Monday, September 30, 2013


At one time or another, everyone has had the experience of waking from a dream feeling, even if only for a second, as though the dream were real. Recently I had one of those dreams where you see yourself, as if in real-time, sleeping in bed, conscious of being asleep and dreaming, yet at the same time aware of being awake, outside of the body, and observing. The way these varied states of consciousness peel away only to reveal other, hidden states of consciousness, each with a psychological validity that crosses over into reality, is like the chimerical equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. It all happens very swiftly, fleetingly in fact, yet while it’s happening, you harbor a tiny fear in your heart that it’s a tossup as to which of these realities is authentic.
This inability to discern what is real and what is imagined is at the core of Robert Altman’s dreamy, trippy, intriguingly abstruse psychological thriller Images. A movie that takes the fluid dreamscape logic of 3 Women, crosses it with the volatile psychosexual menace of That Cold Day in the Park, and adds to it all the schizophrenic character-study subjectivity of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
Susannah York as Cathryn
As with Catherine Deneuve’s Carol in Repulsion, when we first meet Susannah York’s Cathryn, she is a woman already deep in the throes of mental illness. Cathryn is a schizophrenic, a fact she appears to be at least subtly aware of (or at least suspects) on some level. Married to her waggish businessman husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois), the rather solemn Cathryn spends a great deal of her time isolated, as she is an author working on a children’s book.
Altman incorporated In Search of Unicorns, a children’s book Susannah York was writing at the time, into the screenplay of Images. Published in 1973, York’s somewhat euphuistic fairy tale so perfectly suits the dreamlike tone of Images, it’s hard to believe it wasn't written expressly for the film. Moreover, York’s melodious voiceover narration of passages from the book provides an appropriately cryptic counterpoint to the action.
As Cathryn endeavors to patch together the narrative fragments of her children’s fantasy, she engages in lengthy inner monologues that cull forth shadowy images of her past. A vague and disjointed puzzle of images, sounds, and memories from her past that intrude abruptly and randomly upon her present.
Rene Auberjonois as Hugh
Mirrors, lenses, and prisms are a motif Altman employs throughout Images to convey Cathryn's fractured reality 

Cathryn is a woman haunted. Haunted by past infidelities (lovers, both dead and alive, have a nagging way of reappearing, attempting to resume their dalliances); guilt (she vacillates between being both desirous and fearful of having a child); suspicion (she assigns her own deceitful behavior to her husband); and specifically, the unwelcome, ever-encroaching memories of a lonely childhood. Memories, for reasons left unexplained, she struggles to suppress. We’re never explicitly told what is ailing Cathryn, nor is it clear what has recently occurred to accelerate the frequency and intensity of her schizophrenic episodes. What is apparent is that her illnessone the film's subjective POV makes us privy to alonetakes the form of a mercurially shifting reality which, at times, appears to be conspiring to betray her.
Dream Lover
Cathryn's former lover, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi of The French Connection), reappears after having died in a plane crash three years prior
Although I desperately wanted to see this when it was released in 1972, I was just 14 years old, and Images was an R-rated movie playing at one of San Francisco’s “art house” cinemas. A theater, I might add, whose policies regarding underage attendance were not as flexible as those of my trusty neighborhood moviehouse, thus necessitating many attempts on my part to persuade apathetic family members (or mature-looking friends) to accompany me. In spite of the thriller being promoted with a very eye-catching poster featuring dual Susannah Yorks reflected in the lens of a vintage bellows camera stabbed by a butcher knife (see below), I found not a single taker. So I only got around to seeing Images at a revival theater sometime in the '80s.
Happily, thanks to Susannah York’s brilliantly restless performance; Vilmos Zsigmond’s (Heaven’s Gate) lush and evocative cinematography; the unsettling musical score by John Williams (with Stomu Yamashta); and especially the film’s stylistic similarities to the work of Roman Polanski, Images became an instant favorite that was more than worth the wait.
Fans of Robert Altman will recognize actor Hugh Millais as the bounty hunter in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Here he plays Cathryn's libidinous neighbor and former lover, Marcel

