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Robert Altman’s Gothic Trilogy: Reimagining the Woman’s Film

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

The woman’s film — popularized in Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s — encompasses a nebulous grouping of genres believed to appeal to female audiences, namely melodrama, romance, and the domestic drama. Made largely by men, these films centered on female protagonists and contained themes deemed to be of exclusive interest to women, such as friendship, motherhood, social rituals, and family life. At the height of their popularity during WWII, the woman’s film was generally intended to reaffirm traditional gender roles at a time when the social climate underwent dramatic changes, thanks primarily to the scope and scale of the war itself. As hundreds of thousands of men left the country to fight in the European, African, or Asian theatres, American women were ushered, albeit reluctantly, en masse into the workforce.

The majority of these films have a serious, even tragic tone and as far as specific genres go, the psychological melodrama is represented far more than either the light-hearted romantic drama or comedy. It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that much darker genres, namely horror and crime cinema, quickly began to adapt and reshape the woman’s film to suit their own purposes. This began with American horror in the ‘30s and ‘40s with Universal monster movie sequels like Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943), and She-Wolf of London (1946), and most of producer Val Lewton’s horror films, such as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Seventh Victim (1943).

Throughout genre cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s, female characters were generally innocent victims stalked by monstrous entities across spectacular landscapes, always with an element of seduction: such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), White Zombie (1932), King Kong (1933), Mad Love (1935), and many more. But by the ‘40s, these plot structures were often replaced with movies where women were tortured and murdered, and where the home became a place of fear and terror.

She-Wolf of London (1946)

Women are killed, attacked, or psychologically menaced in their homes constantly throughout the films of the decade. Hitchcock became an early master of the theme with influential examples like Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). It was also a staple of film noir, where fear of the female sexual appetite was a common feature throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. In many of these films, an alluring, often sexually aggressive woman — known as the femme fatale — trapped a male protagonist in a web of obsession, deceit, crime, and often murder. Even when women are victimized — as they are in many film noir titles, such as one of the earliest examples, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), or a classic entry like Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) — they are made out to be somehow morally compromised or even blatantly corrupt.

Quite frequently, these films depict women driven to madness. Examples abound: in Gaslight (1944), a woman is driven insane by her husband. In The Uninvited (1944), an early haunted house classic, a young woman is terrorized by the spirit of her vengeful mother inside her childhood home. In The Spiral Staircase (1945), a particularly eerie blend of horror and film noir, a serial killer stalks a vulnerable woman in a creepy old house where she is employed as a caretaker. Similarly, the home is a prison, a place of abuse, mania, and anxiety in film noir titles like Gilda (1946), Possessed (1947), and Caught (1949), all of which pit a controlling husband or lover against a protagonist driven to the brink of insanity (or well past the brink in the case of Possessed).

Occasionally, these female characters were driven to plot against or even murder their lovers and husbands in films like The Letter (1940), Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). They kill and abuse other family members in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) — unusually colorful and pastoral for a film noir, but packed with some of the grimmest themes in the entire sub-genre — The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Where Danger Lives (1950), and Preminger’s incredibly bleak, Angel Face (1952), where a troubled young woman tricks her lover into helping her murder her father and stepmother before subjecting him to a murder-suicide pact.

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Whether saccharine and conservative or steeped in horror and suspense, the woman’s film can’t fairly be described as a predominantly American invention — unlike one of its sister cinematic movements, film noir — though many of its key titles were made in American studios, often by German directors like Josef von Sternberg, Max Ophüls, or Douglas Sirk. And while possibly the single greatest re-interpreter of the woman’s film is New German Cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (building off of Sirk’s subversive foundation), it should come as no surprise that Robert Altman, one of the finest explorers of traditional American themes in cinema — along with directors like Howard Hawks, John Ford, William Wyler, and John Huston — also tried his hand at this theme with a loose trilogy: That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Images (1972), and 3 Women (1977).

