Altman’s That Cold Day In The Park: 1960’s Repressed Psychosexual Spinster at 30+? and the Young Colt Playing Mute

“How far will a woman go to possess a 19 year old boy?”

That Cold Day In The Park (1969) Robert Altman-iconic American director (Mash, Nashville) best known for his very naturalistic approach to plot development in his films. He has a very stylized viewpoint, which creates an atmosphere of actors dialogues overlapping each other. He allows his actors to improvise their lines which was a very unorthodox method of film making. He’d often refer to a screenplay as a “blueprint” for the action, and cared more about character motivation than the relevant components of the plot. In Cold Day, he uses a more somber monotone dialogue, still informal and intimate, yet not as cluttered with the chatter he uses in his later works. Here the film works as a mood piece of modern Gothic horror that eventually devolves into Grande Guignol style. Another aspect of this more subtler psychological horror film is how it makes the protagonist particularly ambiguous as we are not sure where our sympathies lie. Considering the boy’s entrapment which he become complicit in since he has several opportunities to stay away once he realizes that Frances is not emotionally stable, yet he’s complacent in luring Frances into his game. While Frances is both predator and victim, the moral ambiguities lay open.

Altman often presents Frances in that iconographic mirror in order to represent her duality. The reflections of the repressed woman and the voyeur who seeks to fulfill her sexual desires. While, ‘the boy’ walks around the apartment naked he becomes and ‘object’ of desire for Francis’ fragile self control. She is a pathetic deranged time bomb who will eventually lose all hold on reality.

Again, I will not give away the climactic ending. It’s too powerful through the camera’s framing, the storytelling and of course Dennis and Burns extraordinary performances.

At first I set out to do this review with a mind towards coupling it with another psycho-sexual film experiment Secret Ceremony 1968 starring Liz Taylor and Mia Farrow, by the great director Joseph Losey, but once I started thinking and writing about Cold Day, I realized I had a lot to say, so I’ll save that other psychologically startling feature for another time, although it makes for a good companion piece.

Johnny Mandell’s music works well as the very minimalist piano score that creates the atmosphere of loneliness. It’s a beautifully evocative piece of film scoring. Laszlo Kovacs’s cinematography creates a stark and sterile landscape who’s monochromatic colors seem to implode around the characters.

Starring Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?’66, The Fox, The Out of Towners ’70) as Frances Austen and Michael Burns (loads of television appearances and he plays yet another  strange boy in Grand Guignol’s The Mad Room 1969) as “The Boy” That film directed by Bernard Girard. 

The film is premised on Dennis’ character being a psychotic sexually repressed woman who’s loneliness has driven her to a spiraling madness. She is portrayed as the figure of an archaic high born spinster devoid of emotional or physical connection to her own body nor any other individual, male or female. A sexless drone living outside the world in her own isolated imprisonment/apartment in Vancouver left to her by her wealthy deceased mother. Frances carries on the ritual of entertaining her mother’s older friends out of an empty obligation filled with no joy or passion for life.

Now, I often wonder about womens’ roles in film, ones who in years past played the spinster. The woman passed her prime and so sexually repressed and relentlessly dour that she’s ready for the glue factory and unable to have a meaningful relationship because she’s obsolete as far as the script goes. Then come to find out that she’s only in her mid thirties. It fascinates me how things have changed, and while women in film still aren’t getting the sexy roles at 50 or 60 even though they’re younger looking and more in the midst of  a ripe youthful mindfulness well passed 40 into their 50s. Over and over I watch films that portray woman who either perceive themselves as gone to seed or the plot sets them up as being viewed as ready for the old hags home. But I digress as I’m apt to do.

I’ve not read Richard Miles book, but I think that this story most likely had the characters’ motivations more fleshed out, it might have even made for a compelling stage piece.

