Robert Altman rose to fame thanks to the success of 1970’s M.A.S.H., lifted out of the (then) doldrums of the TV industry to the lofty heights of Hollywood proper. But M.A.S.H. wasn’t his first feature film–before that came That Cold Day in the Park, a striking, effective thriller now unduly forgotten in the shadow of his later glories.
Frances (Sandy Dennis) is a wealthy 30-something, living alone and with a social life that could charitably be described as ‘limited’–not least thanks to the fact that she doesn’t seem to know anyone else below retirement age. She spots a young man (Michael Burns) sitting alone in a park, drenched in a downpour, seemingly with nowhere to go. She takes him in for the night, quickly becoming possessive, despite the fact that he remains mute throughout.
Despite being such an early film, Altman’s visual invention is quickly apparent. With the aid of cinematographer László Kovács, Altman plays with perceptions throughout. Images are frequently shown refracted through windows, warped by glass and rainwater, blocked by bars, the main characters’ distorted views of one another reflected in the images themselves.
As the film develops it arcs in consistently surprising directions, with false set-ups and misdirection aplenty to keep audiences guessing. At its heart throughout though is Dennis’s memorable performance as the spinster on the edge. Bound by politeness and good graces, desires firmly repressed, she stirs both our sympathies and our fears, a pitiful creature who nevertheless represents an unsettling danger. As she stares wide-eyed at the young man–credited only as ‘The Boy’–it’s impossible not to understand her pained longing, her unmet desires, even while wondering what they might stir her to do.
That Cold Day in the Park almost operates as a chamber-piece, trapped in the confines of the luxury apartment, but instead it allows itself to drift outside to the world beyond. It’s here that the film most often falters, most of all as it gestures at the Boy’s life beyond the walls, showing us too much to merely tease, but not enough to satisfy or offer much insight. Still, it always comes creeping back to that apartment, to these two enclosed within, studying each other, analysing, and somehow never seeing clearly.
This dual-format Masters of Cinema release comes with a 30-minute interview with Altman expert David Thompson, and a 32-page booklet of essays on the film.
Words by Dominic Preston