Few things are more dismal than watching a film that thoroughly explains, spells out, and underlines (with italics) each plot point and narrative twist that you’re left with nothing to ruminate or talk about afterward. While that's a point that can be made about many of the movies-by-market-research released these days, no one could ever say that about a Robert Altman film.
In Images, Altman takes the very intriguing tack of asking us to exclusively share the increasingly fragmented perspective of a schizophrenic. A choice whose not-unexpected effect on the viewer is a mounting sense of disorientation and unease as it dawns that the story's entirety is to be told by a disturbingly unreliable narrator.
Cathryn Harrison as Susannah (Marcel's daughter)
Images plays fast and loose with the audience's reality as well. Each of the characters in the film shares the real-life name of one of the actors (Susannah, Rene, Cathryn, Hugh, and Marcel)

And therein lies the beauty of this film for me. As it grows ever more apparent that Cathryn is losing her grip on sanity, Images becomes a thriller that actively engages and challenges you to piece together the puzzle of the character's life and the film's story. Reality and hallucination merge imperceptibly without benefit of the usual clichéd cinema vocabulary indicators of dissolves, soft focus, echoes, or slow-motion; so a great deal of the veracity of what occurs is continually called into question.
Altman understands that no two people see or experience life exactly the same way, so he doesn't waste time trying to explain his personal point of view in his movies. Instead, he tells his story, then leaves it to each of us to make of it what we will. Even his brilliant DVD commentaries fail to "explain" things for the moviegoer craving answers. Altman is a director who would rather you actively watch one of his films and fully misunderstand it, than to passively sit and be spoon-fed every detail and theme. 
Images is one of those films that reveal more details each time you watch it.
In this scene, Cathryn works on a puzzle with Susannah, the daughter of a former lover. The single POV shot shared by the two individuals - Cathryn's adult hand occupying the left of the frame, Susannah's smaller hand on the right -  hints at the possibility of Cathryn actually working the puzzle alone, sharing the moment with a hallucination of herself as a young girl. Even the subject of the puzzle is suspect, as Cathryn continually says that she has no idea what the image is, yet we know for a fact that it is a puzzle of the very house she is occupying...the house she spent a great deal of time alone in as a child.

To clarify, I’m no fan of the sort of studied incoherence that put David Lynch on the map (and removed him just as swiftly). But I do love movies that demand your attention on first viewing, offer plenty of food for thought after, and later reward repeat viewings with heretofore undiscovered pieces of the puzzle…all laid out for you to find at your leisure should you just care to look. Such films hold the potential for each revisit to feel like a fresh experience.

It’s been widely reported (and corroborated on the DVD commentary) that due to recent news of her pregnancy and concerns about the film’s script, Susannah York wasn’t all that keen on appearing in Images. But if York’s performance is the work of a woman ambivalent about the film she appears in, her years studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts were clearly well-spent. Without resorting to ostentatious tics, gestures, and histrionic displays of madness, York inhabits her character to a chilling degree. Never for a moment are you in doubt that you are watching a fully fleshed-out individual, a character comprised of intelligence, imagination, and inner life. All of these, under the circumstances of her character's internal disintegration, convey a certain sadness as we observe a personality slowly submerged by mental illness. 
Cathryn continually confronts images of herself, whether reflected, remembered, or hallucinatory 

Where York particularly excels is in conveying, without words, the vast array of emotions attendant to discovering one’s mind is operating independent of one’s will. Images compels in giving the distinct impression that something Cathryn has likely been successful in keeping a lid on for some time, is now starting to slip through her fingers. Susannah York shows the panic, confusion, danger, and even the humor in Cathryn’s loss of psychological ground. Small wonder that York won the Best Actress award at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival for her work in Images.