Sandy Dennis, plays a wealthy spinster starved for human contact who while entertaining truly older folk in her apartment, situated in some nondescript Urban setting, spies a young man sitting on the park bench outside her apartment. At first Frances wearing a forbidding black dress had ignored the boy sitting on the bench. While Sandy Dennis was quite a young actress of 31, her tightly upturned hairstyle and mannerisms indicate that she is taking on the role her mother once had, presenting herself as an ‘older’ woman.

She seems to be more recluse than hostess. She is repulsed by the old doctor friend (Edward Greenhaigh) who keeps trying to get her alone. It revolts her that he wears support bands to hold up his socks and smells like an old man. And she doesn’t seem to want to engage in conversation with any of her guests. One wonders if these gatherings are just Pavlovian ritual of the idle rich, a circumstance she has been conditioned to since birth, or is she shielding herself from any real contemporary human contact by hanging around a collection of fossilized bores?

Altman doesn’t give us a lot of information, he usually makes the audience infer from the actors what their motivations are. My guess is that it’s a little of both.

[And I mean no disrespect for the elderly, I hold a very high reverence for people who have claimed the right to life experience, but here in this situation, these particular guests seem to be used as a conveyance of sour, cynical and hardened natural snobbery.]

But the film uses artifacts of growing older to symbolize Frances’ revulsion of time honored traditions and older people. Though she surrounds herself with remnants of a past way of life handed down by her mother, her growing antagonism and loneliness sparks her madness.

Frances lives in her own world and for no reason that we are privy to, has been terribly damaged by her loneliness and self imposed isolation handed down by the matriarch. One day, one cold and rainy day during a very strained social dinner party at her place, she notices Michael Burns (The Boy) sitting on the park bench outside her apartment window. He is conspicuously perched on the bench with no apparent purpose. Only later do we learn that he had been waiting for his sister Nina (Susanne Benton) who fails to show up that day. Most likely in bed with her rough around the edges, Vietnam vet, drug using, oversexed boyfriend, played by John Garfield Jr.

A lone passerby drops off a newspaper in the trash can by the bench and Burns uses it as a blanket to shield himself from getting wet. This action creates an aura of a poignant soul at the mercy of the elements– an influence that draws the boy closer to Frances’ gaze. A praying mantis who has stumbled onto her mate/prey sanctuary.

She studies him with fascination. Perhaps, she glimpses a kindred spirit in his solitariness. We see how she sets herself apart from her guests. We sense a certain hostility, an obvious antagonism toward her gathering, rather than empathy. Even her trusty servants, who dote on her like a mother hens evoke a level of disdain in Francis. Her housekeeper Mrs. Parnell played by (Rae Brown) sheds a disapproving air about Francis once she’s let the boy into the apartment. Everyone involved in the periphery of Francis’ life assumes her loneliness as unhealthy. Yet Francis continues to shield herself from any genuine human contact until she discovers the boy. The boy being the catalyst for her latent sexual desire.

She sends her guests away early and runs outside standing behind the chain link fence of the apartment complex, an almost prison like effect is constructed. She calls to the boy from her fortress. He comes to the fencing and Francis invites him in to her apartment to dry off. She then runs him a bath and begins to dote on him, feeding him, playing him records of various varieties of music. She hovers over him as if he were a stray puppy or as the New York Times reviewer(Howard Thompson) referred to him as a young colt, she has found.

In Peter Shelley’s Grande Dame Guignol Cinema he makes an interesting observation about the way Kovacs lenses Frances in shadow as if she is a ‘female monster’ when she asks ‘the boy’ to stay. Also suggesting that Altman presents Frances personae likened to ‘vampirism’ as she wears her hair down at night.

He feigns being mute. This is something his sister lets us know he does from time to time. Again we do not know why he would shut off from communicating, but he uses it as a way to watch Francis from a distance. He tells his sister the first time he sneaks out the bedroom window back to his real home that he’s never met anyone who talked as much as Francis, and that she is sexually weird. Perhaps we are supposed to decipher something  significance about a boy who chooses not to talk, and a woman who chooses only to talk. Francis’ chatter is so trivial at times, yet it uncovers no layers to her pathology.

