Cinematographer responsible for superb lighting and photography in The Deer Hunter and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Monday 4 January 2016
Hollywood studios have good reason to be grateful to repressive European governments for having provided them with refugee film-makers who made hugely significant contributions to the American film industry. The cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who has died aged 85, arrived in the US in 1956, having fled his native Hungary as Russian tanks put down the Hungarian revolution. Over the next few decades, he became associated with many leading American directors, notably Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino and Woody Allen.
Zsigmond, who won an Oscar for his work on Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), was responsible for the distinctive look of many of the best Hollywood movies of the 1970s, starting with Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971). Using the wide-screen Panavision image (before screens got narrower to accommodate home video), Zsigmond steeped this anti-western in dark, wet, cold tones. It was the kind of desaturated cinematography for which he became renowned.
Zsigmond was born in Szeged, Hungary, where his father, Vilmos, was a well-known football player and coach, and his mother, Bozena (nee Illichman), was a local administrator. He was interested in photography from an early age, but under the Moscow-dominated puppet government he was not allowed to study the subject because his family was considered bourgeois. Instead, Zsigmond was put to work in a factory, where he saved money to buy a camera and taught himself how to take pictures, going on to organise a camera club for the workers. This permitted him to learn cinematography at the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest.
While working as an apprentice at the state film studio in October 1956, he was caught up in the popular uprising. Zsigmond and a fellow student, Laszlo Kovacs, took an Arriflex camera and filmed the battle between the Budapest citizens and the Russian troops and tanks. They then fled to Austria carrying the 30,000ft of film with them, which was processed, sold to a producer and later shown on CBS television, narrated by Walter Cronkite. In 1957 Zsigmond arrived in the US, where he spent time in a refugee camp in New Jersey before finding a job as a photographer.
From 1963 he worked in Hollywood on dozens of features, credited as William Zsigmond, until Kovacs, who had shot Easy Rider (1969) for Peter Fonda (producer) and Dennis Hopper (director), recommended his friend to Fonda for the western The Hired Hand (1971), the actor’s first feature as a director. “I got the idea of how to light The Hired Hand from the villages in Hungary where there was no electricity and they used kerosene lamps,” Zsigmond explained. But his breakthrough came when Altman hired him for McCabe & Mrs Miller, thus beginning the most rewarding decade of his career, which coincided with “the new Hollywood” of young independent film-makers, influenced by European cinema. “Creating the mood is more important than making everything look beautiful,” he said. “Laszlo and I sort of created the ‘nouvelle vague’ in the US – simple lighting, but more realistic.”
Altman continued to use Zsigmond as his director of photography on Images (1972), set against misty and frosty Irish landscapes, which skilfully conveys a schizophrenic woman’s point of view, when she (played by Susannah York) confuses real and imagined events.
In contrast, The Long Goodbye (1973) is a neo-noir shot in pastel colours in Los Angeles, much of it seen through the eyes of the private detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould), whose vision is often obscured by trees, windows, mirrors and the sides of buildings. The film was a good example of Zsigmond’s use of flashing, which exposes the film to a controlled light in order to mute colours. He liked working with Altman, who gave him carte blanche to set up the lighting, his preference being to light the actors rather than the background.
John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) was Zsigmond’s first film shot entirely on location, namely the Appalachian mountains of northern Georgia and South Carolina. The use of desaturated film stock gave the picture a certain gritty realism, added to which there were no special effects or stuntmen, so that Zsigmond had to film the actors shooting the rapids while actually doing so himself.
Close Encounters of the First Kind, for which Zsigmond won an Academy Award
Spielberg asked Zsigmond to photograph his first big-screen feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), a road movie set in Texas, which was the first feature to be shot with the new lightweight Panaflex camera. After refusing to shoot Jaws because he thought it was a stupid script, Zsigmond worked with Spielberg again on the science-fiction extravaganza Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “It was difficult to shoot because of the lighting,” he recalled. “We had huge amounts of lighting to get the special effects – which would be done by computer-generated imagery today, but in those days we had to do it in the camera.” Out of the eight Oscar nominations the film received, only the cinematographer collected the statuette.
Perhaps his striking Oscar-nominated work on Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) was even more deserving of an award. Zsigmond provided the three-part epic, shot in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Thailand (standing in for Vietnam), with visual continuity – particularly the autumnal look of the first section.
From the wide acclaim for The Deer Hunter, which caught the mood of the time, Cimino’s career plunged to almost total condemnation with Heaven’s Gate (1980). The sprawling epic, set in 1890s Wyoming (shot mostly in Montana), cost $40m to make and was noted for the extravagance of its vast sets. But it turned out to be one of cinema’s most expensive flops. The influential critic Roger Ebert described Zsigmond’s attempt to make the movie look like faded period photos as being “so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen”. It rang the death knell for the American “new wave”.
Although Zsigmond was complicit in the creation of Heaven’s Gate, his career did not suffer noticeably, despite a deterioration in the quality of films with which he was associated, including two other mammoth turkeys – Don Siegel’s last film, the appropriately titled Jinxed (1982); and De Palma’s flop, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Zsigmond had already worked for De Palma more successfully on the Hitchcockian Obsession (1976) and Blow Out (1981). Still much in demand from younger directors, Zsigmond also linked up with Allen to shoot Melinda and Melinda (2004), Cassandra’s Dream (2007) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010).
He is survived by his second wife, the writer and director Susan Roether, and by his daughters, Julia and Susi, from his marriage to Elizabeth Fuzes, which ended in divorce.
• Vilmos Zsigmond, cinematographer, born 16 June 1930; died 1 January 2016