Classic Film Review: Susannah York is losing it in Robert Altman’s “Images” (1972)

One of the stranger film’s of Robert Altman’s vagabond career, and perhaps the least “Altmanesque,” is a small-cast horror tale shot on an Irish location, barely released in the U.S. and “lost” for decades — supposedly because Columbia Pictures destroyed its negative.

But “Images” starred Susannah York, who earned a co-writing credit for reading from her children’s fantasy novel “In Search of Unicorns,” something Altman worked into his long-gestating screenplay. It was photographed by no less than Vilmos Zsigmond, scored by John Williams and littered with eerie “Sounds” by Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta.

And as it got lost in the shuffle (and American distributor Columbia’s shenanigans) of Altman’s break out years — right after “M*A*S*H” and mixed in with “Brewster McCloud,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Thieves Like Us” and “The Long Goodbye” — it’s certainly worth a look.

The idea, Altman said later, was to make something in the French New Wave style, a sort of “Belle du Jour” or “Repulsion” thriller with nods to “Persona.” Altman was a TV craftsman who longed to be thought of as “an artist,” so his impulse was to go “obscure.”

York plays a writer of YA-before-it-was-YA lit married to a boor (Rene Auberjonois of “M*A*S*H”) of indeterminate employ, assorted hobbies (still-life art photography, hunting) and a goofy penchant for wearing driving gloves in and out of the car, in and out of the house.

“Cathryn” is another classic York shag-haircut beauty who comes somewhat unglued thanks to a late night call — or what she perceives as a call. She’s chatting with a friend when a “crossed line” (land-line speak) brings in the voice of another woman, a stranger.

“Do you know where your husband is tonight?”

Cathryn comes a tad unglued, and her ill-tempered, foul-mouthed husband Hugh can’t make much sense of it. We can’t decide if a couple of badgering, taunting calls have unmoored her, if this is a new state or if Hugh has a clue that his writer-wife is

At her insistence, they dash off to her inherited place in the country (County Wicklow) where she can work on her book and he can play at being the great hunter.

Once there, they run into their newly-divorced old friend Marcel (Hugh Millais), who comes on to Cathryn as if he’s sure she’ll be receptive to this again, Marcel’s teen daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) and this other fellow.

It’s only when Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi, note everybody’s name-and-character name), who seems to be an ex-lover, with anecdotes about a false pregnancy and the like, is told to “Shut up! You’re dead, STAY dead!” by Cathryn that the mystery really unravels.

She’s seen another version of herself, with a cocker spaniel (she fears dogs), drive up to the house as she looks down on it from a nearby hillside. Plainly, not everyone Cathryn sees is real. Not every personality trait we attribute to her is her own.

“Schizophrenic,” Marcel jokes, in the broad misdiagnosis of the day. She might agree, but it’s obvious Hugh has no clue. She’s not in treatment and apparently undiagnosed. The movie is about her response to these visions and her self-prescribed treatment.

Altman’s sometimes piggish misuse of women in “M*A*S*H” and elsewhere is echoed here. His playfulness with names and character names probably looked student filmish to Columbia, which picked up “Images” from Hemdale. And his frequent repetition of lines as character crutches might be another Altmanesque touch, for those looking for the telltale talkover dialogue, clutter of characters and repertory company Altman trademarks.

Hugh’s swearing always begins with “Son of a BITCH,” and Cathryn’s vocalized pause, applied to any situation she wants to get out of — a child’s unfiltered questioning, a masher’s crude attempts at seduction, a stranger at the door — is “I’m cold.”

Obscure as our storyteller tries to make “Images,” it’s easy enough to pick up on what’s happening. York, in what might be her most mercurial performance, runs the gamut from passive to alarmed, enraged to lost in a reverie, often in the same scene.

She was pregnant and Altman insisted on keeping his planned nude scene as a “Rubenseque” jolt and joke. No, people weren’t as fit in the early ’70s (look at the lumpy men), but that was still a daring move for the sex symbol York (“Tom Jones”) to agree to.

Thanks to Altman’s fondness for profanity (and the stunningly creepy sound design/musical effects of Yamashta), “Images” sounds remarkably modern, even if the sexual mores, fashion and evocatively grainy, drab celluloid greys of an Irish fall give it a period piece feel.

Thanks to its pedigree and York’s performance, “Images” is well worth tracking down on the TV streamers that have picked it up, especially if you’re an Altman completist. But its oddness is both a calling card and a handicap, as it’s not quite horror, not entirely a paranoid thriller and not necessarily “Altmanesque.”

Rating: R, violence, sex, nudity

Cast: Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Hugh Millais, Marcel Bozzuffi, Cathryn Harrison and John Morley

Credits: Scripted and directed by Robert Altman, with York reading from her novel “In Search of Unicorns.” A Hemdale release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:41

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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