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With: Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, David Garfield, Luana Anders, Edward Greenhalgh, Doris Buckinham, Frank Wade, Alicia Ammon, Rae Brown, Lloyd Berry, Linda Sorensen, Michael Murphy
Written by: Gillian Freeman, based on a novel by Peter Miles
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 113
Date: 02/18/2013

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Tail Spinster

Before Robert Altman struck gold in Hollywood with M*A*S*H (1970), he was making his own brand of intelligent, exploratory films for over a decade with little notice. That Cold Day in the Park was his last moment of obscurity before success; it's an odd duck, but exceptionally well-made and always fascinating.

Pert, cute Sandy Dennis stars as Frances Austen, a "spinster" in her mid-30s. She's well-off and lives in a big house by the park (the film was shot in Vancouver). One day, while entertaining some other, well-off, boring guests, she spots a nineteen year-old man sitting on the park bench in the rain. She can't stop thinking about him, keeps looking out the window at him, and finally invites him in after her guests have gone.

The young man (Michael Burns) doesn't speak, and never gets a name (the credits refer to him as "The Boy"). Frances gives him a hot bath and some new clothes, and gets excited about the prospect of him staying. He does stay for a bit, but after he sneaks out once at night, she begins locking him in his room.

During his outings, the audience gets a glimpse of just who the boy really is, which Frances never sees. He does indeed speak, and just has a predilection for clamming up from time to time as protection. He sometimes visits his sister (Susanne Benton), who likes to flirt with him, and often comes close to crossing the line with him.

Altman uses his trademark observant tone, a kind of fly-on-the-wall looseness, as if the camera were merely glancing around the room, catching things at random. But the cinematography is by László Kovács; he emphasizes the differences between rich and poor, and continues to trap the characters behind partitions or between lines.

The result of all this is a bit odd and a bit chilly. Reviews at the time were uniformly harsh, but I think the movie has aged well; it comes from a novel by Peter Miles, who -- it seems -- mainly wrote exploitation stuff (They Saved Hitler's Brain, etc.). Perhaps Altman's artistic approach to this "lower" material just didn't jibe with audiences and critics of the day.

Nevertheless, it looks quite interesting placed back in the context of Altman's canon. It's somewhat similar to his underrated psychological horror film Images (1972). It also relies on a kind of carnal quality, which works. Perhaps the age and cultural distance between a rich 30-ish single woman and a poor 19 year-old single man doesn't seem quite as insurmountable in 2013 as it once did.

Altman has done many "chamber" pieces like this, with characters stuck in a single spot throughout the course of the film, and for me this one works better than some of the others. It moves more freely, and prickles the senses with its weird little psychological and sexual mysteries.

Olive Films has rescued this rare gem and given it a new, high quality 2013 DVD and Blu-ray release, with no extras.

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