Picks and Pans Review: Dead of Winter

updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Though this film doesn't quite live up to the cleverness of its title, director Arthur Penn manages a stylish thriller. He even subscribes to the atypical notion that a woman can take care of herself. Indeed, the men in this movie are wimps or crippled. Mary (Cross Creek) Steenburgen is a struggling New York actress auditioning to replace the female star who has walked off the set of a movie. The casting agent, unctuously acted by Roddy McDowall, is stunned by Steenburgen's likeness in looks and voice to the original. He brings her to an old, isolated house in upstate New York where a psychiatrist-turned-producer, Jan (Witness) Rubes, gives her a screen, or rather, scream test. Steenburgen unwittingly becomes a central character in murder and blackmail. She has to give the performance of—and for—her life. But Penn overdoes things by throwing in every suspense-raising gimmick in the genre: squeaky doors, a raging blizzard, cut telephone lines, a two-way mirror, drugged tea and more. They're so obvious (and peripheral), though, they actually help highlight the plot's inventiveness, concocted by first-time feature writers Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone, college friends of Penn's son. This is Penn's second suspense film in a row—Target wasn't exactly a bull's-eye—and it's not the sort of thing he does best. (Such character studies as Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man are more like it.) Nevertheless, Dead of Winter won't leave you out in the cold. (R)

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