Top 10 Films Of Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond

If there was ever a Hollywood cinematographer who successfully captured the mood of the filmmakers he worked with it was the late Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016). Mark Fraser looks at 11 works where this Hungarian-born cameraman selflessly made the vision of his director the top priority.

10. The Crossing Guard (Sean Penn, 1995)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondTwo words sum up the look of this movie – stark and cold. It also features a remarkably honest and straightforward performance by Jack Nicholson who – as the grieving father Freddy Gale – is unflatteringly photographed in all of his glamourless glory. As with the night shots in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter (see below), Zsigmond showed a penchant for prominent bluish hues.
See also: Top 10 Films of Jack Nicholson

9. Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondA modest road movie where Panavision is used to great effect, with Zsigmond and director Jerry Schatzberg (a photographer himself) continually coming up with interesting interior and exterior compositions. Unfortunately, in his review of the film (published in The Chicago-Sun Times on April 12, 1973), Roger Ebert didn’t agree with this sentiment, saying it was “so obsessed with its visual look that it suffers dramatically”. In particular, the critic wasn’t fond of an early scene when the two lead drifter characters – the gruff Max (Gene Hackman) and the playful Lion (Al Pacino) – establish their rapport during a conversation in a diner, a moment when Schatzberg revealed his leaning for the long (three to four minutes) take. “It’s a virtuoso piece of acting by Hackman and Pacino,” Ebert noted, “but after a while the shot calls attention to itself and away from them.” Come on Roger – what’s there not to like? If anything, this kind of filmmaking makes one feel just that little bit more nostalgic for early 1970s American cinema.

8. The Two Jakes (Jack Nicholson, 1990)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondWhile this disappointing sequel to Roman Polanski’s 1974 private eye classic Chinatown may have been fairly dull, it wasn’t the director of photography’s fault. Unlike The Long Goodbye (see below), Zsigmond’s vision of LA (circa 1948) wasn’t so dark this time around. A handsome-looking period piece if nothing else.

7. (TIE) The Bonfire of the Vanities (Brian De Palma, 1990)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondZsigmond and his crew easily matched the famed Michael Ballhaus/Martin Scorsese Copacabana entry in Goodfellas (also 1990) when, at the start of this movie, drunk journalist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) makes his way to the launch of his book in an extended steadicam shot that ends up being perfectly paced, composed and lit. The rest of the film looks just as good – pity about the script, though.

7. (TIE) The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma, 2006)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondA triumph in lighting (and the use of sepia filters), production design and wardrobe, but unforgivable when it comes to Brian De Palma and scriptwriter Josh Friedman’s bastardisation of a great (not to mention devastatingly tragic) James Ellroy novel.
See also: Top 10 Films of Brian De Palma

6. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondIn the first instalment of his Cult Movies books, Danny Peary calls Zsigmond’s night photography in this film “spellbinding”, saying it evoked such a spooky and surreal Los Angeles that “it would take a stout heart to venture there”. Meanwhile Vincent Canby at The New York Times said (in November 1973) it was “visually breathtaking without seeming to be inappropriately fancy”.

Discover More:
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16 Stunningly Photographed American Films That Were Completely Snubbed By The Academy Awards

5. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondAnother instance when the cinematographer shouldn’t be expected to take any of the blame for the turkeys (the original and the shortened version) that were eventually delivered by the director. From all indications the digitised transfer conducted for The Criterion Collection release back in late 2012 takes the whole look of the film up a few notches.

4. Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondAccording to Peter Biskind’s seminal book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N” Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, the head of Warner Brothers during the 1970s, John Calley, said of the script (by author James Dickey): “Wait a minute. Three guys (sic) with canoes go into the country for the weekend, and a brain damaged boy plays a banjo solo on a bridge and then one of them gets f****** in the arse – you think that’s a movie?” Well yes, as it turned out – and a damn good one at that. Plus it was a robust box-office performer, thanks in no small part to its stunning wide-screen presentation.
Discover More: 16 Stunningly Photographed American Films That Were Completely Snubbed By The Academy Awards

3. McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

Top 10 Films Of Vilmos ZsigmondBy his own admission Zsigmond was proud of his work on this low key revisionist western. In 1980 he told Rolling Stone’s Jean Vallely he also enjoyed making the movie, despite the fact there was (at least according to other accounts) some serious friction between director Robert Altman and his leading man Warren Beatty. “Altman wanted to show the (Pacific) Northwest as it was, which was cold,” the cinematographer explained. “That’s when a cameraman can help tremendously – creating the cold, muddy rainy look. We made it look like old, faded pictures. We tried to create excitement when turning on a lantern, because in those days it probably was exciting. What else happened during the day, right?”

