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January 04, 2006

Dead of Winter

Arthur Penn - 1987
MGM Region 1 DVD

After almost twenty years after the initial theatrical release, I decided I should get around to seeing the last film Arthur Penn made that received a decent release. My excuses for not seeing Dead of Winter when it came out were in reaction to the negative reviews for this film. As I recall, Roger Ebert was particularly upset about part of the film which seemed very uncharacteristic of Penn's films. While Dead of Winter seems out of place in a filmography that includes The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, in some ways the film is not too distant from Mickey One.

Maybe I am being a bit facile here, but both films share protagonists, a stand-up comic and an actress, who are best marginally successful, who are put in life threatening situations that force them to take on alternate personas, that is, to pretend to be other than who they really are. The big difference is that while Warren Beatty was running loose throughout Chicago, Mary Steenburgen is limited to the confines of a large house and part of the surrounding woods. Steenburgen thinks she is auditioning for a independent movie to be produced by her host, Jan Rubes, and his assistant, Roddy McDowell. As the film progresses, Steenburgen realizes she is unknowingly playing a part in Rubes' play.

Dead of Winter strongly resembles a Hitchcock film, albeit less slavishly than had Brian De Palma directed. The film opens with a scene of a woman driving with a suitcase of money, presumably ill gained, stopped by the police only to be informed that a headlight is out. Mary Steenburgen is supposedly hired to replace an actress that she resembles. There is even a close-up of a suspicious glass of milk delivered by McDowell to Steenburgen. Even if a visual reference to Notorious was missed by the audience, the cribbing from Psycho and Vertigo can't totally be obscured by having a brunette for the female lead, or by hiding the dead body in the attic. Many of the shots include various kinds of mirror images and doubling. Fortunately, Richard Einhorn's score does not include shrieking violins.

Even if Dead of Winter does not look like an Arthur Penn film, the acting is sustained by what is essentially a cast of three. Rubes and McDowell are suitably creepy. If Steenburgen lacks the kind of beauty associated with a Hitchock or Hitchcockian film, she does have the ability to play three roles with enough shading to distinguish them. Arthur Penn may have been a hired gun on Dead of Winter, but in spite of what the characters do to each other, Penn cannot be accused of hackwork.

Posted by peter at January 4, 2006 06:41 PM


Peter--Glass of milk is "Suspicion" and not "Notorious", no?
I saw this years ago and thought it had several redeeming aspects myself.

Posted by: girish at January 4, 2006 08:59 PM

Darn. And I can't blame anyone for spiking my drinks either.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at January 4, 2006 11:15 PM

I'm not 100% sure but I think this film is a remake of My Name Is Julia Ross:


It's a creaky but effective short thriller by the great Joseph H Lewis. I can't remember now where I heard this - lost in the mists of time and brain damage - but I'm reasonably certain of it.

Posted by: Paul at January 9, 2006 07:27 PM

It's been a while since I've seen the Lewis film. There are some similarities, and both films are based on the Anthony Gilbert novel, "The Woman in Red".

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at January 9, 2006 10:56 PM