Thursday, 16 June 2016

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

“Robert Altman’s Psychological Gothic Thriller”

The film Robert Altman made before M*A*S*H (and if the producers had seen it they wouldn’t have employed him to direct it, apparently) gets a dual format UK release courtesy of Eureka.
Young, wealthy, intolerably lonely Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis) lives in an elegant apartment in Vancouver. Her only friends are those she has inherited from her mother. They all resemble Pete Walker types who probably beat misbehaving servants or eat people who come to have their fortunes told when they’re not round at Frances’ house having quail and sherry prepared by her own housekeeping staff.

After one such dinner party, and during a terrible storm, Frances looks out through the window and sees a young man getting drenched on a park bench. She invites him inside and thus begins Altman’s increasingly claustrophobic and disturbing psycho thriller.
The young man (David Burns) initially pretends to be mute as she offers him food, a bath, breakfast the next day and buys him new clothes. The fact she locks his bedroom door at night doesn’t stop him leaving through the window to visit his family during an impressive crane shot that might have inspired Argento’s even more ambitious use of a similar piece of equipment in TENEBRAE.

It doesn’t stop him coming back to take advantage of all the free things, either.  In this respect he becomes horror’s typical victim - the one we know shouldn’t go into the dark cellar or the forest at midnight. The only darkness here is inside Frances’ mind, but it’s quite scary enough as we witness her visit to a gynaecologist to obtain contraception for her planned first sexual experience with her prisoner. Eventually she discovers how he gets out and locks the place down. She goes to bizarre extremes to ‘please’ him, which of course misfire completely, until we reach a final shot that’s an absolute cracker and I’m not going to spoil it for you.

Considered Altman’s first movie as an auteur, THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK certainly possesses stylistic elements that follow through his subsequent work. Even if you’re not familiar with it, though, there’s plenty to be appreciated in Altman’s portrayal of a woman who, because of her stifling existence, is ‘not quite right’. The viewer is encouraged to feel distanced from her by numerous devices (viewing her through grills, glass, and lots of mirrors) and the camera often skulks off in a corner as we spy on the interaction of the two leads. 

Eureka’s disc also contains a half-hour interview with David Thompson, author of Altman on Altman. He contextualises the movie within Altman’s career and gives an excellent potted history of how the film came to be made. I’m going to own up now to never having heard of THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK before, but Eureka’s calling it a ‘psychological gothic thriller’ piqued my interest. It certainly is that, with excellent performances, drifting zooms and crisp photography from Laszlo Kovacs, Altman’s film gives us a slow and steady crescendo into insanity that, by the climax, stifles the viewer as much as Frances Austen has been stifled by her entire life. 

Eureka are releasing Robert Altman's THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK in a dual format DVD & Blu-ray set on Monday 20th of June 2016

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