Dead Of Winter Review
There's no denying it - Alfred Hitchcock was one smart, shrewd filmmaker. His films - at least the good ones - are so meticulously constructed, so rigorously executed, so ineffably right that you realise that to watch them is to learn the very grammar of cinematic suspense. Indeed, Hitchcock's best films - Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho - remain such superlative examples of the form that they transcend the boundaries of genre altogether. It's a lot to live up to. Although you might say Hitchcock had the advantage of doing it first, he also did it the best, and his continuing influence on filmmakers is a testament to his enormous talent. Describing any thriller as Hitchcockian, therefore, has always seemed somewhat redundant to this viewer since any director worth his salt simply cannot make a good suspense thriller without referencing Hitchcock's work in some way. True, some directors - notably Brian De Palma, for example - have been more explicit than others in the way they borrow from the director but their own considerable accomplishments should be considered no less because of it. So it is disappointing to discover that Dead Of Winter, while a reasonably suspenseful and diverting little thriller, doesn't care at all to build on Hitchcock's feat (despite the unmistakable influence), particularly since this unassuming, unambitious tale was directed by the once-mighty Arthur Penn.
Following a grisly opening sequence involving the mysterious murder of an unknown woman, we are introduced to struggling New York actress Kate McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) who attends an audition for a part in a new feature film being made upstate. Upon first laying eyes on her, the recruiter, Mr Murray (Roddy McDowell), immediately offers her a chance at the role, informing her that a further screen test will be necessary before a final decision is made. Kate's husband Rob (William Russ) is unhappy that the job requires her to be away from him but the affable Mr Murray assures her that she will be well taken care of. After a long car journey through a blizzard, Kate arrives at the isolated rural retreat of the wheelchair-bound Dr Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubeš), former psychiatrist now turned aspiring film producer. A seemingly charming elderly gent, he explains to Kate that she will have to undergo a makeover in order to ensure that she looks like the actress she is replacing, apparently a troublesome prima donna who walked off the film set in mid-production. Unable to make contact with the outside world due to the worsening weather conditions, Kate settles into the task of transforming herself into the image of Julie Rose, the absentee actress, with some help from the man of many talents, Mr Murray, Lewis's general factotum. Before long, however, Kate realises that all is not what it seems and if you are at all savvy about his kind of movie, you will have already drawn a few conclusions yourself by now so I won't spoil it for you by saying any more.
This is actually the film's biggest flaw - for much of the time, the viewer is way ahead of the plot, thanks to the predictable storyline and the director's habit of foreshadowing every important detail. That old adage of Chekhov's that the gun you see in Act One must be fired in Act Three undoubtedly applies here. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing - there is a certain comfort that comes from watching an old-style thriller like this but it stands little chance of getting past the sophisticated audiences of today, too well versed in cinematic deception thanks to wily tricksters like David Fincher, M Night Shyamalan and the like. That said, although the film does tend to signpost its twists and turns a little too heavily, it is not without its sudden jolts and cheap (but effective) shocks. In truth, there is actually much to admire here, with the film's most obvious asset being its well-chosen cast. Steenburgen does very well in her dual (or is it triple?) role, skilfully drawing audience sympathy for her plight, particularly in the scene just after she learns the truth about the real part her employers want her to play. The police actually show up at the house at this point but…well, watch it and see if you're still interested. If you don't find yourself shouting at the screen by then, I'd say you've probably got a heart of stone. It's actually a good showcase moment for Rubeš's fine turn as the sinister doctor too, a model of Machiavellian cold-heartedness. Man of the match though is definitely Roddy McDowell, an underrated actor who does a splendid job here as the friendly but increasingly unhinged manservant. Toadying and sickeningly obedient to his master's every command, McDowell has great fun with the role of the creepy Mr Murray, exactly the kind of character to make your flesh crawl. The darkly comical moment early in the film when he reveals to Steenburgen that his relationship with Lewis the psychiatrist was at first a professional one certainly carries a casually unsettling significance.
