Critical reception of the film was mixed, with some critics praising York's performance and Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography, while others faulted it for being incoherent, comparing it to films like Repulsion (1965). The film was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best English-Language Foreign Film, and John Williams was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Wealthy housewife and children's author Cathryn (Susannah York) receives a series of disturbing phone calls in her home in London one dreary night; the female voice on the other end, sometimes cutting in on other phone conversations, suggests mockingly that her husband Hugh (René Auberjonois) is having an affair. Hugh comes home, finding Cathryn in complete disarray. As Hugh attempts to comfort her, Cathryn witnesses a different man who is behaving as if he were her husband. She screams in horror and backs away, only to see her vision of the figure revert to her husband.
Hugh attributes her outburst to stress and her budding pregnancy. He decides to take a vacation to the countryside at an isolated cottage in Ireland, where Cathryn can work on her book and take photographs for its illustrations. Immediately upon her arrival, however, Cathryn begins to hear voices invoking her name, and witnessing strange apparitions: While preparing lunch in the kitchen one day, she witness her husband Hugh pass through the room, his body shifting into that of her dead lover, Rene. Rene continues to appear to her around the house, even having conversations with her.
Cathryn's paranoia and visions become increasingly pervasive, and are exacerbated when a local neighbor and ex-lover, Marcel, brings his adolescent daughter, Susannah, to visit. Cathryn becomes unable to distinguish Hugh from Rene or Marcel, as the men shift before her eyes. One day, Rene taunts Cathryn, asking her to kill him if she wants rid of him, and hands her a shotgun. She shoots him through the abdomen; Susannah, startled by the gunshot, runs into the house, and finds Cathryn standing in the den, having shot Hugh's camera to pieces. Cathryn claims the gun accidentally unloaded when she was moving it.
Seeking solace, Cathryn goes to a nearby waterfall, where on several occasions she sees a doppelgänger of herself staring back at her. After one of these occurrences, she returns to the house, where Hugh tells her he has to leave for business. She drives him to the train station and returns to the house, where she finds Marcel waiting inside. He begins to undress to have sex with her, but she stabs him through the chest with a kitchen knife. The next morning, she encounters a local elderly man walking his dog, and offers him to come inside for coffee, in spite of the fact that Marcel's corpse lay in the living room; he however, declines the invitation. Later in the evening, Susannah stops by the house, and remarks that her father came home drunk the night before; Cathryn is confused by this, believing she had murdered him the night before, but finds his body has disappeared from the living room. Susannah comes inside to have tea, and asks Cathryn if she looked like her when she was young before ominously saying, "I'm going to be exactly like you."
After having tea, Cathryn drives Susannah back home. Marcel comes out of the house and attempts to talk to Cathryn, but she drives away. While on a stretch of road through a desolate field, Cathryn witnesses her doppelgänger again, attempting to wave her down. Back at the house, she finds both Rene and Marcel's corpses have reappeared in the living room. Cathryn leaves again, and encounters her doppelgänger at a bend in the road; this time she stops. The doppelgänger begs Cathryn to let her in the car, and the two begin to speak in unison. She then hits the doppelgänger with the car, throwing her off a cliff and into a waterfall below. Cathryn then drives back to her home in London. At her home, she goes to take a shower. While in the bathroom, the door opens, and the doppelgänger walks inside. Cathryn screams in terror, "I killed you," to which the doppelgänger responds, "Not me." The final shot shows Hugh's corpse lying at the bottom of the falls.Susannah York as Cathryn
Rene Auberjonois as Hugh
Marcel Bozzuffi as Rene
Hugh Millais as Marcel
Cathryn Harrison as Susannah
John Morley as the Old Man
Images was an American-British coproduction; the film was shot at Ardmore Studios and at a country home in County Wicklow, Ireland between October and December 1971. According to a piece published by Variety in December 1969 while the film was in pre-production, Altman had intended to shoot the film in North America, specifically in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Director Altman, who had begun to write the project in the 1960s, had said that he wanted to make a film similar to the work of Joseph Losey, whose films he admired. According to Susannah York, the shoot was loose in form as well as collaborative, and the cast would meet with Altman over dinner each night to discuss the scenes of the upcoming day: "It was quite a bare script originally," said York. "Certainly I began to have very strong ideas about Cathryn. Cathryn and I seemed to be becoming one in many respects. But Bob drew from all of us, he wanted from us, actors love that, and we all responded. There was never any doubt that he was a master director, the master writer of the story, though he didn't necessarily put pen to paper during all those sessions."
