Ignoring the juvenile delinquent drive-in exploitation flick he made back in 1955, “That Cold Day in the Park” was the second independent feature film from Robert Altman, arriving in 1969 after a long career apprenticeship that started in industrial documentary film-making and resulted in him becoming a director for hire on numerous hit US television series (notably the WW2 action series “Combat”), before getting his first real break on the studio-compromised 1967 moon landings picture “Countdown”. Yet, this was still really the very first film Altman was involved in to indicate the auteurist direction he was interested in exploring with his cinema, pre-figuring the by now middle-aged filmmaker’s emerging importance as a figurehead for the New Hollywood generation: that much vaunted, film school-reared group of mostly younger directors and writers who enjoyed the fruits of their critical and commercial success in the wake of the crumbling away of the older studio system, just as early rumblings from the new youth centred counterculture of the late-sixties began to be felt more widely. This film was also the first low-key entry in what later became known as Altman’s ‘Feminine Quartet’, although it has often been overshadowed since by the more overtly challenging of its immediate successors, “Images” and“3 Women” (the two films belonging to this group that Altman made in the ‘70s, not long after his big breakthrough“M.A.S.H.” ) both of which embody the more surrealistic end of psycho-thriller territory: an area of Altman’s interest that had been clearly inspired by the psychological identity slippage themes informing Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Persona”– a major influence on Altman during this period.
Long forgotten and overlooked, and even in the past somewhat dismissed by the director himself, this new Blu-ray edition for UK company Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series, restores what is a remarkably effective chamber piece to public awareness, revealing Altman, even in this early phase of his career, to be in total control of some nascent stylistic identifiers, shown here being put usefully to work in augmenting a dazzling central performance from previously Oscar-winning actress Sandy Dennis. Writing about the casting and performance of Dennis in the film (who was taking on a role originally conceived for, but turned down by, Ingrid Bergman), Altman summarised their working process as being a matter of him establishing with the actress the boundaries of the piece, before then letting her loose to freely create the character within those pre-established parameters: ‘she creates, and I watch’ was the pithy phrase he used to describe the almost alchemical nature of the synchronous relationship that emerges on screen between filmmaker and performer; a simple phrase perhaps, but one that contains within it all the subtlety and complexity that is encapsulated by the technique on display both behind and in front of the camera, and which is showcased throughout this film.
The movie was based on a novel by Peter Miles. Born in Tokyo, with the birth name Gerald Richard Perreau-Saussine, Miles turned to novel writing after an early career spent as a child actor. The adapted screenplay – by Gillian Freeman, better known for writing the gay-themed novel “The Leather Boys” (under the pen-name Eliot George) as well as its subsequent screenplay adaptation for Sidney J Furie’s film version, starring Rita Tushingham – changes the location to a wintery Vancouver, but the novel was originally set in Paris. Altman at first favoured an English setting, perhaps anticipating London’s contemporary image as the rain-soaked western epicentre of a faded aristocratic establishment under siege from the brash, irreverent permissiveness of modern youth culture - a vision previously promoted in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s“Blow Up” and Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s “Performance”. A certain depiction of an overcast and murkily cold climate was essential for establishing the wistful ambience of decline Altman intended to create: “The script called for plenty of rain, bone-chilling damp, misty days, and a mixture of antique gentility with today’s permissive society of hippies, drop-outs and draft dodgers”, Altman later recalled - beautifully summing up the period milieu that is captured so effectively by the movie, despite him having to swap London for the Kitsilano neighbourhood of Vancouver in Canada, which was selected because it offered a similarly frosty, autumnal type of weather to Britain at its bleakest. The region was also Canada’s equivalent to Greenwich Village – a hangout for anti-establishment bohemian types, and therefore the perfect location for staging a macabre confrontation between the generations, that simultaneously functions as an meditation on the flimsy constructions of class, gender and sexuality underpinning notions of self-hood.