That Cold Day in the Park, one of Altman’s most neglected films, follows the lonely Frances (Sandy Dennis, fresh off her award-winning turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?). One day, from the window of her home, she spots a young man (TV actor Michael Burns) sitting alone in the park during a rainstorm. Impulsively, she invites him in and gives him dry clothes and food. Though he’s mute, she quickly becomes very attached to him and asks him to stay. Alternating between maternal and romantic feelings for the boy, Frances soon becomes obsessed with the idea of him staying with her forever. Not actually mute or homeless, his curiosity gives way to horror when he realizes that he’s become a prisoner in her home…

A deeply strange film, Altman suggests that there is something perverse at work here. Frances is desperately lonely and starved for affection, but she is odd and sometimes seems to be intentionally off-putting. She appears to find social obligations (and even basic small talk) to be onerous. Following some of the tropes laid down by Gothic literature, such as Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas or even Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Frances’ comfortable home has connections to the past: antique furniture and knick knacks from another age, as well as a judgmental old housekeeper who worked for Frances’s mother and has just stayed on. Frances’ friends, who appear in an early dinner party sequence that is clearly tedious for Frances, were also inherited from her mother; even the man who attempts to become her lover is much older and she privately admits, “he disgusts me.” The scene where he proposes a sexual relationship with her is unpleasantly intercut with shots of an uncomfortable Frances at the gynecologist, undergoing a pelvic examination, presumably because she’s considering pregnancy.

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

While mothers are notoriously absent in Gothic fiction — Frances’ mother is deceased and never appears on screen — That Cold Day in the Park has elements of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (which was only released a few years earlier in 1959 and followed closely by Robert Wise’s film adaptation, The Haunting, in 1963) in the sense that both focus on a woman who is never really able to grow up or form an independent identity outside of her mother’s overwhelming presence.

Sandy Dennis delivers the kind of performance also found in more overt horror films from the period like Zohra Lampert’s spellbinding turn in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) or Angela Pleasence in Symptoms (1974). Like both of those films, and many of the earlier film noir or horror titles, the female protagonist delivers an ongoing monologue; while this is typically expressed as a voice over, either as an inner monologue or a reflection on past events, Altman has Frances deliver her dialogue as a one-sided conversation to a mute, literally captive witness. Dennis’s meticulous expressions of physical anxiety — much like Lampert’s and Pleasence’s — are one of the film’s strengths, conveying a range of psychological pain and torment absent from the dialogue (or even much of the action). Altman has been derided for his misogyny over the years, a generalization that I find incredibly tiresome, as his depiction of troubled female protagonists, as first exemplified by Frances, is both subtle and fascinating, lacking the hysterical excess found in something like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) or Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973).

And though the nameless boy is more of a sketch than a fully developed character, there is something equally strange about him. I can only imagine that this casting was intentional, but he’s hardly a statuesque vision of male beauty. He’s immature and oddly boyish though he looks to be in his mid to late ‘20s (Burns was 22 years old at the time of filming, while Dennis, then 32, was made to look older but somewhat nebulously aged) and their dynamic straddles an uncomfortable line between maternal care and sexual flirtation. He is generally depicted in various states of bathing, dressing or undressing, and even spends some scenes bare-chested and wrapped in a blanket, like a child. Francis coddles him, helping to clean, dress, and feed him. His decision to remain mute is a baffling one and he gives off a distinctly asexual (or even pre-sexual) vibe, which is further emphasized by an uncomfortable scene with his adult sister (Luana Anders). After he snuck out to visit her and tells her of the unusual arrangement with Frances, she breaks into the house and he sits in the bathroom while she bathes; this progresses to open flirting, him being pulled into the bathtub, and her trying to seduce him.

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

Of course, the film’s sexual themes draw it to its inevitable conclusion: a confrontation between Frances and the boy as a result of her complete mental breakdown. The crux is essentially a scene where she comes into his bedroom at night and admits her sexual interest in him, talking quite openly and making herself vulnerable, but then realizes she has been confessing her desires to a pillow and a doll hidden under the covers to disguise his absence. This leads to a frightening moment of quiet rage, where she becomes determined to prevent him from ever leaving the house again. Bizarrely, she decides that the only way to keep him happy is to attend to his sexual needs and goes out and hires a prostitute. When the prostitute attempts to have sex with the boy, Frances snaps, leading to a violent but somewhat open-ended conclusion.

An unsettling, unusual film, That Cold Day in the Park is one of Altman’s most neglected efforts, but, as only his third feature, introduces his attention to detail and concentrated visual style, both enhanced by a Vancouver location and cinematography from the prolific László Kovács. The film’s beautiful, if contained set — with a myriad of reflective surfaces, mirrors, windows, and glass — is reminiscent of Fassbinder’s later Ibsen adaptation, Nora Helmer (1974), which makes similar use of the opulent home as a prison for an unhappy woman with a shattering psyche. Disturbed, repressed female sexuality is uncomfortably contrasted with the themes of childhood, fantasy, fairytales, games, and play in all three of Altman’s Gothic films, though it emerges here — Frances and the boy play a candlelit version of “Blind Man’s Bluff” thick with erotic tension and there is a degree of infantilism in their flirtations — but would become most fully pronounced in Altman’s next film in the loose trilogy.

