Dead of Winter

December 20, 2011

Dead of Winter may be said to be interesting only so far as it gives employment to two large talents in the American cinema: actress Mary Steenburgen and director Arthur Penn. But the interest lies not in the work these two do in the film, but the puzzle of their being involved in it.

Steenburgen’s excuse is the more understandable. Dead of Winter contains a juicy part for an actress—in fact, except for a brief scene with a couple of audition hopefuls, Steenburgen plays all the female roles in the movie. That statement can’t be fully explained without giving too many of the film’s surprises away; let’s just say it’s easy to see why an actress would jump at the part.

Steenburgen is well up to it. She’s an underused but talented actress, adorable in Time After Time and Oscar-winning in Melvin and Howard. Here she plays a struggling New York actress who answers an audition ad, only to find that the auditioner (high-strung ham from Roddy McDowall) wants to cart her away to upper New York state to audition for the eccentric producer.

Once there, she discovers that the producer (Jan Rubes) has chosen her because of her resemblance to an incapacitated actress; Steenburgen will be replacing the ailing woman in a film. But Steenburgen begins to realize the two men have no intention of letting her leave the old, dark house….

There are some chills to be felt with that set-up, especially given the creepy house, with its stuffed polar bears, squeaking mice, and the odd corpse in the attic.

The script, in which Steenburgen learns the dark plot and tries to escape from it, is a hokey piece of a work by two guys named Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone. Steenburgen, carries on bravely, but after a point she can’t make it credible by herself.

Which brings us to Arthur Penn. Penn’s direction is professional and sometimes eerie, but why on earth should he bother with such a contrived and ludicrous screenplay?

The central situation—a woman in a house, at the mercy of tormentors, and the attendant suspense—bears some resemblance to Wait Until Dark, which Penn directed on Broadway in the 1960s, but the comparison makes Dead of Winter look more feeble.

Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was one of the seminal films of the 1960s, and Night Moves one of the best of the 1970s. In this decade, Penn has managed only three movies: Four Friends, Target, and this one. Not much to show for a director who was once in the vanguard.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

The guy named Marc Shmuger later became chairman of Universal for a while, so writing this dumb movie wasn’t the worst move in the world. The film must offer a certain amount of B-picture fun, right, if caught on TV late of an evening? I just have never stumbled on it that way.