Susannah York as Cathryn in Images (1972) (Arrow Academy trailer screengrab)

In Two Minds: Robert Altman’s ‘Images’ Essays the Terrors of Schizophrenia

Altman’s Images is a complex, haunting, and always disturbing film about the slow realization that one’s sanity is at stake.

Robert Altman
Arrow Academy
20 Mar 2018

A once lost film thought to have been destroyed and then later remarkably retrieved, Images (1972) holds the curious honour of being Robert Altman’s single entry in the horror genre. A contentious effort that managed to gain many notable accolades, including a Best Actress Award at Cannes for its leading actress Susannah York and an Oscar nomination for its musical score, Images sank without a trace shortly after its release. Believed to have been destroyed by Columbia Pictures for many years, the original negative was eventually found locked away in the vaults, where it was cleaned up and then serviced onto DVD with a rather paltry transfer.

Altman, in the beginning of the production, was saddled with reluctant actors. York, who had signed onto the film from the start, had second thoughts upon discovering she was pregnant. French actor Marcel Bozzuffi agreed to do the picture, but only if there were no changes in the dialogue, as he was learning English phonetically. Altman also employed his usual methods of improvisation, working with an amorphous script that had no solid foundation and was essentially being written as the film was being made.

While labelled as a horror film, Images works more along the lines of an intense psychological drama with surreal overtones. The story of a young and fragile writer of children’s stories, the film begins with Cathryn (York) sitting at home one night as she works on an upcoming book. Throughout the night she is tormented by a number of distressing phone calls from a mysterious woman making all sorts of outrageous claims. We soon meet Cathryn’s rather reserved, emotionally-aloof husband Hugh (René Auberjonois) who suggests the two take a trip to the Irish countryside. Relieved, though somewhat reluctant, Cathryn agrees to the vacation and the two take off to Ireland the next day.

In the beautiful windswept panorama of the Irish countryside, Cathryn and her husband begin to settle down in their cottage house. Yet peculiarities plague Cathryn, including strange noises and what appear, rather alarmingly, to be specters of dead former lovers. Cathryn desperately hides these aural and visual hallucinations from her husband. But when yet another former lover arrives at the house (this one living and played by Hugh Millais) along with his pre-teen daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), all hell breaks loose. Soon people around Cathryn start dropping like flies.

A highly misunderstood film about a woman with schizophrenia, Images confused initial audiences with its colluding plot lines and its constantly shifting tone. At no clear point is the viewer certain whether what is being presented is a horror film or simply a character study in mental illness. This is down to the slippery writing, which took no certain turns as it was only being formulated during the filming process. It’s clear Altman’s intention is to confuse viewers by never settling on a sure arrangement of dramatic situations.

While it becomes increasingly clear that Cathryn is indeed a psychologically ill woman and therefore a danger to the household, our sympathies are with her. Altman and York conspire to create in Cathryn a rectitude of womanly defiance. The men around her are emotional pivots, which inspire fear and mistrust (there’s always the doubt of Hugh’s fidelity and perhaps his own sanity) and Susannah, who has not yet come of age, seems to be a strange and ungainly counterpoint to Cathryn’s rising hysteria. It’s inevitable that Cathryn will continue to fight off these very real human aggressors to the bitter and fatal end. What’s uncertain, however, is for how long Cathryn will be able to fight her own mind.

A chilling account of the sheer loneliness and despair of the mentally ill, Images earns its narrative from the force of divisive action, the design of placing four actors in a room in which the emotional heat thrown must precipitate some weather of consequential danger. Such narrative arrangements are not new to Altman, who had orchestrated a similar construction in his at once shapeless and symmetrical drama 3 Women. Altman’s approach is to give his actors just enough rope to lead them into some situational danger, before pulling back and leaving them to their own devices. York, an accomplished actress whose eccentric film choices may have her graced as the Björk of cinema, acts instinctively and impulsively as she does with certainty. Her Cathryn is as noble as she is eruptive and York skilfully steers her character through and around the points of disharmony with admirable resolve.

Arrow Academy’s Blu-Ray transfer has done a marvellous job to present a far cleaner and clear transfer than the one woefully presented on the now out-of-print DVD of many years back. There’s a certain softness in the grain of the picture, though it’s difficult to tell whether the look is intentional or the result of the deterioration of the original negative. Nevertheless, the autumnal hues of golden oranges and rusted greens of the gorgeous Irish landscape are perfectly rendered here. The equally muted colours of the wardrobe firmly root the characters into their rustic environments, with the purpose to first situate them as natural homebodies before their imposing surroundings threaten to merge human with nature; this becomes increasingly noticeable as Cathryn’s mind begins to unravel.

The sound on the original DVD presentation was atrocious, with the dialogue drowned out by the film score. On Arrow Academy’s Blu-Ray release, however, the audio is greatly improved and dialogue is, thankfully, decipherable. Moreover, John Williams’ Oscar-nominated film score, a plucked cacophony of stringed instruments and percussion, can be truly appreciated here.

Extras include an audio commentary by writers and film critics Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger as well as a scene-select commentary by the late Robert Altman. Altman’s commentary seems to be a straight port from the original DVD release. As well, there’s archive footage with both the filmmaker and the film’s cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and a new interview with actress Cathryn Harrison. There’s also a nod to the film score by music artist Stephen Thrower and rounding out the package is the beautiful reversible Blu-Ray cover, featuring new and splashy artwork as well as the moodier, understated original.

Images is a complex, haunting, and always disturbing film about the slow realization that one’s sanity is at stake. Susannah York’s acting, at turns clipped and fluid, dominates the film as she scrambles helplessly around a vast terrain of phantasmagoric terror. Somewhat amusingly, Altman has decided to play musical chairs with the actors’ names, naming each actor’s character after his or her co-starring opposite. It’s an obvious in-joke on the statement that the film clearly makes, in that no one is ever truly who they seem to be.

RATING 9 / 10