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Everybody knows that fashionable director Robert Altman crashed onto the scene with 1970's M*A*S*H, and continued to make mostly critically lauded if lightly attended pictures for the next ten years, often with enormous casts partly improvising their way through dream-like stories. But Altman had behind him twenty years of a very practical, nuts 'n' bolts background in the world of advertising and industrial films in Kansas City. Always seeking to break out, in 1957 the ambitious Altman made a JD epic, The Delinquents (starring future Billy Jack Tom Laughlin) and a documentary about James Dean. This led to years of TV work and two more feature films. Now more or less forgotten is 1968's Countdown an excellent drama about a NASA moon shot. Even more obscure is the highly unusual 1969 psychodrama That Cold Day in the Park, starring the impressive Sandy Dennis in a role wholly apart from her previous successes -- Up the Down Staircase and the Oscar-winning Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Robert Altman fans should be prepared for a little more structure than accompanies some of his later work. At his best Altman would find a unique, casual vibe (California Split, for example) but he also made movies by improvising practically everything. On pictures like A Wedding he often seemed to set forty actors in motion at the same time while his camera and sound crews hosed down the set with multiple microphones and multiple cameras with long lenses. That Cold Day in the Park is carefully measured and precisely directed, for one camera with specific visuals in mind for every scene. Yes, you'll find overlapping dialogue and special sequences that remind us of later Altman. There's a long-lens view of a man visiting several floors of a house, and another scene features layered 'overheard' chitchat among patients at a gynecological clinic. And what early Altman film would be complete without young actor Michael Murphy, in a small but showy role?
The story begins as a mystery and slowly develops into an examination of the relationship between confused sex relationships and madness. Wealthy spinster Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis) has lived with older people all her life and has no experience with men. She invites into her house a Boy she sees getting soaked in the rain (Michael Burns) and offers him food and a bath. Although The Boy says nothing Frances doesn't complain; she's perfectly happy doing all the talking and simply assuming that he understands her. Is this a sexual The Secret Sharer, or what? As it turns out, The Boy is neither a foreigner nor a mute. He accepts Frances' generosity without comment. He also sneaks out at night to visit his sister Nina (Susanne Benton of Catch-22) and her boyfriend Nick (David Garfield, the son of actor John Garfield). Frances is more disturbed than her impeccable manners would indicate. Torn by possessiveness, she attempts to imprison The Boy in her apartment. Frances desires The Boy, but goes out of her way to procure for him a 'companion for the night', Sylvia (Luana Anders of Dementia 13. The Boy doesn't know what to make of it all -- he's been playing deceitful games with Frances, but now she seems to be in control.
That Cold Day in the Park might be slow for some audiences, but viewers that like unusual mysteries will be intrigued. Altman directs without the kind of genre giveaways that tell us that the story will become a romance or a horror film, but we soon get the idea that all is not quite right in Frances' fancy Vancouver apartment, with all its expensive old furniture. Frances is 'disturbed', but those around here wouldn't necessarily see red flags flying. Are people we know just as twisted?
Sandy Dennis' acting pulls us in and curiosity does the rest. Dennis had this cute, confused smile that had worked beautifully in everything since Splendor in the Grass, but we don't see much of it here. Her Frances is a delicate person, cut off from the usual flow of life. Her only friends are her late mother's group, all of them at least 25 years older than her. Their big activity is lawn bowling (shades of 3 Women geriatrics sneaking in there). When the waxworks visits, Frances is still treated like a dependent, as if the real host were her dead mother. One of guests, a doctor perhaps far older than Frances, makes an unwelcome pass. Frances knows what she wants. The beautiful and wholly uncomplicated Boy mesmerizes her; the fact that he doesn't talk (or really react) allows her to project her own fantasy personality onto him. It's a dangerous game, playing with reality in this way... Frances is unreasonably trusting, but she's never known true betrayal, and nobody knows what she's capable of if she feels she's been crossed.
This may be Robert Altman's first "personal" feature. He apparently was fascinated by women and centered many of his films on them. Few of his female characters really have their acts together, and it's the misfits that come to mind first -- Shelley Duvall in her many pictures, the dream-tripping Julie Christie, the women of Dr. T and the Women that, incidentally, undertake a similar trip to the gynecologist. Although everything that happens in Cold Day is reasonably believable, there's still a weird nighttime feeling afoot, especially when Frances ventures to the seedy side of town to hire a prostitute. Although she wants a woman for The Boy (a weird idea in itself), everybody assumes she's really a lesbian looking for companionship. For a while the show wanders near David Lynch territory, as Frances accompanies Michael Murphy's footloose lounge patron into a den of ill repute. Typical of Altman, we see a few tender moments between a pair of real lesbians sitting at the bar.
Contrasting with Sandy Dennis' Frances is Luana Anders' Sylvia, the lean and hard hooker she finally takes home. Sylvia doesn't know what's up, but we think she'd probably step out with Jack the Ripper if the price were right. She's surprised to be confronted with the almost baby-like Boy. Another 'alternate' woman figure is The Boy's sister Nina, a mischievous provocateur who sneaks into the apartment and avails herself of Frances' bathtub. The place is so cozy that Nina wishes her boyfriend were around, or any man ... and then practically makes a sexual overture to her own brother. There's no such thing as a wholly 'normal' relationship in this picture.
Everybody is good in Cold Day, with ex- child actor Michael Burns doing great with a tough role. He's putting poor Frances on quite without any sense of responsibility, just to see what happens. Luana Anders and Susanne Benton are interesting; Benton was unsuccessfully promoted as a sexy new star for the next year or so. But we keep doubling back to the enigma of Frances, who is wisely kept an ambiguous figure. We watch her for signs of sexual excitement over The Boy, and she is indeed aroused. Of course, she must remain a lady, even as she offers him everything she has, without strings. What The Boy finds out too late is that Frances quite savagely believes that she is owed something... she doesn't know herself any better than we know her.
Made in the first full year of Hollywood Code freedom Cold Day is a progressive experiment a cut above average. Some wrongly think it's a misfired horror film, with Frances not quite adding up to a female Norman Bates. Although it's now become a virtual obscurity, it should be considered a winner for Altman and actress Sandy Dennis. That wasn't the consensus in 1969. The New York Times wasn't pleased: Howard Thompson led off his review thusly: "If there is a sicker, and more tedious, over-baked and inane serving of psychosexual nonsense this season than That Cold Day in the Park, it will have to go far to beat the Sandy Dennis vehicle that opened yesterday at the Orleans and Plaza Theaters."
Olive Films' Blu-ray of That Cold Day in the Park is a terrific HD transfer of a film that's showed up in some pretty sad bootlegs over the years. 16mm TV prints weren't much better. The title sequence is a bit grainy but the balance of the movie looks great, showcasing Laszlo Kovacs' fine cinematography. Along with his buddy Vilmos Zsigmond, Kovacs learned his craft on whatever miserable no-budget film needed a cameraman. Working for Peter Bogdanovich and Dennis Hopper finally got him noticed; Cold Day looks as good as anything shot by anybody that season.
Olive offers no extras but that shouldn't hold back the Robert Altman loyalists, who will be pleased indeed. I looked online but couldn't find any decent photo images from the film. The poster design reminds me of another Sandy Dennis effort, The Fox.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
That Cold Day in the Park Blu-ray rates:
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