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  That Cold Day in the Park No Place Like Home
Year: 1969
Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, David Garfield, Luana Anders, Michael Murphy, Edward Greenhalgh, Doris Buckinham, Frank Wade, Alicia Ammon, Rae Brown, Lloyd Berry, Linda Sorenson
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis) is a rich spinster living in Vancouver in the apartment she used to share with her mother, who has since passed away. She still sees her mother's friends, and the housekeepers arrive twice a week to keep the place tidy, but other than that she is terribly lonely and unsatisfied. Perhaps it is this state of mind that leads her to grow curious about a young man she catches sight of through a window as he sits on a bench outside in the park, even though the weather is freezing cold and pouring with rain. Frances is entertaining dinner guests, but once they have left she makes her move...

Right before MASH made him a force to be reckoned with at the box office - well, sometimes - Robert Altman filmed this cross between a gothic melodrama and the kind of thriller that arrived after Psycho was a hit. At first it comes across as a lost Dennis Potter play, with the young man (unnamed in the credits) invited into Frances' apartment and given shelter, food and even a bath, as all the while he refuses to speak. The manner in which this is set up has you thinking that the next step will be that he turns into a menace, takes over her life and it ends up with someone dying in a grisly fashion, but you'd not be quite accurate in that assessment.

It might seem odd that a director who so loved to hear his characters talk would spend so much time with one who hardly spoke a word, but this is part of the enigma. Then again, you'd think that enigma would be able to sustain the film through its near two hours of running time, and about half an hour in Altman reveals all about the mystery man, as he turns out to be one of those sixties chaps who took a casual attitude to life, not bothering with regular employment and getting high when the mood took him. Why doesn't he say anything? According to his equally casually-minded sister Nina (Susanne Benton), it's simply a quirk, as he goes without speaking for days at times.

As far as Frances knows, the boy doesn't know how to speak and might not even be able to understand English, and although he strings her along like that for most of the movie, we don't sense any malice in him. After all, he's getting fed, washed and sheltered out of the deal, and all he has to do is hang around and keep schtum. At first Frances treats him like a pet, as if he's a stray dog she has picked up from the street, then he is a child to her as she mothers him; finally, and you know it's on its way, she considers him boyfriend material, even going to the lengths of getting a contraceptive fitted by pretending she is getting married.

Maybe in her mind she was, but all this seems lightly sinister for the most part without making it too obvious where it's headed as you be forgiven for thinking the young man was going to snap at some point. Altman liked to lay bare the feminine psyche, and if it was troubled then so much the better. Dennis offers a restrained but chilling portrait of a woman whose isolation has sent her round the bend, and is the best performer in this as we would not be half as interested in Frances if she had not made the character so compelling. Yet is seems too reductive to allow what happens at the finale, and it skirts too close to being one of those umpteen non-supernatural personality horrors that this decade churned out after the likes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a runaway success; while That Cold Day in the Park thankfully never approaches camp, it's hard not to be disappointed at the resolution, if you can call it that. Music by Johnny Mandel, heavy on the chimes.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Robert Altman  (1925 - 2006)

Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.

Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.

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