Long on atmosphere but short on logic, Images is the closest thing to a pure horror movie that Robert Altman ever made. Telling the story of a woman who suffers delusions while succumbing to paranoia and other mental problems, the picture feels a bit like the indulgences of someone making their first forays into the world of psychology. The pathology is a bit too tidy, the symbolism is a bit too obvious, and the violent climaxes are a bit too predictable. Nonetheless, the contributions of world-class collaborators compensate for the shortcomings of the script, which Altman wrote, and the piece has a certain lingering power.
Set in a remote British countryside, the picture opens by introducing viewers to Cathryn (Susannah York), a children’s-book author who spends lonely days inside a sprawling mansion that’s miles away from other houses. Through dreamlike imagery rendered with sly edits and supple camera moves—as well as an elaborate soundtrack comprising atmospheric music, multilayered voice-overs, and otherworldly sound effects—Altman puts across the idea that Cathryn is the victim of her own overactive imagination. She accepts phone calls that may or may not be real, in which strangers and friends suggest that Cathryn’s husband is unfaithful, and she hears noises that may or may not emanate from invaders in her home. Later, when Cathryn’s foul-mouthed and foul-tempered businessman husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois), returns home from work, Cathryn embraces him until she hallucinates that he’s actually a different man. The person whom she “sees” is Rene (Marcel Bozzufi), a former lover who died. You get the idea—Images is a tightly contained story about one woman spiraling into madness.
Altman has great fun with the possibilities created by this set-up, especially when he employs carefully planned editing to generate illusions; in one creepy scene, Cathryn stands on a high hilltop, then looks down into the valley below and sees herself, looking back up to the figure on the hilltop. Trippy! The problem with this sort of story, of course, is that anything can happen and nothing has real consequence. After all, couldn’t the whole movie be a dream? Picture the endless cycle of an Escher print, and you’ve got the vibe.
Within those parameters, however, Altman and his collaborators do some wonderful things. John Williams, no stranger to composing suspenseful movie scores, gives even the most obtuse scenes real emotional edge, while Stormu Yamashita (credited with creating “sounds”) complements Williams’ melodies with unnerving aural jolts. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, continuing some of the bold visual explorations that he and Altman began with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), employs fluid camera moves and probing zooms to fill the screen with movement, helping Altman achieve an overall sense of disquiet. And while York gives a passionate, uninhibited performance, the title sets expectations appropriately—this one’s more about images than people, because the characters are merely colors on Altman’s palette. Ultimately much more satisfying as an exhibition of film craft than as a simulacrum of storytelling, Images is a beguiling oddity that stands apart from the rest of Altman’s work.