A pregnant children’s author’s (Susannah York) husband (Rene Auberjonois) may or may not be having an affair. While holidaying in Ireland, her mental state becomes increasingly unstable, resulting in paranoia, hallucinations, and visions of a doppelgänger. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Though certainly not the rarest film in Robert Altman’s rather impressive filmography, Images (1972) has certainly been overshadowed by the likes of M.A.S.H. (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975). Made at the height of his creative strength (as far as I’m concerned, at least), this darker, existentially disturbing portrait of ordinary madness is perhaps the closest the director ever got to making a real horror film. While I’d stop short of categorizing Images under any specific genre subheading, there’s no denying its unnerving power and the horror-like impact of its most shocking moments. Altman’s films already carried an uncanny quality during this era; movies like 3 Women (1977, itself inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, 1966), The Long Goodbye (1973), and arguably Popeye (1980) seem to exist outside of reality, even when the nature of reality isn’t an important theme. The fact that an existential crisis is at the very center of Images means that Altman’s innate ability to concoct illusory imagery is more important here than arguably any other time in his filmmaking career.
Viewed through the right eyes (i.e. mine) Images is like New Hollywood’s cracked-mirror reflection of Italy’s then-thriving giallo tradition – one that sets itself apart with its focus on character and psychological games over stylish murder set-pieces. Gialli often revolved around the mental breakdowns of high society women who question their sanity as suspicious events occur around them. In many cases, they are even revealed to be the mysterious and malevolent force behind the carnage. Others will also point out Images’ resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve portrays an emotionally disturbed woman who suffers a profound mental breakdown tied to an implied sexual assault in her past (noting that a number of gialli were also inspired by Polanski’s film). And, if the reader would permit me to make yet another personally observed comparison, I’m also struck by the additional parallels to Sam Peckinpah’s far more brutal Straw Dogs (1971). The curious correlations include the Irish vacation setting, the central character’s isolation, the paranoia stemming from implied infidelities, the cruelty and entitlement of men, and the desperation of violence. When set against each other, the two films feel kind of like opposing analyses of toxic masculinity and feminine sexuality.
As I stated above, Images remains a relative rarity within Altman’s catalogue, but it was released on DVD in America (via MGM), Germany (via Pidax), and Italy (via Cecchi Gori TV). For the film’s Blu-ray debut, the original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 4K, followed by extensive grading/restoration performed by Da Vinci Resolve. Arrow warns that some inserts were culled from ‘next-generation’ dupe materials and used to fill holes in the negative. Indeed, there are a couple of dips in quality (usually shifts into greater darkness), but the 1080p, 2.35:1 image is pretty consistent, overall. The film was the second collaboration between Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, following the stunning, snow-capped western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Zsigmond opts for a very dark, warm, and gritty look, which doesn’t lend itself to the sharpest or cleanest transfer. The 4K scan helps draw out as much detail as possible, including a thin, constant flutter of fine grain. The transfer has been well-scrubbed of other print-based artifacts, though some of the fuzzy edges can probably be blamed on slightly misaligned color printing.
The original mono has also been remastered and is presented in uncompressed LPCM audio. As a mostly dialogue-driven production, the lack of stereo enhancement isn’t a problem. Even during those moments where music is an important element, the general clarity is impressive enough to pull surprising depth from the single channel treatment. That said, the sound designers do play with the ‘reality’ of sounds, so directional placement could’ve expanded upon its creep factor. John Williams’ Oscar-nominated musical score is combined with progressive rock keyboardist Stomu Yamashta’s more abstract sound design to create an entirely un-Williams-like tone that will give you shivers.
Commentary with Daughters of Darkness podcasters Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan – Ellinger, the author of Daughters of Darkness and All the Colors of Sergio Martino (both pub: 2018), and Deighan, the author of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (pub: 2017) discuss Images, its place in Altman’s filmography, the movie’s roots in Gothic Romance, the extended careers of the cast & crew, and actress Susannah York’s book, In Search of Unicorns (pub: 1973), which is quoted throughout the film. They also draw comparisons to other ‘women’s films’ with horror bases that I completely overlooked, including Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955), Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (French: Les yeux sans visage, 1960), and John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). I highly recommend listening to this particular track.
Scene-select commentary by writer/director Robert Altman (totalling 35:52) – These selections from Altman were recorded for release with the MGM DVD. The director mostly talks about his technical choices and describes the on-screen action.
Imagining Images (24:31, SD) – The second MGM-produced extra is an interview featurette with Altman and Zsigmond. The director and cinematographer cover casting, York’s book, building the narrative while filming, and, of course, their photographic processes.
Interview with actress Cathryn Harrison (6:04, HD) – In this new interview, the former child actor recalls being cast in Images while on holiday and rehearsal/improv with the rest of the cast.
An appreciation by musician/critic/author Stephen Thrower (32:26) – The author of Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (pub: 2007) discusses the film at length, from its earliest inception and the other movies that may had inspired it, through production and release.
The images on this page are taken from the BD (and the MGM BD for the sliders) and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.