The characters' names in the film are the inverses of the real-life names of the actors playing their counterparts: For example, the protagonist Cathryn (played by Susannah York) shares the name of actress Cathryn Harrison, who likewise plays a character named Susannah.
Images premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1972, and was released theatrically in November in the United Kingdom by Hemdale. The film was distributed by Columbia Pictures in the United States, released on December 18, 1972; however, the film's theatrical runs in both countries were short-lived: Hemdale reportedly pulled its advertising campaign from circulation in the United Kingdom, and its distribution in the United States was minimal. In an interview with Variety, Altman lambasted Hemdale for what he saw as their failure to properly promote the film, and criticized the company's head, John Daley.
The film received mixed reviews from critics; Roger Ebert gave Images three stars out of four, recommending it to fans of Altman's filmography but also writing that it "inspires admiration rather than involvement. It’s a technical success but not quite an emotional one." Howard Thompson of The New York Times gave the film a negative review, writing: "As for why Robert Altman, the brilliant director of the comedy, M*A*S*H, elected to write and direct this mish-mash, that's his own business. It just doesn't work."
Michael Scheinfeld in TV Guide gave the film a positive assessment, writing: "Spectacularly filmed on location in Ireland, the country landscapes become an intricate part of the psychological puzzle, as Altman juxtaposes images such as the "real" Cathryn standing on top of an enormous hill and looking down at "herself;" blood dripping onto a carpet that dissolves into the rippling waves in a river; and mysterious shots of horses, clouds, and waterfalls that echo the voice-over narration of Cathryn's children's story "In Search of Unicorns" (which was actually written by Susannah York). York gives a sensational performance..." Variety also published a favorable review of the film, praising York's performance: "[She has] the intensity and innocence marked by strain as well as sensual underpinnings, and brings off the final denouement with restraint and potency."
Although having received many award nominations, Images is now one of Altman's lesser-known works.
The film's loose narrative structure and ambiguities have led to numerous readings of it from film scholars. Joe McElhaney suggests in A Companion to Robert Altman, the majority of film critics and scholars have tended to note that Altman's 3 Women (1977) was inspired directly by Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), but, according to McElhaney, Altman himself claimed to have been more influenced by the film when writing and directing Images five years prior. In a retrospective interview, Altman attested to this, saying: "What I see becomes personal, so I am as involved in the fabric of those films [with smaller casts] as I am in the others. The difference between those films with many, many characters and small films like Images and 3 Women is just the size of the canvas. Some are small paintings, whereas others are big, broad murals."
Filmmaker Louis Lombardo has read the character of Cathryn as a stand-in figure for Altman himself, and the film thus an exploration of the multi-dimensional creative process. In 1982's American Skeptic: Robert Altman's Genre-Commentary Films by Norman Kagan, he cites the film as an "anti-genre exploration of what might be called the theme of madness. This genre includes such critically revered films as Psycho, Repulsion, and Persona."1972 New York Film Critics Circle
Nominated - Best Actress (Susannah York)
1972 Cannes Film Festival
Won - Best Actress (Susannah York)
Nominated - Golden Palm (Robert Altman)
44th Academy Awards
Nominated - Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (John Williams)
26th British Academy Film Awards
Nominated - Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond)
30th Golden Globe Awards
Nominated - Best English-Language Foreign Film
Writers Guild of America Awards 1972
Nominated - Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen (Robert Altman)