Saturday, April 26, 2014

COOL FLICKS: That Cold Day in the Park

It's all about Frances.

Gillian Freeman has taken Richard Miles' character of Madame and a handful of key scenes as a springboard for an exploration of an oppressive and claustrophobic kind of loneliness. The kind of loneliness that will drive Frances (Sandy Dennis in a mesmerizing, bravura performance) to things she had barely dreamed about. Living in a cluttered apartment with all sorts of anachronistic and "old people's" furnishings (she has a harmonium!), cared for by an indifferent bustling housekeeper she also "inherited" from her dead mother Frances seems to have become her own prisoner. But one night at the end of a dinner party for her ancient friends -- most of whom are also inherited from her mother and all of whom are twice her age or more -- she drifts away from their idle chatter to glance out her apartment window. Outside in the pouring rain she sees a young man (Michael Burns) sitting on a park bench, apparently just as lonely as she is, getting drenched. With no umbrella and no real coat he curls up on the bench and lets the rain come down. We see her watch him with a sly smile on her face as she begins to plot. Once her guests have left Frances goes outside to the boy and invites him into her house. Just for a while. Until the rain stops. He can warm up, take a bath, have some food. Then when the rain stops, be on his way.

And so begins That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Robert Altman's second feature film and one of his least known movies. The combination of Altman's love of improvisational dialogue and Freeman's artful and cultivated speeches give the movie an air of timelessness and spontaneity. The movie opens with what seems like banter and chatter among Frances' dinner guests. A similar improvisational feel occurs when we see the boy with his sister and her boyfriend and much later in a visit to a doctor's office. The purpose of the visit and type of doctor are revealed only to us through the seemingly random conversation of three women in a waiting room. Meanwhile the camera follows Frances as she wanders about nervously or fidgets in her seat. This is one of the most clever sequences in the movie, a kind of scene we rarely see on film any more, a scene you need to pay attention to. Only rarely does the dialog betray its 1960s era as in the slangy phrases tossed around by the Boy, his sister and her boyfriend.

And the movie has such a mystery about it. The Boy indulging himself in his fraudulent mute world, toying with Frances, teasing her and Frances not really letting on what she's up to. This is more than a simple act of kindness, of taking a stranger in out of the pouring rain. There is a mind game of sorts going on between the two as well as other games. On his first night she gives him a bath, takes away his sodden clothes and lets him wander around her home clad only in a blanket. They listen to music. He coyly dances for her to gypsy music played on her hi-fi. He practically does a kind of strip tease. What is he up to? Why is Frances so willing to let a stranger run wild in her home? When he decides to stay for the night she locks him in his bedroom. She does it with such purpose we know that she has some kind of ulterior motive.

The Boy comes and goes as he pleases, but always returns to Frances' home. One day he returns with some "cookies" -- really brownies laced with pot. The two of them have a party that night with wine and the brownies. Frances becomes drunk and high and really lets her hair down. They play a game of blind man's buff, she flirts with him and continues her endless monologues about her life. He listens, returns the flirtations, but abandons her once again before the night is over. She's beginning to get a bit perturbed about his disappearances.





The crucial scene and the most poignant in the movie is the night when in a moment of utter honesty Frances bravely walks to his bedroom and delivers a speech about what her lonely life has become. She talks of Charles, a man old enough to be her father, who is attracted to her, who has propositioned her several times. "His immaculate shirts...he has a terrible habit of plucking at the creases in his trousers. He disgusts me." She talks about odd details of the first night she met the Boy. "You wore no socks with your shoes. No socks. That...it gave me such a peculiar feeling." She goes on becoming increasingly vulnerable, confessing her attraction for him, and getting the courage to slip into the bed next to him. What ends the scene is not only terrifying for Frances but heart-wrenching for the audience. We know that from this point on she will stop at nothing to keep the Boy in her home.



