Criterion Prediction #35: Images, by Alexander Miller
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais
Synopsis: Cathryn (York) is a children’s author who’s suffering from disturbing apparitions and hallucinations while she and her husband spend time at their country home in Ireland. The remote seclusion only worsens Cathryn’s condition; as her comprehension of reality disintegrates and her delusions grow hostile, her psychological state deteriorates to a point where she takes drastic, lethal measures.
Critique: The plethora that is Robert Altman’s filmography bears many fruit and Images is among one of his best, underappreciated films. First off, you can’t mention Images without bringing up the influence of Ingmar Bergman, and you can’t discuss both of these directors without mentioning Altman’s 1977 film 3 Women. While both of these mood pieces are inspired by Bergman’s Persona, they’re very much original works from one of America’s most idiosyncratic auteurs. Images is an excellent example of achieving greatness with little resources, and a testament to the director’s versatility, as well as the significance of his recurring collaborations with cast and crew. Rene Auberjonois, who is usually a supporting player, contributes a strong lead performance, but for obvious reasons this is Susannah York’s show because she’s simply terrific, this small cast is a refreshing turn from a director who’s synonymous with the term “ensemble”. Exploring mental illness is delicate territory, but Altman’s execution is even-handed and compellingly atmospheric. Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning cinematography allows saturated earth tones to bleed into each other, textured but not muddy, I can’t imagine how this would look if the film were to receive a 4K transfer. To convey psychological apprehension, Altman takes full advantage of our senses; the visuals are striking but the truly menacing enhancement comes from an unlikely score by legendary composer John Williams. In the first few frames of footage the disjointed soundtrack stands as an all too effectively foreboding signal of what’s to come. Accompanying Williams is avant-garde composer Stomu Yamashta (credited for “Sounds” in the opening titles), who’s likely responsible for the nerve-jangling anxiety this composition appropriately channels thanks to his unorthodox approach methods of percussion that would give Brian Wilson a run for his money. Regardless, this is a type of John Williams we haven’t heard before; this pre-Spielberg this score informs us in a way that supersedes exposition or narrative structure. From the outset, we gather that things might not be what they seem, that there’s darkness around the corner. The rest of the story you just have to puzzle out, which is one of the (many) reasons why this movie works so well. Images puts its dominant foot forward stepping away from the psychological thriller into downright horror territory with very little adjustment time. The perturbed psychosis of Cathryn is channeled immediately, and the atmosphere is built more rapidly than the expected existential thriller.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Altman’s name has appeared in this column before, considering his Herculean filmography I can almost guarantee it will show up again. After the success of MASH, Altman opted out of big studio pictures he could have helmed in favor of smaller, personal projects. Over the course of five years, he directed some of his greatest work that received critical praise, but lukewarm box-office returns. Criterion has been the purveyor of an array of Altman movies, and with the recent announcement of McCabe & Mrs. Miller coming to the Collection, Images would be a terrific follow-up title to inaugurate. While Kino has brought some early Altman classics to Blu-ray (Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye), The Criterion Collection will always have a head start for a film as unique, and underappreciated as Images. The MGM DVD has some meat to it with a select scene directors commentary, interviews with Zsigmond and Altman, but it’s rumored to be OOP and the prices on Amazon only support that suspicion. MGM did everyone a great service by releasing this film thought to be long lost, allegedly destroyed by Columbia, but in order to keep this title alive even longer, it should get a spine number because it certainly deserves one.