By Chris Neilan.
Here’s something to brighten the day of any self-respecting cinephile: the unearthing of a forgotten film by a bona fide American master. And not just any master, but Robert Altman. Few American directors are better loved than Altman, the own-tune-following iconoclast who defied structuring paradigms, paid attention to his female characters and threw in a giddy floating zoom at every available opportunity. You might have been forgiven for assuming that M*A*S*H, that barnstorming wise-cracking breakthrough, was his debut. But not so. His first foray into cinema came with 1967’s Countdown, a perfunctory sci-fi thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall that displayed little of Altman’s sensibilities but got him out of TV world, where he’d been a jobbing director for more than a decade. That Cold Day in the Park was his sophomore effort, released a year before all that anti-war tomfoolery with Hawkeye and co, and will be new to all but the Altman completist. Adapted from a Peter Miles novel by Gillian Freeman, the narrative deals with the psychological impact of female sexual repression through a mixture of psychological thriller tropes, stylistic endeavour and the kind of loose structuring that’s typical of the post nouvelle vague period.
Sandy Dennis plays Frances Austen, a rich, lonely unmarried woman, trapped in a hermetically sealed world of sexagenarian tea parties. A repressed and highly mannered thirty-something surrounded by ‘friends’ of her mother’s age, she seems locked in a prison of her own behaviour. When she sees a handsome young man sitting on a park bench outside her apartment getting drenched by the rain she decides, impulsively, to invite him in to dry off, and upon doing so discovers that the young man, played by former child star Michael Burns, appears to be mute. His silence only seems to exacerbate the impact of his youthful virility and vulnerability, and she sets about caring for him with the motherly zeal of the sexually repressed, stripping and bathing him and putting him to bed whilst allowing her eyes to linger on his lithe body.
But the boy isn’t mute – as we discover when he pays a visit to his sexually liberated, nay obsessed, sister. Rather he’s a semi-bohemian weed-smoking chancer (perhaps with a sensitive side) going along with Frances’ strange routine, enjoying free access to her rather plush apartment (his crash pad is a dive that he appears to share with his semi-nude sister and her equally nude boyfriend), free food and board, and perhaps enjoying he motherly care that she lavishes upon him. But things take a turn toward the tense when Frances starts locking the young man in his room at night, locking the front door of the apartment when she goes out, and eventually nailing shut the windows after she realises he’s been toing and froing. As the tension builds, and Frances’ wall of sexual repression refuses to crumble, knives begin to appear, in a Polanski-esque foreshadowing of violence, and the stakes become mortal.
In truth though, tension is only present part of the time. The story ambles, the characters meander, and Altman’s visual style is at best half-formed. The floating zooms and roaming pans that typify his later work are imprecise, and at times impart the underdeveloped rawness of the film student. His use of sound and perspective is effective, on occasions – as when Frances pays a visit to a gynaecological surgery, and the camera remains outside, looking through windows as if eavesdropping, accompanied by overlaid dialogue and overheard conversations – very interesting, offering glimpses of the personal creative vision that would develop through the great director’s career. Sandy Dennis gives a strong performance in a not entirely riveting role, which is emblematic of the piece as a whole: interesting, if not riveting. Not a patch on his best work then, but a valuable document showing the first emerging traces of one of the most distinctive and influential voices in American cinema.
Chris Neilan is a filmmaker, screenwriter, author and critic. His work is available at www.chrisneilan.com.
That Cold Day in the Park was released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Eureka! as part of the Master of Cinema series. Features include new high-definition master, uncompressed audio on the Blu-Ray, new interview with critic and filmmaker David Thompson, and a booklet featuring new writing and archival images.