Monday Movie: Images, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Images originally ran as a Criterion prediction.
The plethora that is Robert Altman’s filmography bears many fruit and Images is among of his best, under-appreciated 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 Williams we haven’t heard before; this pre-Spielberg 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 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 (York) is channeled immediately and the atmosphere is built more rapidly than the expected existential thriller.