Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Top 10 Vilmos Zsigmond Films

Vilmos Zsigmond has been one of film’s most influential cinematographers for decades. In more than 60 years as a working director of photography, he’s amassed 100 credits and been a go-to cinematographer for Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Michael Cimino and many more. By pure coincidence, I wrote the majority of this post yesterday, which was Zsigmond’s 85th birthday. Here’s wishing him well by exploring some of his best work.

10. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
The embedded clip below is a great example of how even the most impressive cinematography can’t save a weak story. Simply put, The Bonfire of the Vanities isn’t a good film, but Zsigmond’s involvement in it is outstanding.

9. The Crossing Guard (1995)
The Crossing Guard is one of Zsigmond’s more intimate efforts. The film studies Jack Nicholson’s tormented face, finding vulnerability in his despair. This is often achieved via extreme close-up shots or distorted angles, but also in isolated master shots. The look of this film so expertly services the grim story contained in it.

8. The Long Goodbye (1973)
The camera in The Long Goodbye is just as comfortable following the mumbling Philip Marlowe from afar as it is holding tight on him in close-up. It’s just as vivid exploring the sun-drenched beaches of L.A. as it is capturing a dank dive bar. I absolutely love the look of this film; one of the finest efforts from Zsigmond and Robert Altman’s fruitful collaboration.

7. The Black Dahlia (2006)
Another flawed film by Brian De Palma, shot to utter perfection by Vilmos Zsigmond. The sepia palette and noir-like shadows immediately immerse us in the film’s 1940’s L.A. setting. While the bold angles and swift camera movements make the movie continuously fun to look at. At least The Black Dahlia has something going for it.

6. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Sure, Heaven’s Gate has its flaws (I’ve warmed up to it a bit over the years), but there’s no faulting Zsigmond’s cinematography. Look how those two screencaps balance one other. One is a cramped interior, and the other is a vast exterior, yet they both feel equally large.

5. Blow Out (1981)
Here’s a fun compilation video of Zsigmond’s own work that explains why it must be listed here.

4. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
You can feel McCabe & Mrs. Miller. You can feel the snow-covered Old West, feel the dingy brothels, feel the nasty bourbon bars. The fog is thick of the air is heavy, all due to Zsigmond’s stunning work. My praise for the look of this film is limitless. It makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller exist in a way few films do.

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Zsigmond won his only Oscar for lensing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film is incredible to look at – constantly drowned out in fog, white hot light, fluorescent blues and bright oranges. And the climax is given that rare epic treatment that suits Zsigmond’s style perfectly.

2. Deliverance (1972)
In order to give Deliverance a prominent sense of dread, Zsigmond desaturated all the colors along the river, conveying a muted and eerie composition. This is such a ballsy move, but one that services the film so well. Many DPs use vivid color temperatures when they shoot (just compare those Close Encounters stills to these), but by muting the river, Zsigmond made the setting of Deliverance look less beautiful than it actually was. Of course that’s just one aspect of Deliverance’s cinematography worth mentioning. For further reading, here’s my visual breakdown of what helps make the film’s notorious rape scene so haunting.

1. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Everything about the look of The Deer Hunter is perfect. The film rotates three dramatically different settings with equal weight. From the damp streets of a western Pennsylvania steel town to the vast and gorgeous landscapes where the men hunt deer to the sweaty and terrifying torture rooms of Vietnam. This is a rare film that is beautiful to look at, but terrifying to watch. The Deer Hunter has been one of my Top 5 Films of all time for years, thanks much in part to Vilmos Zsigmond’s contribution to it. 

Other Notable Films
from Brian De Palma's Obsession
The Hired Hand (1971)
Images (1972) 
Scarecrow (1973)
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Obsession (1976)
The Rose (1979)
The River (1984)
Real Genius (1985)
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Two Jakes (1990)
Stalin (1992) 
Maverick (1994)
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) 
The Mists of Avalon (2001) 
Life as a House (2001)
Cassandra’s Dream (2007)


  1. He is a fantastic example, as you pointed out in the Vanities post, of someone who makes really awful movies look gorgeous. But a magician can only do so much. Same goes for Crossing Gurd.

    1. Well I'm jealous and I truly mean that. If I hadn't found it funny I would have gotten zero enjoyment out of it. I love the concept because I've grown really tired of typical revenge fantasies, but CG really didn't work for me.

      What do you love about it? And that's genuine. I want to give it another go, maybe I'm missing something.

  2. Wow, that is a great fucking list. With the exception of The Long Goodbye (which I'll watch next week as part of my Blind Spot Series), there is just too many to list that is good.

    1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
    2. Heaven's Gate (I too did warm up to it as I was just wowed by its restored edition)
    3. Deliverance
    4. The Deer Hunter
    5. Blow-Out
    6. Scarecrow
    7. The Black Dahlia
    8. The Crossing Guard
    9. The Rose
    10. Bonfire of the Vanities (awful film but his photography is a highlight)

    Who is next on the cinematographer list? Nestor Almendros? Haskell Wexler?

