Creating images of beauty in haunting terror

Vilmos Zsigmond (above) lent a hyper-real glow to the arrival of space aliens in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Vilmos Zsigmond (above) lent a hyper-real glow to the arrival of space aliens in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Vilmos Zsigmond lent a hyper-real glow to the arrival of space aliens in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (above).
Vilmos Zsigmond lent a hyper-real glow to the arrival of space aliens in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (above).PHOTO: MEDIAWORKS

Vilmos Zsigmond helped shape the look of Hollywood movies, in which light, colour and images superseded the importance of making the star look good

NEW YORK • Vilmos Zsigmond, a Hungarian-born cinematographer who helped shape the look of American movies in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond, among other things lending a hyper-real glow to the arrival of space aliens and winning an Oscar for Steven Spielberg's 1977 science fiction extravaganza Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, died last Friday at his home in Big Sur, California. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by Yuri Neyman, a friend and cinematographer with whom Zsigmond founded a professional school, the Global Cinematography Institute.

Known for creating dramatic, story-propelling images in muted colours and natural light, Zsigmond (whose full name is pronounced VIL-moshe ZHIG-mund) referred to his desired imagery as "poetic realism".

Along with other cinematographers, including his countryman Laszlo Kovacs, with whom he escaped the Soviet dominance of Hungary in 1956, he helped usher in a new era in the look of Hollywood movies, one in which light and colour and whole images superseded the importance of making the star look gorgeous.

The cinematographer's job is to frame and light individual shots and to help achieve a director's vision, and Zsigmond collaborated with a string of A-list directors. His resume is a long list of familiar, celebrated and occasionally infamous titles.

For Robert Altman, he shot McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971), a moody Western with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie; Images (1972), a psychological thriller about a woman (Susannah York) who may be going mad; and The Long Goodbye (1973), an updated Raymond Chandler detective story starring Elliott Gould.

For Brian De Palma, he shot Obsession (1976), an eerie kidnap mystery with John Lithgow, Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold; The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990), a calamitous adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel of New York City in the 1980s; and The Black Dahlia (2006), a crime story derived from a real-life murder, for which his images of Los Angeles in 1947 - suggestive of film noir, though shot in colour - earned an Oscar nomination. For Woody Allen, he shot contemporary social comedies Melinda And Melinda (2004) and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010), and a thriller, Cassandra's Dream (2007). And for Spielberg, he shot an early feature with Goldie Hawn, The Sugarland Express (1974), before they worked together again on Close Encounters, during which he and Spielberg clashed and, in spite of Zsigmond's Academy Award, did not work together again.

Perhaps his other best-known film was The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino's taut, sometimes agonising Oscar-winning drama - Zsigmond was nominated but did not win - starring Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken about the grotesqueries of Vietnam and their effect on a group of blue-collar veterans.

In several memorable scenes, including a wedding and an excruciating game of live- ammunition Russian roulette, he created images that mustered beauty in the service of terror and hovering, haunting tension.

He earned a fourth Oscar nomination for The River (1984), a drama about the travails of a farm family, directed by Mark Rydell and starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek.

His own story was dramatic in its own right. Born in Szeged, Hungary, the son of a soccer coach, he went to film school in Budapest, where he met Kovacs, a fellow student whose life would be entwined with his until Kovacs' death in 2007. In 1956, when the Hungarian revolt against Communist rule was quashed by the Soviet Union, the two defied the danger and filmed the carnage in the streets.

The two men smuggled their film into Austria - it was eventually shown in news reports on American TV and elsewhere - and a year or so later they were in the United States. Together, they went to Hollywood, where their first job was picking up trash and they started working in low-budget genre films often together under the names Leslie Kovacs and William Zsigmond.

Kovacs got his break when he shot Targets (1968), an early feature by Peter Bogdanovich. He went on to film dozens of well-known titles, among them Easy Rider, Paper Moon, Shampoo, Ghostbusters, Mask, Say Anything and Miss Congeniality.

After Easy Rider, the motorcycle movie with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper that became an emblem of the 1960s counterculture, Fonda asked Kovacs to work on a film he was directing, The Hired Hand. Kovacs was committed elsewhere, however, and recommended Zsigmond. Zsigmond followed that with McCabe And Mrs Miller, which established his artistry.

"It kind of set the mark for a certain kind of grit in Western cinematography; it was terrific," actor Jon Voight said in the documentary.

Zsigmond's other credits include Scarecrow (1973), with Al Pacino and Gene Hackman; Cinderella Liberty (1973), about a sailor (James Caan) and a prostitute (Marsha Mason); Cimino's famous flop Heaven's Gate (1980); and The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown (1990), directed by Jack Nicholson.

His first marriage ended in divorce. His survivors include his second wife and a daughter.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2016, with the headline 'Creating images of beauty in haunting terror'. Print Edition | Subscribe