1972’s Images also more overtly mines Gothic and horror tropes with the story of Cathryn (Susannah York), a newly pregnant children’s author, who is home alone and receives some upsetting phone calls from a strange woman claiming that Cathryn’s husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) is out having an affair. Hugh calls to say he’ll be late and Cathryn panics. He comes home soon after, confused about her sudden breakdown. Chalking it up to her pregnancy, he decides that they should take a vacation to their home in the country, but when they arrive, Cathryn begins to see and talk to her dead lover, René (Marcel Bozzuffi), who died in a plane crash. Hugh is oblivious to her growing insanity and to the aggressive sexual advances from their neighbor, Marcel (Hugh Millais). His young daughter, Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), becomes friends with Cathryn, but this positive relationship does not help her mind from unravelling and soon she believes she has killed someone, but can’t be sure what is real.

Images (1972)

Another of Altman’s unfairly neglected films, Images is an eerie, dreamlike masterpiece in the vein of Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) or even The Tenant (1976) and bears something in common with psychological horror films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), or Full Circle (1977). As with the protagonists in several of these films — and Frances in That Cold Day in the Park — the source of Cathryn’s neurosis is never directly explored, though there’s an undeniable sexual component. Her hysteria kicks off at the news that Hugh is having an affair, information that is devastating (and that we later learn is probably not true) despite the fact that it soon becomes clear that he’s not the only one guilty of infidelity. She is something of an evolution of Frances’ type; the two women share themes of madness, domestic distress, and erotic turmoil, but Cathryn is far more violent, sexual, and frenzied than her earlier counterpart.

Related to Frances’ pathetic monologues are Cathryn’s voice overs — which open and close the film — where she narrates sections of the children’s book she is writing, giving the film a pronounced theme of fairytale and fantasy. The book,
In Search of Unicorns, was actually written by star Susannah York and some other aspects of York’s personal life were portrayed in the film, such as her pregnancy. When she almost dropped out of the project because of it, Altman simply added it to the script, providing an unintentional connection to the themes of motherhood and maternal instinct in That Cold Day in the Park and 3 Women. This is further emphasized through Cathryn’s friendship with the young Susannah; the two bond over walks through the woods and assemble a puzzle together. Cathryn is more relaxed in the girl’s company than at any other time in the film.

Altman has acknowledged the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and the similarities are clear, though Images is far more reliant on sexual excess and the battle between feminine and masculine forces. As with Persona, Cathryn is constantly subjected to doubles — not only of the men in her life, but she’s also pursued by an aggressive double of herself — in mirror images, reflections, lenses, shadows, and her imagination. Dizzyingly, names overlap between between the characters and the cast: Susannah York (The Fall of the House of Usher) plays a character named Cathryn, while Cathryn Harris (Black Moon), who looks remarkably like a young York, plays a character named Susannah. René Auberjonois (MASH) is her carefree husband Hugh; Hugh Millais (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) is particularly terrifying as her aggressive neighbor, Marcel; Marcel Bozzuffi (Le deuxième souffle) is her dead, French lover René. It’s enough to make you go a little mad.

Images (1972)

As Cathryn’s mental state disintegrates and moves closer towards total collapse, these characters bleed together (literally at one point); her acts of violence escalate and it becomes impossible to tell what is unfolding in Cathryn’s head and is what is actually happening on screen. Masterfully, these two spaces converge by the film’s conclusion. As with some of the characters in 3 Women, Cathryn struggles to hold on to her identity, which is nearly overwhelmed by conflicting childlike and maternal impulses and by the men in her life: her charming dead boyfriend who haunts her, her kind but ineffectual husband, and her threatening, abusive lover. Cathryn’s sexuality — a much more explosive force than Frances’ — aggravates her mental state and she shifts abruptly between neediness, passion, and violent responses bordering on sadomasochism to outright terror, and it is clear that in some way, she thrives on feelings of victimization.

As with That Cold Day in the Park, both of Cathryn’s domestic spaces — her city apartment and home in the countryside — are expressions of her unraveling psyche, but the majority of the film notably takes place in the Irish countryside (this is a rare US-UK coproduction for Altman). The incredible cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond (who also worked with Altman in The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs. Miller) is another of the film’s crowning achievements and is similar to the menacing pastoral tone of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. As in that film, Images is downright painterly. The rain and mist-drenched Irish countryside reflects Cathryn’s rapidly shifting states of mind and appears either lush and lovely, or ominous and isolated, with subtle supernatural undertones that bring the film’s themes of fantasy and fairytale full circle.

