Winter Kills 1979 *****

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William Richert’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel has a reputation of a lost gem; after a disastrous shoot and release in 1979, Richert managed to acquire the rights and create a director’s cut of the political thriller, and it’s this version that’s popped up on Amazon Prime. A dark fantasy on the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills is a fiction with a clear basis in fact; the assassination of US president John F Kennedy is never mentioned, but it’s clear that’s the subject. Jeff Bridges plays Nick, the half brother of the late President Keegan, and Nick follows a trail of breadcrumbs in the hope of finding out who wanted his bother dead. This starts with a man who has just fallen from an oil-rig, and makes a deathbed confession that leads Nick to a hidden rifle that was used to kill the president. Nick’s investigation immediately leads to a massacre, and Nick returns home for help from his billionaire father (John Huston). The production difficulties on Winter Kills would make a film in themselves (or at least the 40 minute doc Who Killed Winter Kills) with producers imprisoned for marijuana offences and even murdered, and the production shut down several times. Even by today’s standards, Winter Kills is pretty daring in its roman a clef of American politics, and there’s some great cameos from Elizabeth Taylor, Eli Wallach and Sterling Hayden as a tank-loving maverick. Huston is a bit much as Pa, but most of the elements of Winter Kills have matured over the years, making it something of a must-see movie for anyone who hasn’t heard of it.

 

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Room 237 2016 ***

Room 237

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has become something of a Rorschach blot in which everyone seems something different emerging from the murk. Rodney Ascher’s documentary allows six contributors to unfold their theories about the potential meanings, with everyone working from the premise that the great man couldn’t possibly have set his sights so low as a straightforward horror film. Room 237 suggests, amongst other things, that The Shining is Kubrick’s apology for faking the moon landings, or that it’s an examination of Native American genocide. The arguments aren’t particularly well presented; no interviewees are seen, and their droning voices are intermingled, so that it’s sometimes unclear which theory is which. But while none of the theories are convincing, Ascher’s film forces audiences to look at the wealth of detail in one film, and consider why so many diverse people have been fascinated by its elusive, elliptical content.

The East 2013 ***

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The third of actress Brit Marling’s collaborations with director Zal Batmanglij (Another Earth, The Sound of My Voice) abandons the sci-fi theme in favour of a more grounded conspiracy thriller. Ridley Scott is amongst the producers, but The East is content to work in a minor key. Sarah (Marling) is hired by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate an anarchist commune run by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), but the activities she’s involved with make her question what side she’s on. The East is a level-headed consideration of what the motivations for ‘terrorist activity’ might be, and even if it sticks to a conventional thriller storyline, there’s plenty of subversive ideas buried amongst the tense, well-acted scenes.

The Parallax View 1974 ***

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Alan J Pakula’s conspiracy thriller cast Warren Beatty as reporter Joseph Frady, whose investigation of a senator’s assassination plunges him over-his head into corruption, brainwashing, and a plot adapted from a 1970 novel by Loren Singer. The mysterious Parallax Corporation is at the heart of the investigation, and the highlight of Pakula’s film is a ten minute brainwashing film in which a hypnotic series of potent images are juxtaposed onscreen, giving the view a first hand taste of what Beatty’s character is experiences. Torn from the headlines of the 1970’s The Parallax View’s suspicions about big business and politics still seem relevant today.

Uranium Conspiracy 1978 ***

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Gianfranco Baldanello and Menahem Golan directed this forgotten but undeniably proficient espionage drama from 1978, with Fabio Testi as Renzo, hot on the trail of a missing Uranium shipment. Accompanied by a music score that sounds like Daft Punk in places, Uranium Conspiracy rises to a spectacular car and speedboat chase around Amsterdam that’s as good as Puppet on A Chain, and there’s great locations, washed out photography, some neat plot twists and an oddly downbeat ending to make this something of a find for fans of Euro-thrillers. Any film that features speedboats smashing through entire houses deserves marks for trying.

Capricorn One 1978 ****

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Peter Hyams always brought a professional sheen to his movies, and his 1978 ‘faked landing on Mars’ conspiracy thriller looks great. Elliot Gould is the detective who discovers that the US landing on Mars has been faked, and that the astronauts, including James Brolin and OJ Simpson, have a limited shelf-life once that rocket explodes. Capricorn One ends with a bi-plane and helicopter stuntfest with Telly Savalas that doesn’t feel like quite the right resolution for the story, but there’s plenty to enjoy along the way, particularly the runaway car scene.

Seconds 1966 ****

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Very much ahead of its time, and with ideas well above its station, John Frankenheimer’s black and white thriller was a notable box-office failure, but showcases Rock Hudson’s best performance. He’s off-screen for the opening, in which a businessman agrees to pay a mysterious corporation for a rejuvenating treatment that promises to give him new life in a younger body. Becoming Rock Hudson, he’s initially pleased with his new look, but the Faustian pack comes back to haunt him. Knowing what we know now about Hudson’s private life, split between his heterosexual stud public persona and a very different off-screen life, Seconds is a low-budget sci-fi thriller that plays on the idea of guilt and identity in surprisingly powerful ways.