I'm not sure why, but for as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by movies dealing with the concept of duality. From Vertigo, Dead Ringers, Don't Look Now, The Tenant, Persona, and of course, 3 Women; so many of my favorite films are psychological thrillers in which the duality of human nature and the fluid quality of reality play a part.  
I'm still one of those who find the inner workings of the human psyche to be a far more terrifying landscape than anything that can be dreamed up by the gore-mongers making horror films today, so I personally consider Altman's Images to be an excellent thriller that effectively packs on the atmospheric dread and character-based tension. The environment Altman designs for his film is one loaded with reflective surfaces, shadowy corners, and interiors comprised of a Caligari-like assemblage of stairs, railings, rooms, and angled archways. Add to this the near-constant tinkle of wind chimes and an eerily deceptive (subjective) soundtrack, and you've got a thriller worthy of both Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock.
The best movies are journeys. Journeys that transport us to other lives, other times, other lands, and, in the case of Images, other states of consciousness. Because the written word can so perfectly capture the subtleties of thought and emotion, and music is ideal for the conveyance of mood and feeling, what I have always loved about movies is how they can make real the fantastic. To render in corporeal terms, the dream /nightmare phase of existence where reality and illusion converge in ways that are not always easy to put into words. 
Hidden Behind Her Back
The threat of violence, unexpected and sudden, runs throughout Images
One can describe, academically and emotionally, what schizophrenia must be like, but in Images, Robert Altman finds a visual language capable of conveying a psychological frame of mind. Miraculously, seamlessly, Altman captures a state most of us only know through dreaming: the helpless, floating feeling of reality and fantasy existing as one, with our inability to discern where reality ends, and fantasy begins. The nightmare, of course, would be to have this be our awake, conscious state. Images brings this nightmare to life in a way refreshingly naturalistic and devoid of melodrama.
Even if you're left unpersuaded by the film as a genre thriller, you can't help but admire Altman's ability to take you inside the consciousness of another person, allowing for the vicarious experiencing of the real world through an entirely alien perspective. Although not one of Robert Altman's most discussed films, Images is a favorite of mine. One that fits neatly into his catalog of character studies of women on the verge.  
Who's watching whom?

'TIS A PUZZLEMENT- Piecing together the fragments
The wind chimes signaling a schizophrenic episode.
Elements of Cathryn's life can be gleaned from the "monologues" she shares with hallucinated others.
Note the address of Hugh's liaison given to her by a well-meaning "friend."
Note the soundtrack whenever Cathryn is using the phone  (Dial tones? Busy signals? Voices?)
Susannah's history/Cathryn's history.
Archie, the dog.
Malevolence perceived in everyday objects.
Windows or mirrors? Any difference?
I think it was either Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael who suggested interpolating the word "You" during several conversations where Cathryn references her husband "Hugh."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2013


  1. Argyle, here. Have never seen this but, you had me with the children's book tie-in/product placement and an R-rated psycho-sexual thriller! Things are SO boring and predictable nowadays.

    1. Hi Argyle
      I won't say out-and-out that "Images" is a unequivocal crowd-pleaser. Some will say there is good reason for its obscurity. But you sound as if you like mainstream films that have the personal stamp of a director's vision and point of view, and on that count, "Images" is a definite must-see.
      And you certainly can't go wrong with a psychosexual thriller that has a children's book product placement at its narrative can you? If you do happen to see this and don't feel like killing me afterward, I would love to know what you think.
      It's just the thing if you want some relief from the by-the-numbers predictability of today's films. Always lovely to hear from you! Thanks

  2. Argyle here, again. I'll definitely seek "Images" out. Susannah York and your recommendation are all I need! Didn't mean to seem glib or dismissive in my previous comment; it is a funny combination, but I know there's much more here than that. Of course it takes someone of Mr. Altman's flexibility and scope of vision to make those connections. Off subject, but the most riveting moment, for me, of "3 Women" was when the childlike (vast over simplification) Sissy Spacek sticks her head in the playground(?) noose in front of Dodge City and says something like: "They finally caught up with me!" Such an odd, offhand moment that adds layers of comedy, shock, dread. And you feel like it sprang from the director creating a world and trusting his actors to flesh it out. I can imagine that "Images" does this too. Thank you as always, Ken!!

    1. Honestly, I think you will find "Images" as intriguing as I did. This kind of work and what he did in 3 Women is my favorite side of Altman.
      That moment in "# Women" you recall is indeed indicative of these slight-but-brilliant moments of unexpected humanity that crop up in his films. They are throwaway things, but they convey a great deal about the characters in such economic and ingenious ways.
      I think you will find that true of Susannah York's book used in "Images." Rather than just place it in the film, it truly films as if he used it as another character springboard and weaved his screenplay around it.
      I really do look forward to hearing what you ultimately feel about the film, pro or con. You have a good cinematic eye!

  3. Hi Ken - never even HEARD of this Altman film, so I'm excited to seek it out. I love Susannah York, particularly her performance in The Killing of Sister George...I was surprised to hear she passed away recently. And Rene Auberjonois--he was ubiquitous in the 1970s and 1980s, and I believe he is still alive and well and doing a lot of voice-over work.

    I need to familiarize myself with Altman's earlier films...have never seen McCabe and Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye, and now will add images to this list.

