Times Staff Writer

It’s easy to understand what attracted Mary Steenburgen and director Arthur Penn to the lady-in-distress thriller “Dead of Winter” (citywide).

To Steenburgen, it offered the chance to play multiple roles, always a temptation for an actress. As a modest genre piece, it would provide Penn a reasonably risk-free opportunity to revive his career after the wretched excesses of his ‘60s saga “Four Friends.”

But “Dead of Winter” is a mixed blessing, in which Steenburgen fares better than Penn. She dents her Neo-Lillian Gish image of feminine nobility and thereby extends her range, but fledgling writers Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone’s script is too mechanical and uninspired for Penn, despite his best efforts, to bring much life to it. (Malone also has a small role as Steenburgen’s brother.)

Steenburgen plays Katie McGovern, a struggling New York actress, which was what Steenburgen was herself when Jack Nicholson cast her as an eccentric but adorable spinster in “Goin’ South.” The rent is past due on the seedy apartment Katie shares with her lover Rob (William Russ), when she gets a chance to replace an actress who’s walked out on a film that’s just started production. Katie is not about to ask lots of questions as she lets the somewhat enigmatic Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall) take her off to a remote mansion in the snowy countryside of Upstate New York.


Mr. Murray’s wheelchair-bound employer, Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubes), a psychiatrist supposedly turned producer, is initially as warm and inviting as the fire that roars in his vast fireplace, but there’s only trouble ahead for poor Katie. Worse yet, neither she nor anyone else knows exactly where she is.

Never mind what Dr. Lewis has in mind for Katie or why. What’s important is that the plot allows Steenburgen to forsake the fluffy-haired, catch-in-her-voice Katie, so like Steenburgen herself, and emerge for the first time on the screen as a sexy, glamorous woman. As if this weren’t enough, she also plays a diamond-hard villainess.

Steenburgen shines in all her contrasting portrayals, and she receives fine support from Rubes, a silver-haired Czech-born Canadian actor who radiates menace as easily as charm, and from McDowall, who brings a delicious slyness to the demented Mr. Murray.

But “Dead of Winter” (rated R for some gory moments) lacks the wit and sparkle of “Deathtrap,” the repartee and depth of “Sleuth” and the sheer scariness of “Wait Until Dark” (which Penn directed on Broadway). There’s an elegant sheen and sophisticated tone to “Dead of Winter,” but since it’s neither witty nor ingenious enough to be either genuinely amusing or suspenseful, it seems a bit morbid by default. Penn and his stars serve Shmuger and Malone’s script better than it has served them.


‘DEAD OF WINTER’ An MGM/UA release of an MGM production. Executive producer-director Arthur Penn. Producers John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger. Screenplay Shmuger, Mark Malone. Camera Jan Weincke. Music Richard Einhorn. Production designer Bill Brodie. Associate producer Michael MacDonald. Costumes Arthur Rowsell. Stunt coordinator Dwayne McLean. Film editor Rick Shaine. With Mary Steenburgen, Roddy McDowall, Jan Rubes, William Russ, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson, Mark Malone, Michael Copeman, Sam Malkin.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).