Dead Of Winter is in fact a reworking of a little-seen B-movie from 1945 entitled My Name Is Julia Ross (directed by Joseph H. Lewis - note the in-joke in this '87 version) but the allusions extend beyond that source material. What we have here is another woman-in-peril thriller with, yes, multiple Hitchcock references present and correct - the incapacitated hero of Rear Window, the spiked milk from Suspicion, the physical makeover from Vertigo, the sociable but sinister antagonist (Psycho) and so on. And this is undoubtedly why the film feels so predictable since, after an intriguing first act that sets up the story nicely, it lazily falls back on clichéd plot devices and all-too-familiar scenarios from other movies, particularly in its overextended climax. Actually, Dead Of Winter's premise too bears a close resemblance to the subsequent (and more successful) Stephen King adaptation Misery. In both cases, the story centres on a protagonist held captive in an isolated environment, who suffers both mental and physical torment, and who is forced to engage his/her particular talent in order to survive. Furthermore, the central character is terrorised by a similarly psychopathic antagonist, single-minded of purpose, who can switch from sociable to homicidal in a heartbeat. Like Misery, Dead Of Winter has its share of contrived moments and occasionally preposterous plot turns that do require some suspension of disbelief but to be fair, the story ultimately remains engaging enough so that it doesn't affect the viewer's overall enjoyment.
All in all then, originality doesn't seem to be a great concern in Dead Of Winter - there is nothing here than hasn't been done well before or even done better since. The film sets out to be tense and chilling and it does so with a modicum of style and a minimum of fuss. Its wintry, claustrophobic setting is appropriately atmospheric, and the director manages to inject some wicked humour into the story at intervals. Although the film is not above the odd nasty moment - Steenburgen's wake-up surprise, for example - it never resorts to using explicit gore or bloody violence. This might come as a disappointment to some viewers since the film was made by Bonnie And Clyde director Arthur Penn but, frankly, more disappointing is the discovery that this once highly accomplished filmmaker could deliver so conventional and anonymous a movie. From any other hack director, this would be acceptable fare but from the talent that gave us such smart, multi-layered, often allegorical work as The Left-handed Gun, Little Big Man and Night Moves, Dead Of Winter feels like the product of a director merely treading water. I'm probably being unduly hard on the film since, taken on its own, it is perfectly watchable but in the context of Penn's work as a whole, it is criminally average. Put simply, while this movie just might entertain you, Penn was once capable of so much more.
This is another of MGM's cheap, no-frills releases and boy, does it show. The disc is two-sided, with a fullscreen 1.33:1 version of the movie on one side and a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 version on the other. It's annoying that the studio couldn't be bothered to supply an anamorphic version especially since the transfer itself is far from pristine. The print used seems to be in OK shape with just a few instances of dirt and flecks but the overall image tends to be on the soft side and could have been much improved. There is also substantial grain visible throughout the picture and digital artefacts do tend to creep in at times. Black levels, too, are not as solid as they should be and shadow detail is lacking. On the plus side, the colours are nicely saturated and flesh tones look natural. Generally, the picture quality is acceptable but nothing more.
The film is presented on a serviceable English stereo surround soundtrack that won't strain your sound system. The dialogue is clear and without distortion but the surrounds are used pretty much exclusively for the music score (by Richard Einhorn - sinister flutes, strings and piano) and the odd ambient effect, like high wind. Nothing special here.
Nothing special here either - just the theatrical trailer (which, for first-time viewers, should be avoided until after you've watched the film). [The disc contains silent, static menus while the film consists of 16 chapters.]
Although working from an old bag of tricks, Dead Of Winter is an enjoyably old-fashioned thriller with good performances and an engagingly creepy atmosphere. It's just a shame that it comes across like a film incidentally directed by Arthur Penn rather than a true Arthur Penn film. The DVD itself is bare bones but the low retail price makes it a worthwhile proposition for murder mystery fans.