That Cold Day In The Park. (15.)
Directed by Robert Altman. 1969.
Starring Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, John Garfield Jr, Luana Anders, Edward Greenhalgh, Doris Buckingham, Frank Wade and Michael Murphy. Released on Blu-ray by Eureka Masters Of Cinema. 105 mins
Prior to the overnight success of MASH, which turned him into one of the world's most distinctive and feted film directors, Robert Altman spent two decades chugging along largely unnoticed around the TV and film industry, directing TV shows (Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), commercials, minor features and any other job that would take him. So when the disc for the film he made immediately before MASH dropped through the letter box I wasn't greatly enthusiastic – he may have become a Master of Cinema but this came from his period as a Jobbing Nobody of Cinema and TV. All that time though he must have been squirreling away ideas and notions, stuff nobody would let him use on their productions, because when he finally got a bit of leeway to do his own thing, he turned out a fully formed Robert Altman Film at his first attempt.
This is not one of those early-works-of-the-master where you sit and try to discern hints of the genius to come: all the things critics revere (and audience occasionally find infuriating) about Altman are in evidence here. There's overlapping dialogue, shooting scenes through mirrors, the seemingly deliberately clumsy zoom shots, the blurry background, tracking shots from outside the building that follow the movement of a character inside. They are used effectively too; there a sequence where we follow the lead character Frances Austen (Dennis) on a trip to a gynecologist that is a magnificent example of how he could add untold depth and intrigue to what would be a straightforward moment in any other film. Looking in through a window the camera initially focuses on a group of women chatting in the waiting room and their conversation remains on the soundtrack as the camera follows Austen's movements around the clinic.
It also highlights Altman's skill at turning a theatre play into a seamless piece of cinema. During the 80s wilderness years he made a number of films taken from stage plays (such as Come Back To The 5 And Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or The Secret Honor) and most of the techniques he used to try and turn a stagebound drama into cinema are present here. Not that Cold Day is based on a play – it is taken from a novel – but so much of the story takes place within Austen's apartment that it may as well be. Austen (Dennis) is a rich spinster who lives alone in Vancouver, whose only social contact is with the friends of her late mother. The film opens on That Cold Day In The Park when a group of elderly friends come to visit her. She though is fixated with a man on a park bench (Burns.) He stays there even when it starts to rain and when everyone has left she invites him in for something to eat and a warm bath. He though doesn't speak.
That Cold Day In The Park is one of those Altman films that is hard to categorize. It is sinister, lighthearted and tragic – it doesn't really make a definite statement about what kind of film it is until the last scene. Sandy Dennis is one of the film's main asset. Like the film she keeps her cards pretty close to her chest. She is certainly uptight and lonely, adrift in a social circle two decades her senior. She is also inanely talkative with the mute boy, a sign of her desperation but there is little indication of which way this desperation will take her.
In truth, I don't think the denouement really works but up to then this is a unique and oddly enthralling piece: not an Altman masterpiece, but among his prolific, and erratic, output I'd say it ranked somewhere in the top half.
McCabe and Mrs Miller