he really runs things around here. He was an old man, “skin sagging, false teeth, eyes milking over, nothing but a front, a damn front.”
But it is too late for that. “How could you do it, Pa?,” Nick beseeches, full of pity and disgust. “Your own son?”
At this point we must leave the movie version of Winter Kills. After all, William Richert did his best, made the best garage band version of the tale, but as a messenger of Richard Condon’s keen take on the ever narrowing corridor of free will in modern life, suffice it to say he is no George Axelrod, no Frankenheimer. In Raymond Shaw, Condon invented a dominant character of the age, the robot killer, the archetype for Sirhan Sirhan, Timothy McVeigh and a hundred school shooters. For all his feigned detachment, Condon feared a world capable of producing a Raymond Shaw, an assembly line of such souless killers. He makes that clear in his foreword to former East Village Other editor Walter Bowart’s seminal underground book Operation Mind Control (1978). Character-wise Pa Kegan didn’t have Raymond’s depth or lack of it. Pa was a cartoon. But he’d killed his own son, who happened to be the President of the United States. He’d covered it up for years, allowed the mystery to sicken the soul of the Nation. If was about to confess, it had better be good.
The first thing Pa did was take off his glasses and polish them with his handkerchief. “He was trying to assemble reality,” Condon writes. “He hadn’t been ready, and he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t ready.” Nick, the neglected son, never the prima matieria of Empire, had suddenly turned dangerous, “deadly dangerous.” He would have “to be put away for everyone’s protection, most of all his own.”
Pa hunches forward in his chair, tells his last lies. “I had to do it, Nick,” he says. Tim was dying. He would have been a hopeless invalid, “as paralyzed and helpless as Woodrow Wilson.” Tim was the meaning of youth and the force of youth. “Could anyone have been able to see that golden hero turned into a twisted thing?” Pa says, trying to wriggle from the hook. But Nick, wised up now, wasn’t going for that.
Then Pa turned angry, his voice trembling, white sputum bubbling at the left corner of his mouth. “Why did I have him killed?” he half screams. He’d spent eleven million dollars to build Tim “from cunt-simple college boy to the President of United States.” For twenty years he’d told Tim what was going to happen, what they were going to do once it happened, and what they were going to do after that. What was all that for? Not so he and Tim “could review the fucking fleet together. It was cold-assed business proposition like everything else in this life!…I put Tim in the White House because that’s where you can generate the most cash.” What the hell did a numb nuts failed piano player like Nick think American politics about anyway?
So what happened, Nick wants to know. What changed everything?
“What happened? It went to his head,” Pa offers. “Lunch with DeGaulle. Dinner with Khrushchev. A thousand built-in broads. Five star generals shining his shoes.” Tim was all right for a year but then he “peed all over his quotas. He decided to teach the n— to read. He began to think we were living in a democracy. He double-crossed me and he double-crossed himself.”
He had every right to put a life he’d created in the first place, Pa said, getting it off his heaving chest. “I let him trade in the Presidency for sainthood. I gave him open-end immortality in exchange for spitting in my eye. That was more than fair, wasn’t it?”
You couldn’t call it Shakespeare, or even Aeschylus, but it would do in a pinch. It didn’t convince me that Joseph Patrick Kennedy gave the order to kill John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The old man had had a stroke the year before, couldn’t even talk, so how could he? But it did convince me that Thomas Kegan murdered Tim Kegan, his own son. There was some closure in that.
Then, Pa was out on the ledge. Incorrigible to the last, always looking for the next move, Pa was going to make a speech, address the masses going about their business in the streets below. In ten minutes there would be 3,000 people out there listening, news crews interviewing him “parabolic mikes,” Pa said. He’d tell them the truth, how Nick Kegan, his own son, had entered into a conspiracy with bribed police and crooked doctors, how they were scheming to take over Pa’s fortune with “trumped up charges so fantastic that cannot be believed by any honest, freedom-loving, right-thinking American.” There was no way he’d get away with that, Pa told Nick. “The enduring American system will allow you to conspire to break the heart of the father of its greatest President.”
Except then, Pa slipped, went over the edge.
And there was John Huston again, clutching to the folds of the giant American flag hung off the balcony. Nick tried to help because that’s what you do when your father dangles off the edge, even if your father is Pa. But it is too late, the weight of Pa’s crimes are too great, and the flag begins to shred, like that fabric of the Nation itself, and down he went, the killer of the President, to the pavement fifty floors below.
You couldn’t call it Shakespeare, or even Aeschylus, but it would do in a pinch. It didn’t convince me that Joseph Patrick Kennedy gave the order to kill John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
A few years after the movie opened and closed in rapid succession, Richard Condon wrote a piece entitled “Who Killed Winter Kills” that appeared in the May, 1983 issue of Harper’s. Much in the style of the press releases he turned out during his twenty-plus years toiling in the Hollywood PR biz, the author recaps some financial stats, namely that the doomed Lenny Goldberg and Robert Sterling claimed to have raised $2.3 million of the projected $6.1 million budget. This brought up the question of what happened to the money since, as Condon says, very few people who worked on the picture ever got paid, including the actors and William Richert, whom Condon quotes as saying working on the picture was like being “on cinematic cocaine…shooting through contemporary paranoia.” Deeper into the piece Condon floats a provocative notion about why a movie the New York Times film critic compared to Citizen Kane might have met such an ignominious fate. It seems, the author of The Manchurian Candidate writes, that Avco-Embassy, the distributor of the film may have had a competing agenda.
“It was 1979, a presidential election was coming up. Avco, which was the parent company of Avco-Embassy, had revenues of $864,646,000 for its products and services which included important contracts with US Departments of Labor, State and Defense,” Condon reported, adding that “it is tempting to speculate that Avco might have found it expedient to please powerful political friends. And Winter Kills was, after all, just a drop in Avco’s budget.”
Mysteries, Condon concluded, “are never really so mysterious if one has the right seat at the table, but we don’t.”