Robert Altman is one of Cinema’s most interesting voices, with his dense overlapping dialogue, compelling female leads, ensemble casts etc; of course, many would group these trademarks with his 70s productions. Through Nashville, M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman was pivotal in defining the tone and outlook of Hollywood’s last golden age. Before and after that boom, things start to get a little patchy with some films being lost in obscurity or where the work of a director going against his auteurist trademarks. Some were well received (Secret Honour), whilst others were not (Popeye). That Cold Day in the Park, which pre-dates M*A*S*H falls into the latter camp. When it was first released back in 1969, critics slaughtered it and they still do with claims of it being pretentious, ugly and meandering. Criticism that I think Altman would agree on, but under all of its disturbing themes there are still some deeply admirable things about it.
Based on the novel by Richard Miles, That Cold Day in the Park follows Frances Austin (Sandy Dennis) as a young, wealthy spinster living in rain-drenched Vancouver. One day, she spots a young boy (Michael Burns) freezing in the park next to her apartment. She invites him in only to discover that the boy is mute. Over time, their lack of communication heightens Frances’ sense of loneliness, the boy often escapes Frances’ household and interacts with the world around him. As a result, Frances spirals down the path of insanity leading into a terrifying obsession with the young boy.
This is Altman’s vision of a psychological thriller, very much how The Long Goodbye was his vision of film noir. Even then, it does feel incredibly laid back. There is a lot of dark thoughts nested within the film but one paced as if it were a calm Sunday afternoon. Frances starts off relatively kind towards the young boy, offering him breakfast in bed, allowing him to use her bathroom etc. Sometimes their relationship is borderline playful, with both characters having a couple of fun fights with each other. It is only when Frances becomes too comfortable and begins to fidget that the film displays its true colours – entrapping the boy for her sexual desires.
A lot of leading ladies of the time were directed with glamour in mind to compel their strong performances. Sandy Dennis has a compelling performance, but it was caused by the opposite circumstances. Dennis was particularly cast in many films because of her odd characteristics. She often displayed uncontrollable nerves, seeming rather fragile and timid in the process. This fits the bill perfectly for Frances who is anything but glamorous. Dennis perfectly weaves in and out between this kind and introverted behaviour contorting into a controlling and psychotic monster. Especially when causing any trauma, after which she will simply cuddle up to the boy and murmur in his ear “I’ll be good, I promise”. Dennis steals the show, not to say that the supporting cast don’t do an equal share of heavy lifting but it does bring her to the forefront of how good of an actor she is.
That Cold Day in the Park is heavy on atmosphere, it presents its world through ambiguity. Altman was not interested in the scene being perfectly lit, shot or framed. All he wanted was to follow the characters from point A to point B and that was it. This is a combination from Altman and cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs who went on to lens Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. Kovacs shoots at distances or obscures the camera’s view with objects, painting a mysterious vibe. One scene involves Frances going to the health clinic and acquires condoms to force the boy into sexual submission. The thought would have gone through the head that the filmmakers would have shot inside the clinic so the audience gets a perfect portrait into what’s going on. Kovacs instead places his camera outside the clinic’s window, from across the street. Altman described it so he could make the audience much more active rather than passive into making their mind up, and there is many a moment like this where actions are not being spoon fed to the audience, instead allowing us to absorb the details little by little.
That Cold Day in the Park has the right elements to be an amazing psychological thriller. What holds it back is the laidback pacing which is a nice change of pace from the typical suspenseful build-up, but it feels it is has been done that way to be different and nothing more. This often leads the film to meander quite often through things unimportant to the narrative, such as when the boy’s sister crashes at Frances’ apartment and decides to take a bath. Minus an abrupt ending, this could have been truly something special from Altman’s early career. As enjoyable as it is lonely and strange, this is a must see for hardcore Altman fans. As for those wanting to get into the prolific director, it would be better to start on his more renowned years before tackling this.
- New high-definition master
- Uncompressed audio on the Blu-ray
- New video interview with critic and filmmaker David Thompson, editor of Altman on Altman
- English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired
- PLUS: A booklet featuring new writing and archival images
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK IS OUT FROM MASTERS OF CINEMA ON MONDAY