THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (1969)

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Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis) lives in a privileged beige world. She has servants and rich elderly friends who descend on her apartment for dinner and indulge in superficial bourgeois chit-chat about the inclemency of the weather. But Frances is unable to forget the young man she saw sitting on the park bench, huddled against the cold. He is still there – she is watching him from the window – and now it’s raining. “Someone should ask him in,” she says, and her dinner guests mock her.

But as soon as her guests and servants are gone, Frances rescues The Boy (Michael Burns) and runs him a bath, serves him dinner, lets him stay the night in her guest room. The Boy complies, but refuses to talk. Maybe he can’t talk. When Frances asks him his name, The Boy only smiles.

After The Boy goes to bed, Frances locks him in the guest room. This is only the smallest foreshadowing of what is to come.

The Cold Day in The Park is a curious psycho-drama, a complex character study of a fragile and repressed young woman trapped inside a gilded cage, who tentatively reveals herself to this mysteriously handsome doe-eyed man and reacts in the most unexpectedly cruel way when her affections aren’t returned. Although it has a lot to recommend it, not least the fine central performances of Sandy Dennis and Michael Burns, it doesn’t quite work as a psychosexual horror story because, like Frances herself, the movie seems disconnected and unsure of what it wants to be. The tension is missing.

That’s not to say it is wholly unsuccessful – there’s a terrific midpoint scene when Frances leads The Boy in a game of Blind Man’s Buff and, with their shadows flickering across the walls and the intimation that something dark and twisted is to come, the movie briefly has promise – there’s also a sequence when The Boy’s sister slips into the house and threatens to tip the entire game over the edge – but, for the most part, the story loses all momentum when Dennis isn’t on screen. Thanks to weaknesses in Gillian Freeman’s screenplay, Frances’ final breakdown doesn’t really convince either. It seems too sudden, too shocking, and doesn’t entirely make sense in the context of her character. By the time the violence arrives, the film has sadly lost most of its power.

Still, as an example of Robert Altman’s fledgling work as a director (much of his signature style is already evident) and as a flawed examination of emotional obsession that is reminiscent of William Wyler’s (much better) The Collector (1965), the film is worthy of consideration. And Sandy Dennis, who was an unfairly underrated actress despite winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, is marvellous to behold.

THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (1969) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ROBERT ALTMAN / SCREENPLAY: GILLIAN FREEMAN / STARRING: SANDY DENNIS, MICHAEL BURNS, SUSANNE BENTON, DAVID GARFIELD / RELEASE DATE: JUNE 20TH

 


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