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

close-encounters-of-the-third-kind_steven-spielberg_alien-spaceshipAlthough Zsigmond won his only Oscar for this breathtaking piece of science fiction cinema, a number of other well-known DOPs also worked on the film, including Doug Slocombe, John Alonzo, William Fraker, fellow Hungarian Laszlo Kovacs, Michael Butler and Allen Daviau. Interestingly, it was the first time he was nominated for the award, having been ignored by the academy for entries six, four and three on this list as well as for his work on other movies like Altman’s Images (1972) and Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty (1973).

1. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

Robert De Niro in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter - Top 10 FilmsDespite reeking of bogus sentiment and containing some outrageous historical distortions regarding the Vietnam War, this is one hell of a beautiful-looking movie. Indeed, its cinematography is so impressive that it’s arguable it should have beaten Nestor Almendros’ excellent camerawork on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1979.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what is the best work of Vilmos Zsigmond in your opinion?

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Callum Reply

    I’m not too familiar with Zsigmond’s work having only seen a few of these but I do remember thinking some of the cinematography in Deer Hunter was spectacular. The shots above highlight his skill at composition and lighting; he obviously brought a lot of talent to the table. For directors he must have been a dream to work with (from a technical perspective).

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    Darren Jones Reply

    What a genius! With Laszlo Kovacs he practically defined the look of 70s cinema (although I would have had Blow Out in there as one of the Brian De Palma films)

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    Alison Green Reply

    One of the true greats. Undoubtedly one of the most influential cinematographers to have ever lived. Great choices for your top 10.

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    Anthony Stevens Reply

    McCabe and Mrs. Miller; one of the best films of all time (IMHO)

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    James Brogan Reply

    Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Maverick.

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    ArchE Reply

    Easily one of the great unsung heroes of Hollywood cinema. Aren’t all cinematographers “unsung” until they give directing a go and find it’s another kettle of fish altogether.

    He can’t complain about his Oscar success too much but you look at his work and think he probably should have triumphed more often. You look at the directors who put their trust in him – Spielberg, Boorman, Altman, De Palma, Cimino – and that tells you all you need to know about how good he was.

    I very much enjoyed reading your piece Mark and applaud McCabe and Mrs Miller being so high. Certainly, the film isn’t Close Encounters or Deer Hunter but is probably the cinematographer’s finest work in my opinion.

    Interesting to see you pick Black Dahlia and Bonfire of the Vanities for your De Palma selections. I wouldn’t lose any sleep replacing both with Blow Out and Obsession.

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    Roger That Reply

    It’s good to see another cinematographer’s work get acknowledged on the site. I know you did one for Andrew Lesnie previously, it would be good to see more. I’ve always thought Vilmos was one of Hollywood’s finest and you’ve highlighted why perfectly above. He was smart; an innovator with his own ideas which he could bring to the table. Directors welcomed that I think – he made their work better. My top 3 would be the same as yours.

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    Dan Reply

    Wonderful tribute to one of Hollywood’s most talented and inventive cinematographers.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    @ all – thank you for reading and the feedback.

    I can’t argue with the suggested De Palma alternatives, and admittedly it has been been many, many years since I’ve seen Obsession. In this instance my choices were based on my tolerance for the director – I don’t think either Bonfire or Dahlia are particularly good films, but I do prefer them to works like Blow Out, Dressed to Kill and Body Double.

    This kind of rationale can be extended to Maverick – I agree it’s a handsomely shot film, but when I watched it the thing that tickled me was not the cinematography, but the fact Mr Zsigmond had a cameo as a poker player.

    It’s gratifying to see others agree about the top 3 – they truly are beautifully shot movies.

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