The opening act is a textbook exercise in carefully and deliberately establishing character through film texture and by subliminal layering of mood; not just relying on the neurotic quirks that are inherent to Sandy Dennis’s mesmerising performance, but adumbrating the lineaments of her character’s psychological profile and the lifestyle it entails with the aid of lighting, art design and camera technique: that isolating, cold, misty dampness mentioned by Altman is exemplified in the cinematography of “Easy Rider” lensman László Kovács during the opening moments of the film, as Francis Austin (Sandy Dennis), to the accompaniment of Johnny Mandel’s fragile, melodic theme cue, makes her way in the rain through the west side of Vancouver’s Tallow Park on a freezing October evening, heading to one of the large, anonymous gentrified apartments that overlook it. Throughout the movie, Altman will use the overlapping dialogue audio techniques he would become renowned for on his later ensemble pictures, to highlight Francis’s displacement and isolation, especially when she is surrounded by other people. In one particularly masterful later sequence, he shoots her visiting a gynaecology clinic at a hospital, where she is to have a contraceptive fitted. We see the entire episode from outside the large anonymous building, tracking her movements through reception areas and consultation rooms whilst peering in at her through the various lighted windows, thereby setting up a queasy air of voyeurism; yet the audio reports what Francis herself would’ve been subjectively hearing from her vantage point inside the building at the time – all the overlapping conversations from which she herself seem perpetually excluded but which we also get to eavesdrop on. Throughout the film, even though she is actually only in her early-thirties at least, all of her friends, suitors and acquaintances seem to be septuagenarians; Francis even dresses older than she actually is, and takes part in pursuits more common to the elderly, such as lawn bowling. Later we learn that these are friends if her dead mother, and that Francis has merely adapted to the social climate and lifestyle of her parents’ generation, to some extent even adopting her mother’s persona in lieu of having one of her own. The incongruity, then, of her being shown in the environment of a modern sexual health clinic is given an invasive edge from the fact that the only sexual interest shown towards her later, comes from one of her dead mother’s elderly doctor friends.
The sense of inter-generational displacement is compounded by Leon Ericksen’s superb art direction, not just in its merging of antique furnishings with Francis’s half-hearted attempts to create for herself a contemporary 1970s living space inside the apartment, but in the colour palette selected for the rooms we see there – which is one of autumnal browns and greens and golds, with dashes of red. The fragility of identity is the major theme of the movie but it plays out through the sociological signifiers of the late 1960s, summed up in Francis’s warped relationship with a nineteen-year-old teenager (Michael Burns) whom she notices sitting in the cold and damp on a park bench outside her apartment, a fateful interest which leads her into a mid-life crisis as she gradually becomes aware of how she cannot understand or authentically communicate with the younger Vietnam generation, nor any longer tolerate the disconnected bourgeois elders she has previously existed among. The middle portion of the film becomes all about her attempting to, at first, communicate with, but later entirely ‘possess’, this apparently mute boy after inviting him in to her warm upscale apartment and setting up a similar situation to that which transpires in “Persona”. The ‘boy’ (he is known only as such in the cast credits) won’t say a word to Francis, but nonetheless he establishes a playful childlike persona largely based on mime, which at first encourages a mother-like response from Francis, who is still playing the ‘role’ of someone who exists comfortably amongst her mother’s generation. While the boy says nothing, Francis talks and talks, increasingly seeking to combat her loneliness and isolation by projecting what she needs from the boy both socially, maternally and – latterly - sexually into the blank space created by his refusal to provide any information about himself at all.
Naturally, this being a film that firmly belongs to a period in time when boundaries and taboos were habitually being challenged in contemporary cinema, the relationship becomes more perverse and twisted as the movie progresses. Without spoiling the process of gradual unpacking of motive and filling out of character delineation which occurs as the viewer learns things about the lives of each of the central characters that neither knows about the other, there are hints of incest with the appearance of the boy’s flirtatious hippy sister (Susanne Benton) and suggestions of an abusive past rears its heads as the movie's third act leans more towards the ‘hagspoilation’ sub-genre that was once brought to prominence in the late films of Bette Davis (the casting of Luana Anders from Francis Coppola’s “Dementia 13” as Francis’s housekeeper seems like a meta-textual nod on a par with some of Peter Strickland’s recent casting), or rather acts as a commentary on it, since Francis is of course much younger than those types of roles would’ve required, yet is driven into the straight-jacket of madness exemplified by that style of movie through her inability to establish an authentic relationship with the by-now imprisoned boy in her apartment, becoming obsessive to the point of finding it necessary to trawl Vancouver’s red light district looking for female prostitutes she can take to him as a substitute for his lack of sexual interest in her. Altman regular Michael Murphy turns up here as a vaguely sleazy pickup who volunteers to help Francis in this bizarre task during the latter half of the movie, which comes to seem more and more like an early David Cronenberg piece as we sink further and further into Vancouver’s neon-lit, night-time fleshpots.
This early Altman receives a pleasing HD transfer and comes with an insightful video essay overview from David Thompson, editor of Altman on Altman. A booklet featuring archival features taken from articles published at the time of the movie’s original release, and a new essay by Australian writer and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, is also a useful additional part of the package.