While entertaining her elderly relatives at her apartment on one wet, chilly afternoon, spinster Frances (Sandy Dennis) is taken by a young man (Michael Burns) she spies through the window. He sits shivering, wet, on a park bench across the street from her. As her guests leave, she decides to approach the teenager, offering him warmth and shelter.
Without uttering a word, he accepts her offer. Once in her apartment, Frances helps the boy undress and runs him a warm bath. She speaks incessantly, trying to coax conversation from the silent lad to no avail. Once bathed and warm, she wraps him in a blanket while his clothes dry and feeds him. Clearly a lonely woman, Frances ends up offering him the use of her spare bed overnight. Though she's not too foolish: she locks him in the bedroom before retiring to her own quarters for the evening.
The morning after, Frances cooks her new guest breakfast and attempts again to drag conversation from him. Nothing. Though he's amiable enough - he even dances for her at one point. During the day she leaves him to negotiate her home while nipping out to the shops to buy him some new attire. Come the evening, he's welcomed back into the spare bedroom. Again, she locks him in - just to be sure.
However, on this occasion the lad opens the bedroom window and does a moonlight flit. He returns to his parents' busy home, where we learn a little more about his character than Frances has been privy to.
The following morning, Frances is perturbed to find the boy is not waiting in his bed for breakfast. She's positively deflated as her housekeeper, Mrs Parnell (Rae Brown), turns up to carry out her weekly chores. But her sadness is soon lifted when the lad returns, complete with some odd-looking homemade cookies which he proffers as a gift.
He stays a further evening and, well, things start to get a little weirder from here on in...
My synopsis takes you just over the halfway mark of this curious, offbeat little film. I'm not going to reveal any more: I'll just say that this early outing from Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, SHORT CUTS etc) builds deliberately into a disquieting thriller of considerable impact. I liked it a lot.
For a start, it's beautifully shot. The autumnal aesthetics of exterior shots perfectly complement the mood inside virginal loner Frances' sparse apartment. The framing of each composition is meticulous, and yet casually so - so as to never overshadow the very simple drama unfurling in masterful fashion before our eyes. The frequent use of mirrors, reflections and bevelled windows is a recurrent reminder of one of the film's most prominent themes: that of identity (who are these people - really? What is their relationship? Who's playing who? Who are we to identify with? What is reality?).
Altman's style is clearly developing here. The extremely naturalistic performances and overlapping dialogue that characterised his later films are evidenced here, as is the casual nature in which the drama develops into something greater with subtle incremental flourishes. Much like his excellent IMAGES, this isn't a horror film per se - but it's dark enough to appeal to fans, and qualify as an entry into the genre.
Based on Peter Miles' novel and shot in Canada in 1969, the film flirts with nudity, drugs and implications of incest. As it progresses, darker subject matter comes into play - I'm not going to give anything more away. But the film is all the more powerful for its slow build. It's expertly crafted.
As a character study it works tremendously well. As an essay on sexual repression and loneliness, it would make a great companion piece to REPULSION or THE PIANO TEACHER. As a thriller, it rewards its viewer's patience with a hard-hitting final act.
Dennis and Burns are excellent leads. The former in particular plays her role as an increasingly obsessive, possessive person in the throes of a breakdown with aching plausibility.
Released as part of Eureka!'s acclaimed "Masters of Cinema" series - spine number 145, in fact - THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK comes to UK home video for the first ever time, as a dual format blu-ray and DVD release.
We were sent a copy of the blu-ray disc to review.
The film is presented uncut (106 minutes and 54 seconds) and in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The 16x9 picture benefits from full 1080p HD resolution and is housed as a generously sized MPEG4-AVC file on this region B disc.
Despite a slightly soft sheen, the picture quality is excellent. Natural, filmic, true - while boasting vivid colours and nice bright compositions, along with deep blacks and a keen sense of depth felt throughout. Motion is handled well, while the picture is noise-free at all times. The print used is alarmingly clean considering the film's age and relative obscurity.
Uncompressed English mono audio does a fine job in playback. Optional English subtitles are at hand for the hard-of-hearing. These are well-written and easily readable at all times.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. There is no scene selection option but then film does contain 9 remote-accessible chapters.
On-disc extras are limited to a thoroughly engaging 28-minute featurette in which critic/filmmaker David Thompson, editor of the fine documentary "Altman on Altman", discusses the film with equal amounts of affection and authority. He talks us through the director's beginnings in the film industry and goes on to place THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK in context alongside Altman's other works. We learn of the differences between the film and its source material, the locations used, the terms of the shoot, the cast and so much more. This makes for a most worthy companion piece to the main feature.
Also included in this set is a superb 32-page booklet offering some great writing on the film, along with stills both in colour and monochrome. A new essay from Australian film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas delves deeper into the film's themes of identity, while examining the psyche of its female protagonist.
"Northern Exposure" is a reproduction of an archive article from a 1969 issue of Motion Picture Herald, detailing how Altman set up his own independent production company and headed off to Canada to make this film. Engrossing stuff.
An excerpt from film historian David Spaner's book "Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver became Hollywood North by Northwest" follows, offering more insight into the film's on-location shoot.
Next we get a great archive piece from Altman himself, describing his experience of working with Dennis on the film.
The book is completed by the usual credits, and notes on how to best view the film.
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK is a brilliant psychological thriller, ripe for discovery. It looks great on Eureka's typically excellent disc.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka!|
|see main review|