Early on we sense that his being mute is a ruse, we also see glimpses of Francis knowing all too well, that he is only playing mute. But she is suddenly drawn to him and now their game has commenced which plays out very tediously, yet compelling all the same.

Michael Burns has an impish face. He’s a highly underrated actor of the 70’s. In Cold Day, his range is truly utilized in Neo-Gothic urban fashion. His role in The Mad Room (1969) released that same year, starring Shelley Winters and Stella Stevens, didn’t really give him the environment to expand his acting prowess. He’s got boyish good looks. Almost Cherubim. We see his naked bum a lot, prancing around the apartment with only a bath towel and his silent body language. Doing a little Chaplinesque pantomime to convey “himself”, his spirit, as he is acting mute for Francis. He exudes a hint of dangerous quality yet manifests a gentleness. Perhaps in his mind he at first romanticizes in dreamy fashion that he is an Oliver Twist who has stumbled onto something good. A street urchin who has been taken in by a seemingly kind yet odd woman. And so he’s playing along with the game, all the time realizing that Sandy Dennis’ character is not quite right. She talks incessantly about things that aren’t relevant. He humors her, in an odd sort of sympathetic way.

Of course there is another element of his motive for allowing himself to be taken in. His opportunism, as he is tolerating her advances and the exploitation of her quirkiness, and the foisting of gifts and comforts upon him. We later come to learn, that he is from a very dysfunctional home life. When he runs home to his sister Nina who’s smoking hash and carrying on with her boyfriend, he tells her how grateful he is to finally have his own room and bed.

Nina is a hyper sexual sister, who has more than incestuous overtones for her little brother. The Boy also has a strain of sexual dysfunction in him as well. There are no boundaries as his sister has sex with her boyfriend while her brother watches on the fire escape outside her window. Later on, she shows up uninvited to Francis’ apartment and takes a bath, she plunges him into the tub with her and then while lying on the bed naked tells him that he excites her and she excites him. If not for her breaking the tense and perverse moment with laughter, we might have seen the boy move onto the bed to have sexual relations with her. These are streetwise and blamelessly ruthless children. Apparently the mother is non involved and these siblings are out to fend for themselves. There is no familiar foundation from which they spring from, and so they seem to wander aimlessly, pleasuring themselves with what ever comes their way.

After the first night of Francis’ treacly verbal stroking of her new pet, she tucks him into bed like a child, and then she locks the door. He is able to sneak away through the window to retreat back to his origin. To meet up with his sister. To relate the strange situation he has stumbled into. But we get the first sign that this diversion, this subterfuge will not end well.

From that very first night there is a sort of tedium that drones on as Dennis’s character starts to care take him, which begins with the locking of the door to his room. Though striking the boy as bizarre, he seems untroubled by this maneuver, and so slips out at night through the window, planning to return later on, unnoticed by Francis.

Later on in the film, entering his room, she discovers he’s out again at night after having poured her heart out with more than the usual meaningless diatribes she spurts, she realizes that it’s really a lump of dolls he’s stuffed under the blanket made to look like him sleeping. She had been telling him that it’s okay if he wants to make love to her, and that she wants him to make love to her. Once she discovers that he’s not even in the bed, it ignites outrage,she screams, and now we see her wrath starting to leak out a bit, betrayed that he has left her alone.

So,no more slipping out for the boy. She nails down every window and locks all the doors and keeps him prisoner. When he returns after the revelation that he’s been slipping out,he now finds that he is a virtual prisoner, he tells her that he can leave any time he wants. he looks for knives in the kitchen and grabs a meat cleaver to try and wrench the nails from the window sills. The tension is building as he realizes that this is not a game anymore, that she is truly mentally deranged and he is now her captive.

She tells him that she understands that he’s young and needs sex and that she’ll bring him someone.