    Thanks for giving us movie freaks more stuff to look forward to!!

    1. Hi Chris
      Given the films you've written about on your blog, I think "Images" is one you really should check out. Very 70s art-house, but really excellent. Especially is you're a fan of Susannah York. Back in 2005 I got to see her in her one-woman show and had the chance to speak with her briefly. She's has always been a favorite, and as good as she is in "Sister Goeorge", I think "Images" is one of her best .
      And yes, I recall Auberjonois being all over the TV screens (The Bionic Woman) and movies during the 70s and 80s.
      Thanks for reading my post and please let me know what you think if you ever check this early Altman film out.

  4. This sounds so intriguing. There is whole swathes of Altman's filmography I've yet to discover. But like you, I love 3 Women. Reading about Images, I kept thinking, This reminds me of the 1975 Rainer Werner Fassbinder film Fear of Fear - also about an icily beautiful blonde housewife coming unglued! Its leading lady Margit Carstensen (who Fassbinder used many times) gives an astonishing performance. You must check it out if you haven't seen it already. My other favorite nervous breakdown art movie is Red Desert (1964), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and starring his muse, Monica Vitti.

    1. Hi Graham
      You always surprise me with the breadth of your film awareness. I have never hear of either of the films you noted, but after checking them out on IMDB, I am definitely interested in seeking them out. Especially the Fassbinder film. I owe you a vote of thanks.
      And indeed check this Altman film out when you get the chance.

  5. This is another film that I had to get ahold of after having read your excellent review! You are so right when you describe how movies "can make real the fantastic". I saw this film as a teen on Venezuelan TV and I vaguely remembered the dreamlike atmosphere with characters passing each other in the beautiful countryside surrounding the big house. I recalled somene watching the house from a cliff from a distance but I did not remember any of the gruesome murders! Seeing it now, it's like a different film and much more nightmarish in tone.

    Susannah York plays her part so well that her character came to life despite being so self obsessed and so obviously mentally ill. I think it would have been even more chilling if her loose grasp on reality hadn't been so evident. She saw hallucinations from moment she arrived at the big house. After that I felt there was no question about why we were being shown such startling images since she wasn't feeling well.

    It is still a very haunting film with excellent acting. I love the pace of the film which adds to the dreamlike quality which is so lacking in the more frenetic editing in the films of today. The film is beautifully photographed in the most amazing landscape. (No CGI imagery needed to create that fairy tale scenery!)

    The film reminded me a little of "The Shining" with the isolated house, the knives and especially the music. I've never forgiven John Williams for creating the theme for "Star Wars" but here his music was very unsettling and fitting. Kubrick must have been inspired by this film for "The Shining".

    1. Hi Wille
      So glad you revisited this movie! I love that you only remembered parts of it and forgot the nightmarish side of it. And you are so right about how beautifully it's shot.
      I hope perhaps you got the DVD that had the Robert Altman commentary on it. He does a wonderful job of clearing up some of the vague aspects, while still leaving you with plenty to interpret as you wish.
      Like Repulsion and Black Swan, Images is one of those films where the protagonist is clearly insane before the film even starts, so I always find it interesting to see how filmmakers work to get you to identify with them. Susannah York is terrific.

      Your John Williams comment made me laugh, but I think you might be on to something with the music in Images and the way Kubrick used music in "The Shining" and even "Eyes Wide Shut".
      Thanks for letting me know that you took in this film again. So much vicarious fun for me to hear your impression of it.

  6. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Robert Altman Friday at

    Keep up the good work!

  7. Being just s few years older than you, I saw "Images" when it first came out. My strongest memory is how great Sussanah York's performance was. After reading your piece I'm tempted to track it down and see it again. But oddly a little afraid as well.

    1. Oh, by all means you should check it out again. I think it really holds up beautifully. It has such a leisurely, atmospheric pace. it's creepy as all getout, but so engaging a thriller.

  8. I can't believe it has taken me this long to finally watch this film.
    I was totally mesmerised by it and found it very unsettling, at times.
    It swirls around in one's mind, afterwards. And I will be thinking about it for many weeks to come.
    Probably, the only way to come to terms with it will be to write about it - from a filmmaker's perspective.

    I have come across your blog by chance and just wanted to thank you for sharing your incisive thoughts with us.
    (I did connect "You" and "Hugh" when I was watching it.)