    1. Great list man, can't wait to hear your thoughts on The Long Goodbye. Such a good movie. Would love to get to Wexler soon. Dante Spinotti, Michael Ballhaus and Robert Burks too.

  3. I couldn't agree more with what you said about The Black Dahlia. I dig it despite it's flaws, but the way it was shot was definitely the best part of it. Deliverance and Deer Hunter look beautiful as well. I haven't actually seen the rest. Nice job! I love these Cinemtography lists.

    1. Thanks Brittani! So happy you're a fan of his work on these lists. Blow Out is a really groovy flick. I think you'd dig that one.

  4. How the f--k I did not anticipate this? Deliverance and The Deer Hunter are so visually similar. How that I never made the connection? That means that I need to rewatch them back to back.
    This is my favorite part about your blog. Your originality. You often make a post that nobody will anticipate or know about.
    I also liked the way Maverick looked. He always makes movies better with his cinematography.

    1. Thanks man, that was really nice of you to say. I'm so happy you like these lists. Maverick does have a great look to it. So-so film, but fun to look at.

  5. A woefully underrated cinematographer, I'm really glad you made such a wonderful post on his work. I wouldn't dare try a Deer Hunter/Deliverance double bill, that would be too much for my poor heart to bear. All of these films are wonderful examples of his work, but his work in The Rose is my favourite. It has such a charge and palpable energy that's so electrifying in the concert scenes, but also a soulful intimacy in the scenes with Midler and Forrest, both giving fantastic performances.

    Do you have any other Cinematography lists planned?

    1. I love your admiration for The Rose. I haven't seen that one in years, but I love the look of it. I do these cinematography posts sporadically because they take a long time to research. But more will definitely be coming!

  6. I love how I've never heard his name and yet as I'm scrolling through your list I'm all like "love that that that work"...LOL...great post, as always!

    1. Haha thanks man! Some of the best talents in film stay behind the scenes.

  7. I'm not a fan of Gates of Heaven, but the one really positive thing I had to say about it was the cinematography. There's a shot of a man on a horse by a train. In an unbroken shot (which must have taken forever to get a take they could use) the man and horse are enveloped in the smoke from the train and as it clears the horse and rider are gone. Another is the waltzing in the college courtyard. It's completely a waste of time in regards to the plot, but it's beautiful to watch.

    1. Those shots from Heaven's Gate are cemented firmly in my head. Two great picks there. The man and horse one is especially impressive. You're right, that must have taken forever to nail.

  8. Adore Zsigmond's work. Shooting films for Altman, Spielberg, Cimino (the director's cut of Heaven's Gate is pretty good) and DePalma. That's the kind of resume one dreams of. And agreed on The Deer Hunter being his crowning achievement. He nails the atmosphere that the movie calls for.

    By the way, my top 25 films of the decade are up

    1. So glad you're a fan and that you agree on The Deer Hunter for the top spot. Will give your Top 25 a look soon.

  9. Great list. The Deer Hunter and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are both great movies that beautifully shot. And The Black Dahlia might be one of the most boring movies i have ever seen, but it certainly did look good.

    1. Thanks man. I laughed out loud at your Black Dahlia comment. So, so true.

  10. Brilliant list man! Ugh, I really need to see Heaven's Gate. Awesome that The Deer Hunter takes the top spot. I might go with Close Encounters, but his work is fantastic in both.

    1. Heaven's Gate is a bit of a slog; one of those "eat your vegetables too" movies. Kind of just HAVE to see it.

  11. Great rundown here Alex. Vilmos is one of the finest cinematographers to ever grace the art. Really good to see his body of work on display. Always fond of his collaborations with Altman and Cimino, such a gifted eye. Great seeing Heaven's gate on here! It's a real mess of a film but you'd be hard pressed to find a more beautiful bore. The Deer Hunter has truly haunting moments, ones that will stay with me for the rest of my life and I have Zsigmond to thank for that.

    Great post, made me grin. Good to see the updates are still nice and plentiful in spite of your big wins in filmmaking.

    1. Thanks man! What a nice final paragraph, that means a lot to me. I definitely don't have time to post as often as I did, but I like to post stuff - the act of writing is always beneficial!

      Love "a more beautiful bore" to describe Heaven's Gate. Flawless description.

  12. I saw Deliverance for the 3rd time today and because of that im going to hunt down all of the films here I have not yet seen (that being 10 through 5). Absolutely stunning photography, but the camera always lurking- rather than filming. We feel like we are being watched, and Christ if it isn't effective and drop-dead gorgeous. Phenomenal work.

    1. "Lurking rather than filming." Fucking yes. Exactly. So well said. That's what Zsigmond does, he observes, never intrudes.