Appellate Judge Tom Becker plays Don Quixote to the windmills of his mind.
A motion picture of the extra senses.
Long considered Altman's "lost" film—the negative was rumored to have been destroyed by Columbia—Images is now available from MGM Home Entertainment. Was it worth the more-than-30-year wait?
Facts of the Case
Cathryn (Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) is writing a children's book, In Search of Unicorns. Cathryn, it seems, is something of a unicorn herself—beautiful, mysterious, and existing in a world of her own. She hears things and sees people who are not there—-or are they? When her husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), takes her away to a cottage in the country to help calm her nerves, Cathryn becomes increasingly—-and alarmingly—-less stable. Is anyone safe from these Images?
Robert Altman had an amazing run of great, near-great, and just plain cool movies. From 1970 to 1977—-his best years, I believe—-his output included: M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, and 3 Women. These films crossed genre lines, turned those genres inside out, and explored a variety of themes—the ridiculousness of war, capitalism vs. the individual, celebrity-hood, American values, the nature of identity. They are unified by the director's style, and all had at least some of the touches that we call "Altmanesque" (overlapping dialogue, multiple themes, improvisational feel, lots of characters, numerous events happening in the frame).
Images, also from this period, is in some ways one of the least Altmanesque films in the director's canon. The film is not simple, but the focus is: One woman's descent into madness. Altman films this as more of a conventional thriller (although it is anything but), and that makes this unconventional Altman. The action is all tightly controlled; there is no sense of improvisation or happy accident here. There are only six actors seen in the film (one is little more than a walk-on) and two major locations. By Altman's standards, it's almost a play, but his technique, his attention to visual and audio images to underscore his story, is pure cinema.
For the film to work, it needs an extraordinary central performance, and the casting of Susannah York pays off in spades. York, who won the Best Actress Award in Cannes for this, is in virtually every frame of the film. As Cathryn, she must create and inhabit her own world—-a world that both runs parallel to the "real" world and intersects it. She is riveting. It's a great collaboration between director and actress.
If I've been purposely vague about the plot, it's because part of the fun of seeing Images for the first time is its many surprises. It's the kind of film they just don't seem to make any more: psychological horror for adults, the kind that stays with you and offers deeper and richer insights with repeat viewings. And yes, we hear Susannah York scream—-she has a deep, throaty, agonized, mature scream, not the post-adolescent yip we've come to associate with imperiled heroines.
And by the way, Susannah York really did write the children's book In Search of Unicorns, excerpts of which serve as a kind of narration throughout the film. (She shares a writing credit on Images.)
MGM has done a very nice job with this release. We get a 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer that gives us a glorious presentation of Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography. The film was shot in Ireland, and while most of it takes place indoors, there are some chillingly beautiful scenes in the Irish countryside. There is some slight print damage here and there, but far less than you would expect for a film over 30 years old. The Dolby mono soundtrack is quite clear. The dialogue and the subtle sounds—wind chimes, whispers—come through fine, as does John Williams' creepy score.
For an older, somewhat obscure title, MGM presents a very good array of extras. "Imagining Images" (24:14) is an interview with Altman (and a few brief words from Zsigmond) filmed for this release. Altman seems relaxed and eager to talk about Images, and he shares anecdotes about the production and discusses his process. (Not surprisingly, he cites Bergman's Persona as an influence, which would be referenced even more directly five years later with 3 Women.) Next is a scene-specific commentary by Altman running 35:48. It's a fun track, with Altman giving "clues" about the puzzle he created and pointing out things you probably wouldn't catch on a single viewing. There is barely any overlap between the interview and the commentary. Finally, there's an elaborately trippy trailer that gives away far, far too much (as trailers apparently used to do back when people were watching them in theaters weeks before they'd see the film). I would have liked to have known about why the film was considered lost for almost 30 years, but this is a minor quibble on a very nice package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
York's performance notwithstanding, this is not a film where you will find yourself sympathizing or even empathizing with the characters. Altman approaches the material with almost clinical precision—like a surgeon solving a Rubik's Cube. It's terrific filmmaking, but it's not going to appeal to everyone. (I also found it too clever by half that all the characters were named after different actors in the film—Rene Auberjonois plays "Hugh," Hugh Millais plays "Marcel," Marcel Bozzuffi plays "Rene," and so on.)
After being MIA for 30 years, Images is a found treasure. MGM has given us a top-flight release. Images is a complex, intense film that features an unforgettable central performance and shows us another facet of a great director. It may not be "casual viewing," but it is well worth the effort.
MGM and Robert Altman are acquitted and free to go. Cathryn is remanded to
the custody of a nice, quiet place where she can write about unicorns under the
watchful eye of a good doctor.
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