Robert Altman throughout the ’70s arguably more than contemporary through his genre hopping in that decade single-handed created what would be known as the American independent cinema of the ’90s in style and tone. Altman’s story however begins back in the ’50s by making “industrial films” and a few low budgets features and through the ’60s by directing television like Combat! and the sci-fi flick Countdown. The first Altman film which feels like a “Altman film” is That Cold Day in the Park even though greater things would come from M*A*S*H onwards, it’s still an interesting footnote and stepping stone in his long and unique career.
That Cold Day in the Park is based on a novel by Peter Miles and was adapted to the screen by novelist Gillian Freeman who would be best known for to fans of cult cinema and novels as the author of The Leather Boys. The overall adaptation is relatively loose and took much of the more controversial aspects of the novel out. Altman also set the film in Vancouver instead of the novel’s original setting of Paris.
Sandy Dennis plays a rich but lonely housewife who takes a boy who is from the nearby park who pretends to be mute to be her companion at her house. The film has the strange dreamlike feel of Altman’s later psychothrillers which also have women as the protagonists Images and 3 Women. However it does quite have the story or the pacing down as well as his later forays in similar films. The first half especially is bagging and you could see how a viewer could lose patience with the film quickly. The contemporary response for universally negative for the most part.
The film’s virtues really come from the cinematography from László Kovács who along with his close friend and fellow country man Vilmos Zsigmond are responsible for the look of so many of the classic American films from ’70s. Weirdly it was the only time Altman worked with Kovács because it seems he favoured Zsigmond because he worked with him on 3 of his subsequent films. The shots through windows which became a trademark of Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller and 3 Women are first on show here. Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue is also firstly on show but in small instances.
It’s a shame That Cold Day in the Park isn’t quite the lost classic some may claim it to be with this re-release. It reminded me a lot of the British oddity released around the same time Entertaining Mr Sloane but less subversive. However it’s an important film for Altman buffs for which I’m one but it certainly doesn’t have the replay value of his best works or even some of the lesser ones. The disc is fairly sparse but includes a new interview with David Thompson who compiled the Altman on Altman book. Naturally there is a booklet with new writings on the film.