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)
Two 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)
A 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)
While 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)
Zsigmond 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)
A 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)
In 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”.
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5. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
Another 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)
According 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)
By 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)
Although 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)
Despite 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?
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