Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Gillian Freeman
Based on the novel by: Peter Miles
Producers: Donald Factor, Leon Mirell
Starring: Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, John Garfield Jr.
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 113 mins
In their press release for the new DVD and Blu-ray of Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, Eureka! have included a quote from Roger Ebert: “A mood approaching horror and tragedy.” It isn’t hard to detect from the vagueness of this statement that it is actually ripped from a negative review. Ebert gave That Cold Day in the Park a scant one and a half stars, stating that “the photography by Laszlo Kovacs does more than the direction or the script to establish a mood of approaching horror and tragedy. Too bad someone besides the cameraman wasn't thinking in those terms.” So why turn to manipulatable snippets of pejorative sentences to publicise a film by a director as respected as Altman? The truth is that there are very few positive words to draw on. Critical response to That Cold Day in the Park was largely negative and, while it has been widely sought after by fans in light of Altman’s subsequent career, there are not many kind words to be found about it in the critical community.
After a faltering start to his career, Altman hit big with MASH the year after That Cold Day in the Park and was embraced as one of the most promising directors of the New Hollywood movement but unlike his contemporaries Altman was not a young man, having already been in the business for over two decades. The success of New Hollywood allowed Altman to work in the more experimental ways he had been struggling to introduce and which had damaged his reputation with more conservative industry figures. His subsequent films are alive with energy and the stamp of the auteur and there are elements of a restrained version of this invention in That Cold Day in the Park but sadly the film also suffers, not so much from compromise as an adherence to blandly predictable archetypes which Altman seems caught between.
That Cold Day in the Park tells the story of Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis), a young, buttoned-up woman who keeps company with and has assumed the behavioural attributes of a group of well-to-do middle-aged and elderly acquaintances. During one of her stifling social gatherings, Frances spots a 19 year old boy (Michael Burns) sitting on a nearby park bench. The weather is freezing and as torrential rain sets in, Frances ushers her guests out the door with the intention of inviting the stranger in to warm himself up. The wide-eyed young man, who never speaks or even reacts with a nod or shake of the head, follows Frances upstairs and spends the night in the spare room. In an impulsive moment, Frances locks him in the room and although she unlocks the door the next morning, this one small action is the beginning of a psychological degeneration as Frances tries to reconcile herself with the younger man and escape the stuffy respectability she has trapped herself in.
The obvious highlight of That Cold Day in the Park is the extraordinary central performance by Sandy Dennis, who brings to Frances both an eerie detachment and an obvious potential for genuine warmth which has been tainted by sexual repression. As Michael Burns’s portrayal of the young man is largely silent, a passable shot at a Chaplinesque pantomime performance, Dennis is left to do most of the talking and her steady stream of dialogue is beautifully recited, particularly in the film’s most unsettlingly moving moment when she pours out her heart and sexual desires only to discover she is speaking to a decoy doll. Dennis is equally good when she is not speaking, her subtly expressive face betraying every aspect of her underlying emotions and further exposing Burns’s performance as merely adequate.
Dennis’s performance perfectly encapsulates a woman caught between two generations at an equal distance from her middle ground, neither of which she seems completely suited to occupy. Unfortunately, Altman isn’t so delicate in portraying those two generations in the other characters. The older characters are all stiff, crusty ciphers, spilling their tea due to coughing fits and indulging joylessly in bowls tournaments. The younger generation, meanwhile, are not just pot-smoking draft dodgers but fully-fledged perverts who consider incestuous couplings when there doesn’t happen to be another potential partner around. Dennis is so desperately, painfully real that it’s no wonder she descends into madness when there is nothing resembling reality for her to cling to.
In the film's best moments, Altman’s brilliance is apparent. The early scenes of Frances’s growing relationship with the boy are charged with a tangible sexuality expressed through the smallest of looks. Also memorably effective is an excruciating unwanted proposal that is played out alongside images of an uncomfortable gynaecological examination. But these considered moments are cheapened by improbable flourishes like the boy’s impromptu dance routine (the most obvious, and clumsiest, nod to Chaplin) and the predictable ending in which the script overplays its hand significantly and the score follows suit with a soundtrack to madness with all the subtlety of a looped cuckoo-clock sound effect.
That Cold Day in the Park has elements to recommend it, chiefly the excellence of the central performance but also the hints of future greatness in Altman’s intermittently brilliant direction. Sadly, the script does not have the potential for Altman to build much upon and consequently he is unable to create a world real enough for the psychological elements to rise above the lurid. In light of having watched the film, Eureka’s use of the Ebert quote seems more understandable. Most people will have something positive to say about this curiosity but you’re likely to have to pick the titbits of complimentary statements out of the mire of disappointment.
That Cold Day in the Park is released by Eureka! on dual format DVD and Blu-ray on 20th June 2016. Special features are an informative interview with critic David Thompson and a booklet featuring essays and archival images.