I love a good conspiracy thriller and one of the best and most underrated is 1979's WINTER KILLS, based on Richard Condon's novel. Beset with production difficulties (the film was shut down several times due to lack of funds and was partially financed, in cash, by a producer with organized crime connections), the film was met with audience indifference when initially released and was soon pulled altogether by its distributor, Avco Embassy Pictures. Perhaps this is because unlike earlier conspiracy thrillers like Alan Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), WINTER KILLS doesn't just use the still relatively fresh Kennedy assassination as a jumping off point for its own fictional story. Instead, WINTER KILLS is designed to deliberately evoke the assassination at every turn, with events and names disguised thinly enough so that anyone even remotely familiar with the case will have no trouble knowing who real players are. To add insult to injury the film is played as a pitch black comedy, something that audiences might not have been ready for just sixteen years after the actual event.
Jeff Bridges play Nick Kegan, who brother, President Timothy Kegan, was assassinated nineteen years earlier during a motorcade in Philadelphia. When he hears the deathbed confession of a man who claims to have been involved in the murder, Nick travels to Philadelphia and discovers the murder weapon. With the aid of his billionaire father (John Huston) Nick sets about uncovering the facts and exposing the players in the conspiracy. In his search for the truth, Nick encounters dead witnesses, organized crime bosses and crazed intelligence agents. He ultimately finds that the truth may lie closer to home than he thought.
Like I said, I doubt that people were prepared for such a cynical picture of the Kennedy family in 1979. According to the director commentary on the DVD John Huston was no fan of Joe Kennedy and he plays him like evil personified, terrorizing both his family and politicians in equal measure and enjoying himself every step of the way. Also, the film not only confirms the presence of a conspiracy but suggests that those closest to the President may have been complicit in his murder. Richard Condon later wrote an article suggesting that the reason Avco Embassy buried the film despite strong reviews was because they had money tied up in defense contracts that the Kennedys were also involved in. It's a conspiracy about a film about a conspiracy.
In any case, now that over thirty years have passed and the film is once again easily available on home video hopefully people will catch up to it. It's thought provoking, a lot of fun and has an amazing supporting cast, including Richard Boone, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune and Elizabeth Taylor. It holds up remarkably well and folks looking for something a little offbeat would do well to seek it out.