She then proceeds to go to a seedy bar trying to procure a prostitute as surrogate for her sexual repression.The first bar Francis goes to, she sits and watches a girl, beehived Mary Quant black eyeliner and attitude, almost a flash forward to singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. Francis approaches her in the bathroom and asks if she’ll come home with her because she has a boy there who needs sex. The girl asks how much, then rebuffs Francis and calls her a pervert.Assuming that the sexual procurement was for herslef, a woman and not someone else. But overhearing the incident, Michael Murphy as The Rounder.

Taking on the task of recruiting a prostitute for Francis, the smarmy character that Murphy plays, brings Francis to what looks like an all night dive diner/lesbian hang out, where all the players in the room are further used to set off an ambiguous puzzle as to whether the prostitute is for her or not. Francis’ sexuality is truly ambiguous in this film.

A scene at the gynecologist, (a male doctor) must be part of the narrative that tells us how clinically she is disconnected from the sex act. How her body is something she is not attached to, but finding this boy, as a keepsake, a play thing, brings her madness to the level of psycho sexual and psychopathic breakdown.

Ultimately while we’ve been dancing back and forth between both characters who have been humoring each others’ motives and whims, the fracturing of reality has begun for Francis, and ultimately for the boy to see that he has entered into a very savage trap. The tension stems from more of a growing inertia that suddenly combusts.

Luana Anders, (early 60’s cult actress from Roger Corman’s wonderfully macabre adaptation of Poe’s Pit and The Pendulum and Curtis Harrington’s very obscure but nigthmarish and dreamy Night Tide also starring in Dementia 13 ) plays Sylvie the prostitute, in one of the more emotionally connected scenes that gives us some frame of reference of reality to the real world,a more engaging character who comes into the framing of the story. The whole thing culminates in a very disturbing moment, that abruptly grabs at your psychic jugular vein and leaves you speechless. A tragic poignancy, bleak and dismal, perhaps while more subtle than recent films of the genre, still a psychologically grotesque film for some people to watch.

It’s a compelling interaction of misguided souls triggering a psychotic combustion of parts. Leaving you more than a little uncomfortable. While I found the film an interesting experiment in the sub genre of psycho sexual disturbances and 70s Grande Dame Guignol, I’m not sure anyone else would be able to sustain viewing it long enough for the climactic end.

Sandy Dennis has done her share of films where she gets to stretch her range. Usually, coming across like a wounded bird. (The Fox, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolff?) she can be like a languid train wreck in our view who’s articulations while off putting, can draw you in as well.

Without giving away the swiftly shocking ending, I’d say that this film might annoy most film goers, yet I found it oddly satisfying. Perhaps in it’s initial theatrical release, audiences found it disturbing and unsavory, today it satisfies my taste for eclectic cinema and character acting with a slow burn pace and an undeniable gestalt laden, thought provoking climax that permeates the brain cells and lasts on the tongue like a big clove of garlic, the film disturbs the mind for hours. While That Cold Day In The Park obviously reviled film critics and movie goers during it’s theatrical release in 1969, I think it’s one of Altman’s most underrated pieces of work.


Movie Review New York Times Published June 9,1969 by Howard Thompson

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

“The kindest thing to say of this misguided drama, about a wealthy, thirtyish spinster, who installs, then imprisons a coltish youth in her apartment, is that it caused a healthy flurry of filming activity in Vancouver, British Columbia, by an enterprising American production unit.”

“The climax is a gory business with a bread knife.”

The Cast
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK, screen play by Gillian Freeman, from the novel by Richard Miles; directed by Robert Altman; produced by Donald Factor and Leon Mirell;  Running time: 112 minutes.
Frances Austen . . . . . Sandy Dennis
The Boy . . . . . Michael Burns
His Sister . . . . . Susanne Benton
Nick . . . . . John Garfield Jr.
The Prostitute . . . . . Luana Anders

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