Monday, 28 March 2022

Dead Of Winter

Hidden Fingers

Dead Of Winter
USA 1987 Directed by Arthur Penn
MGM/88 Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Full spoilerage ensues.

I hadn’t seen Dead Of Winter for years and I never expected to find it as part of the slasher collection from 88 Films on UK Blu Ray. I really couldn’t remember the film at all but I certainly never thought of it as any kind of horror film or slasher... although the blurb on the back of the package says it’s “one of the highlights of the entire 88 Films Slasher Classics catalogue". Well, I can confirm now, having caught up with it again for the first time in a couple of decades, that this movie is in no way a slasher film... there is no serial killer (in fact there are technically two killers but one just drops out of the narrative after the opening sequence and the other one kind of inadvertently ends up being the main protagonist as she’s forced to defend herself). For another thing, although there are four murders here, there’s hardly any blood shown in the movie at all... this is not in any way a hyper stylised giallo or, as I said, a slasher. What it is, is a fairly bloodless but certainly very stylish noir thriller from Arthur Penn, the director who gave modern cinema what was, as far as I’m concerned, its most horrific moment in the final minute or two of his masterpiece Bonnie And Clyde. If I’m ever squeamish about any film it’s not the horror, giallo or slasher films I’ve seen over the years... it’s Bonnie And Clyde... and that certainly doesn’t seem to have changed over time.

What Dead Of Winter also is... and I wasn’t aware of this until I watched it recently... is a kind of remake/homage of a 1945 Nina Foch movie called My Name Is Julia Ross... although looking at a summary of that one it does have a slightly different plot in terms of various details but, yeah, the main concept at the heart of the movie is definitely lifted/inspired by that. Indeed, in memory of that movie, one of the things the writers have done is to name the character Mary Steenburgen plays in the first five minutes of the film Julia Rose. Which is close enough I guess. And, by the way, Mary Steenburgen was the only reason why I watched this movie back in the early 1990s and pretty much the only reason I’m returning to it here now. Ever since seeing her in Time After Time and Back To The Future Part 3, I’ve been struck by the screen presence of this lady so, though I’ve not seen that many of her films over the years, her name on a cast list is assured to get me interested.

The film opens strongly with Mary looking extremely stylish in a grey overcoat, white fedora and red scarf, as she goes to a train station on New Year’s Eve to raid a locker with a case full of cash. She then drives to a rendezvous, gets out of her car to use a phone box and, when she’s back in the car, a man pops up behind her from the back seat, strangles her and then cuts off her ring finger as proof of her murder for his client (off camera... the director really is not into showing blood in this picture, unlike in Bonnie & Clyde). At least, we assume she’s dead but then Mary Steenburgen turns up in the next scene as aspiring actress Katie McGovern. I know she is an actress because the director emphasises this with the cliché of giving her a framed poster from The Maltese Falcon in her apartment. The question is... is she the girl from the opening sequence? Nope... but we don’t know for sure until later, In fact, Steenburgen plays three different characters in this movie... but I’ll get to that in a minute.

She goes to an audition for a part and the guy giving the audition, Mr. Murray played by Roddy McDowall, tells her she’s got it just on her looks. She’s told about a lead actress she resembles in a film production going missing a little way into the shoot and the producer, Dr. Joseph Lewis played, by Jan Rubes (and named after the director of My Name Is Julia Ross), will shoot a test scene at their shared house so the director can see it. So she leaves her boyfriend in the big city and is driven by Murray to stay with them in Lewis’ huge, snowbound and isolated house miles away from civilisation. She is made to look exactly like the ‘missing actress’ in question and shoots a test video which describes the events of the opening sequence of Dead Of Winter as having happened to her, to an off camera character. Unknown to her, this footage gets sent to a woman being blackmailed, called Evelyn. Evelyn was the person who employed the assassin to murder the woman at the start of the movie. She was being blackmailed by the doctor and her own twin sister, Julia Rose... so she had her sister killed and her finger cut off as proof to stop the leverage. However, the footage sent by the doctor makes it look like her sister is still very much alive. Meanwhile, it doesn’t take Katie long to realise that Murray and the doctor are up to no good but she can’t escape the house and when the local police stumble onto the scenario, they are told she is the doctor’s ‘mental case’ patient, so they go off again. Then Evelyn arrives to see her for herself (and to try to murder her when the doctor and co are not looking) and she certainly believes it’s her sister. Why?

Well, because in a chilling scene where Katie was drugged earlier in the movie, Mr. Murray surgically removed Katie’s finger and nobody can tell the two of them apart. And, yes, as I mentioned earlier, Steenburgen plays three characters here... Katie and the two twin sisters Julia and Evelyn. Shenanigans continue and the plot eventually resolves itself, with Katie going in to a kind of shock or trauma at the end of the movie when she is driven to safety by her boyfriend and the police... after she has managed to kill Evelyn, Mr. Murray and Dr. Lewis in self defence at various points in the movie.

There are a few leaps of faith for the audience in this movie to be fair. Like how does McDowell, posing as a production assistant, manage to find someone who is an absolute double for the murdered actress just from an open audition? Or how, when Katie only meets Evelyn for a minute when in a highly drugged state and then for a minute later, when Evelyn is trying to kill her, is she able to convincingly pose as Evelyn using the same style of speech delivery to fool the doctor. It’s a bit of a stretch, to be honest.

However, the film looks beautiful and Arthur Penn and his cinematographer Jan Weincke shoot the film with an emphasis on moody, noirish atmosphere which works really well. Having said that, the brown colours and something about the way it’s shot does seem to give the film a very grainy look on Blu Ray, which surprised me somewhat because I’m sure the transfer must be fine.

But the compositions are wonderful. The house which is the backdrop for 95% of the film, buried in the heavy snowfall of the winter of the film’s title, makes for a great space for the director to really put some depth on the shots and he really makes use of everything. For example, when Roddy McDowell, who does a wonderful job here as a very nice but obviously unhinged person (one of the best acting jobs I’ve seen him do), first enters the house behind Mary Steenburgen, his head can be seen framed in a curved opening of an elaborately detailed fire screen, then as the two characters move into the house, the camera moves back to allow them into a much deeper frame stretching back from the front of shot. The director does a lot of this kind of ‘frame within a frame’ highlighting, including a rather silly but appreciated shot where a character is framed in the rounded steel frame of a bear trap hanging on the wall in the foreground of a shot. It’s nice stuff and it lifts the film.. as does Richard Einhorn’s piano lead score which was also given a nice, limited to 1000 copies CD release by Kritzerland back in 2010 (which I reacquainted myself with again before putting the film on).

So, yeah, not a great deal more to say on Dead Of Winter to be honest. The film has had two Blu Ray releases now but I think they might both be out of print (judging by the prices they go for)* but if you like ‘comfort thrillers’ which don’t go down the blood and carnage route and with some wonderful performances by Steenburgen and McDowell, then this one gets a firm recommendation from me. I know a couple of people I will be showing this to sometime soon so I’m glad I managed to pick this one up.

*Nope, it’s back in print again since I wrote this review and going fairly cheaply... grab it while you can.

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