From that moment on there is an air of danger about the movie. As if her eccentricity weren't enough Frances becomes totally unpredictable. Her strangest and most desperate act is hiring a hooker by proxy and bringing her back to the Boy as a gift. As in the book this is the climax of the story. Whereas Miles had the third character of Yves enter at the eleventh hour, in the film there is no savior for the Boy. The movie has a very different ending, far more disturbing. For me because the story has always focused on Frances and her slow deterioration into a world of her own making Altman and Freeman's changed ending is much more satisfying. It also makes a lot more sense than Miles' somewhat ambiguous and flat ending in the novel.

That Cold Day in the Park is now available on DVD from that fine video company Olive Films, in both regular DVD and Blu-Ray formats. There's also the internet; I managed to watch the movie broken up into seven parts on YouTube (all seven parts together here). Not advisable for movie purists -- the color is washed out and a few scenes are too dark to see what's really going on. I'd suggest finding a DVD copy. Finally, this underrated movie is reaching a wider audience now as it so long deserved. There are several reviews on movie blogs all over the internet. One of the most knowledgeable and insightful critiques can be found at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For".

9 comments:

  1. Just a note to say thank you very much for linking my post on "That Cold Day in the Park"! One of your devoted readers hipped me to your site and I have been enjoying reading your thoughts on the film and book. Also love your well-taken apprehension about the forthcoming remake of "Rosemary's Baby."
    You have a great writing style and i look forward to exploring more of your site. As it is, I found it hard going just to stop reading long enough to post THIS! Thanks!

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    1. And thank you, Ken! As you can see I "borrowed" a few of your screenshots because the color is so much better than that YouTube version where I ...um...stole most of my screenshots.

      You have a new fan of your movie reviews. I'll be visiting your "Dreams" more often!

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  2. Andy Milligan covered the same territory in his "Nightbirds" made about the same time. I've not seen the Altman film, but Milligan's is pretty creepy.

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    1. Never heard of Milligan. I had to go look up his films at imdb. Not my kind of thing at all. Looks like he did a lot of schlock horror like Herschell Gordon Lewis. Based on a very detailed plot synopsis the only thing Nightbirds has in common with That Cold Day in the Park is that a woman picks up a young man and takes him home. Milligan's Dee sounds amoral and deranged nothing like the tortured and haunted Frances. The story of NIghtbirds is nowhere near what is told in either Miles' novel or the Altman/Freeman movie. The Altman movie has more in common with The Collector and stories of sexual obsession and covetousness.

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  3. I saw the movie at a pretty impressionable age (pre-teen) and it stuck with me but I have not wanted to watch it again - having said that, most of the time I really do like Sandy Dennis and Altman's movies so I really will have to give this another go - really enjoyed the twinned reviews John, thanks! I hadn't realised the movie had been so hard to get, though I think Olive did also release a DVD along with the Blu-ray - or at least according to their website: http://store.olivefilms.com/Thriller.55/Olive_Films.38/That_Cold_Day_in_the_Park__DVD_.5538.html

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    1. Ugh! Thanks, Sergio. That'll teach me to be hasty in my Googling. I linked to the very first page that turned up in my Olive Films search. I've changed the review and the link above to reflect both DVD formats are available.

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  4. That Cold Day in the Park once played back-to-back with McCabe and Mrs. Miller at the Vancouver Cinemateque, not far from where both where filmed. I caught the latter but missed the former, and never could bring myself to watch it on DVD. Well, you've convinced me. Funny thing is that for all these years I thought it was shot in black & white. I blame the DVD cover.

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    1. I think the ultimate double bill would be That Cold Day in the Park paired with The Collector starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar. In fact, I'm planning a similar dual review for Fowles' debut noval and the movie later this year.

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    2. Your suggested double bill seems a natural, John. If memory serves, McCabe and Mrs.Miller was preceded by Mudflats Living, a 1972 NFB documentary about a squatters community that was within sight of where Altman's film was shot. I should add that squatter Malcolm Lowry's shack was located in the very same area.

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