• That Cold Day In The Park





    Released by: Eureka/Masters of Cinema
    Released on: June 20, 2016
    Directed by: Robert Altman
    Cast: Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, John (David) Garfield, Jr., Luana Anders, Michael Murphy, Linda Sorenson
    Year: 1969

    The Movie:

    Robert Altman’s career in film began as something of a fluke: In 1946, he moved to California hoping to get into the movies. His first big break came in 1948, when he sold a script he’d co-written to RKO. Buoyed by his success, he moved to New York City, but the change did little for his career, and he soon found himself back home in Kansas City, Missouri. There, he began making documentary shorts for a local industrial company; soon thereafter, he was hired to make a film about teen delinquents. Shot on a shoestring, it was sold to United Artists, who later released it. Encouraged, Altman returned to California and soon found himself co-directing a feature documentary about James Dean and working in the burgeoning television industry. Among his many roles was as director on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was a short-lived stint but led to greater exposure and more work, and before long he was an old hand at episodic television.

    While it certainly had its limitations, working in television also had its advantages. Among them, Altman learned how to shoot quickly and efficiently with little money or resources. Itching to make the jump to the big screen, he directed the science fiction quickie Countdown in 1967. It was an attempt to cash in on the space race and hewed a fairly realistic course, capitalizing on the race to the moon. Released in 1968, it met with fairly poor reviews and even poorer box office receipts. (It probably didn’t help that Altman was fired from the film during the editing process and had nothing to do with the final cut.)

    Undeterred, Altman made his next film in 1969. Unlike Countdown, he attempted something original, giving it his own voice and operating on instinct. The result was That Cold Day in the Park.

    Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis) is bored. Sure, she has a nice apartment in upper class Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. And yes, she has an older suitor even richer than she is. She shops, she watches television, she entertains, but her life seems aimless—until one evening as she hosts a dinner party, she spies out her window a handsome young man (Michael Burns) sitting on a park bench in the pouring rain. Frances invites the stranger into her home to get dry and warm. He doesn’t speak and behaves strangely, which presents something of a challenge to Frances, one she determines to overcome. Believing that he has nowhere left to turn, she insists he remain with her. There’s just one drawback: he isn’t what he seems, and his life with Frances is a deception designed to cheat her of her wealth. Frances isn’t exactly who she presents herself as either, and soon the two are caught up in a game of cat and mouse.

    Unfortunately, despite playing at Cannes, the film followed Countdown’s path to failure. Critics lambasted it while audiences ignored it. To some degree, this is understandable. The film is fairly slow to start and doesn’t really find its voice until about two-thirds of the way through. Altman takes an almost theatrical approach to the material, with long passages in which the leads walk in and out of the same few rooms. Dialogue is heavy but one-sided, and the action is fairly staid. But once the twists are exhausted and the psychosexual neuroses of the primary characters established, it steps into entirely new terrain, charting a course that is both unexpected and aesthetically pleasing. And when it ends, it ends on a high note.

    There can be no doubt that the film’s true star is Sandy Dennis. Dennis had begun her career in the mid-1950s, while still a teenager, on the daytime soap The Guiding Light. Before long, she had roles in primetime television shows before jumping ship for Broadway, where she found almost instant success. She won back-to-back Tony Awards in succeeding years, making such a name for herself that noted director Mike Nichols’ cast her in the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The performance won Dennis an Oscar.

    The script for That Cold Day in the Park must have seemed a godsend to Dennis. It posited a female as the lead and gave her the majority of the dialogue. It also featured a characterization that was atypical for a woman at the time. Too bad the film’s box office did nothing to further her career. Though she was praised for her work in The Out of Towners (1970), acting roles became fewer and further between. Not that any of that matters to her work on That Cold Day in the Park. While Michael Burns acquitted himself as The Boy, he’s justly forgotten in comparison to Dennis.

    Though it may have stunted Dennis’s career, the film did nothing to hurt Altman’s. The very next year he followed it up with MASH, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    That Cold Day in the Park comes to Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line in a Dual Format Edition. Eureka has utilized an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition, with the film framed at 1.85:1 per its original theatrical release. Placed on a BD50, the Blu-ray has clearly been struck from an older transfer (apparently the same used for Olive’s stateside BD release), but, while far from perfect, it isn’t terrible either. Much of the image suffers from a general malaise; it tends toward soft, with weak black levels. There’s some fluctuation in the picture quality, much of which can be attributed to the source materials and/or the way Altman shot the film. Grain is a little strong in places, particularly when the image goes dark (though this only really occurs during indoor sequences). Sharpness and clarity are, for the most part, lacking, but—and this is an interesting turn one doesn’t usually see on Blu—nighttime scenes shot outdoors look terrific. Colors are far sharper, and there’s a great deal more detail in these sequences than during the day-lit exteriors and brightly lit interiors. Usually it’s facial and floral close-ups that benefit the most from the process, but here, the bustling city at night becomes the true sight to behold.

    Eureka has opted for an LPCM 1.0 audio track. The sound was never intended to blow one away, so the limiting range of mono isn’t really an issue. What’s important is that dialogue be clear and discernible, and it is. No hiss, no pop, no fluctuations in sound levels. Subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are included. There is no commentary or secondary sound-effects tracks.

    Unfortunately, extras are sparse. Many of the participants (including Altman and Dennis) are long gone, and no trailer is provided. There is, however, an approximately 30-minute interview with film historian David Thompson, who discusses the original source material, the director, and the cast, among other things. It was recorded by Eureka exclusively for this release and is well worth a viewing for fans of Altman.

    The disc is locked to Region B.

    The Final Word:

    That Cold Day in the Park is a difficult film to pigeonhole. A melodrama-turned-crime drama-turned-psychosexual thriller, it may seem difficult to absorb, but audiences are encouraged to stick with it. It does get better and ends on an unusually high note. The transfer is moderately attractive, with nighttime exteriors faring better than brightly lit interiors. There are few extras, but the sound is more than serviceable. Altman or Dennis fans won’t want to miss it; others may find it interesting but should approach with some caution. This isn’t a commercial film by any means, and one must be in the right frame of mind to “get it.”

    *Neither the booklet nor the DVD were provided to Rock! Shock! Pop! for review.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the Silent Era: Book One (1895-1915) and Book Two (1916-1929) due out later this year.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!