The last film of Altman’s Gothic trilogy, 3 Women, is equally concerned with the effects of landscape on the female psyche, but moves away from fairytale towards a more surreal exploration of myth and the unconscious. A young woman named Pinky (Sissy Spacek) begins working at a health spa in an isolated town in California. She comes to idolize her coworker, Millie (Shelley Duvall), who shows her the ropes. When Millie has an opening in her apartment, Pinky soon moves in. While Pinky is childlike and naive, Millie is full of misplaced confidence and hits on men who ignore her or mock her behind her back. Both their apartment complex and the bar they frequent are owned by husband and wife Edgar (Robert Fortier) and Willie (the enigmatic Janice Rule). Willie is pregnant and has made a series of disturbing mural paintings in swimming pools of sexualized, reptilian figures.

3 Women (1977)

One night Millie and Pinky fight over a failed dinner party, and because Millie has brought Edgar home out of sheer desperation. After Millie yells at her, Pinky throws herself into the pool and winds up in a coma. She eventually wakes up, but has oddly taken on some of Millie’s personality traits. Willie, meanwhile, is about to give birth…

Apparently inspired by a dream Altman had, 3 Women itself is thoroughly dreamlike. There is only a loose plot and most of the content is made up of a series of vignettes structures around visual and emotional impressions. This is essentially a film about the mutable, unfixed nature of identity, but where Altman could have turned this into a simple drama about self-discovery, it becomes something far more sinister. This could not be described as an outright horror film, like Images, but it is bizarre and disturbing enough that it has some genre appeal. Like Images and That Cold Day in the Park, here Altman excels at intense, focused depictions of female anxiety.  

This is connected to the trilogy’s fantasy theme, of which 3 Women has the most developed and pervasive use, evolving it into something almost mythic. The three female protagonists echo the Three Graces of Greek mythology or the Norns of Norse mythology, as well as the almost universal concept of the maiden-mother-crone triple goddess aspects. Related to this, Altman expertly uses water and mirror motifs, which appear in nearly every scene. Water is involved in the setting for nearly every major event in the film, providing a stark contrast to the arid California desert: Millie and Pinky work at a health spa with mineral springs, there’s a pool outside of their apartment, and a fish tank in placed centrally within. Willie’s paintings (actually by Pittsburgh artist Bodhi Wind), which eerily line the bottom of both pools, have an undeniable influence over the proceedings and also tie the bar into the larger visual metaphor.

3 Women (1977)

And, as with That Cold Day in the Park, Altman tricks you into thinking the film isn’t much more than a character drama, at least for the first half, but it makes a sharp turn at the end of the first hour mark, when Pinky takes a potentially lethal dive into the pool and emerges utterly transformed. Like Images, 3 Women was apparently inspired by Persona, and like both of those films, Altman makes frequent use of doubles, reflections, and mirror images. Also like both of those films, identity is a terrifyingly blurred line; the characters share and switch personality traits and even identities. This fluidity becomes a source of anxiety, unease, and eventually terror.

This is wholly a woman’s world. As with That Cold Day in the Park and Images, the male characters are practically nonexistent. Though they do occasionally intrude into the three women’s loves, such as Willie’s husband Edgar, they are largely anonymous figures with similar clothes and haircuts — and as with Images, they meet with violent ends. The steady presence of a female voice — as found in Frances’ monologues in That Cold Day in the Park and Cathryn’s story narration in Images — is another major theme. Duvall, who wrote or improvised much of Millie’s dialogue, also provided the character’s diary entries, which makes up the central voice of the film. Though Millie is an absurd figure and a clear object of pity or ridicule, Duvall makes her empathetic. It’s clear that her endless talking and the rules she has set up for her life are structured around a deep-seated sense of anxiety and self-esteem issues.

3 Women presents something of a positive — if monstrous — conclusion to the trilogy and shows the most unusual evolution of Altman’s interpretation of the Gothic. Men are driven out of this woman’s world and the barriers between the women themselves become fluid, giving structures that provide a perhaps psychotic but vital support system. This communal unit, which includes not only Pinky and Millie, but the newly widowed, very pregnant Willie and her unborn child, suggests a strangely utopian future and is the ultimate expression of Altman’s themes of sexuality, motherhood, and female identity.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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