It’s been a really bad week for the art of cinematography. On December 27th, Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Medium Cool [also director/screenwriter]) passed away. Yesterday, it was announced that legendary DP Vilmos Zsigmond had died on New Year’s Day. Vilmos Zsigmond helped mold a visual aesthetic, capable of shifting in a beat from ravishing and painterly to gritty and naturalistic, that went hand-in-hand with the thematic concerns of the burgeoning New Hollywood movement, a handful of young, up-and-coming filmmakers in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
A native of Hungary, Zsigmond trained at the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest alongside another future master of the art form, László Kovács. Together they shot over 30,000 feet of film that documented the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Portions of this footage can be seen in the touching Independent Lens documentary from 2009 No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos.
Moving to America in the early 1960s, Zsigmond found work as a lab technician and photographer in Los Angeles, before landing his first professional work as cinematographer (using the Americanized name of “William Zsigmond”) on the Arch Hall Jr. vehicle The Sadist. Zsigmond racked up an impressive body of work shooting for the likes of Arch Hall Sr. (The Nasty Rabbit, Deadwood ‘76) and Al Adamson (Psycho a Go-Go, Five Bloody Graves). One of the best of this early crop of exploitation films is the luridly titled The Name of the Game Is Kill!, starring Jack Lord, Susan Strasberg, and Tisha Sterling.
In 1971, Zsigmond shot the bleak and snowy anti-Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Robert Altman. It would be the start of a beautiful friendship. The surreal psychodrama Images and The Long Goodbye—one of Altman’s indisputable masterworks, a radical deconstruction of the hard-boiled noir films of the 1940s—followed in 1972 and 1973. The latter film involved Zsigmond “flashing” the film negative (exposing it to controlled amounts of light in order to achieve a muted color palette), a technique with which he would become synonymous. These three films rank among Altman’s best; certainly, they’re among his most visually ravishing.
The 1970s were the heyday of the New Hollywood and Vilmos Zsigmond contributed to a dizzying array of the best films from this loose-limbed “movement”: lensing everything from Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider follow-up The Hired Hand (1971), and Jerry Schatzberg’s picaresque buddy movie Scarecrow (1973), to a notorious one-two punch for erstwhile auteur Michael Cimino: the ironic/jingoistic (depending on who you ask) The Deer Hunter (1978) and the studio-demolishing Heaven’s Gate (1980) which can, in many ways, be seen as Cimino’s Intolerance.
Along the way he also lit one of Steven Spielberg’s best films, The Sugarland Express (1974), as well as one of his loveliest, yet emptiest, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). There were also the occasional New Hollywood outliers like Deliverance (1972) for Brit maverick John Boorman and Mark Rydell’s Janis-manqué biopic The Rose (1979). The 1980s were sparser years for Zsigmond, with the veteran DP doing time on disposable titles like Jinxed! (1982). There were highlights, however, like George Miller’s wicked Updike adapt The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and, easing into the ‘90s, Jack Nicholson’s uneven Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes (1990).
Aside from Altman, one of the most fruitful runs Zsigmond had were his collaborations with Brian De Palma, beginning with Obsession (1976), an unhinged reworking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo that boasts one of Bernard Herrmann’s finest scores. Then followed Blow Out (1980), one of the most downbeat, heartrending studies of paranoia and political corruption ever committed to celluloid; the ill-fated (some would say ill-advised) Tom Wolfe adaptation The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); and the gorgeous return-to-form (if not exactly content) The Black Dahlia (2006).
Among his final projects were a trio of films for Woody Allen: Melinda and Melinda (2004). Cassandra’s Dream (2007). You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). And, in a rare turn to television, Zsigmond shot a total of 24 episodes of The Mindy Project (2012-2014).