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‘Vilmos and I were almost brothers on our movie,’ declared Steven Spielberg in an interview with critic Andrew C. Barrow while looking back on the making of 1974’s The Sugarland Express, the director’s official feature debut and first collaboration with director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond. ‘Vilmos is a very interesting man…He would offer his ideas beyond the definition of the American cinematographer.’
The Sugarland Express, which would also mark Spielberg’s first collaboration with composer John Williams, received tepid reviews upon release, although Zsigmond’s cinematography was often praised as its saving grace. Following Spielberg’s success of Jaws a year later, the young filmmaker embarked on his most ambitious project to date with the science fiction spectacle Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
A visually stunning and occasionally moving tale of man’s first contact with alien life forms, the movie was released just six months after George Lucas’ phenomenal success with Star Wars, and while it failed to achieve the same kind of box office impact, the film proved to be a hit with critics, with Time Out stating that ‘it reaches the viewer at a far more profound level.’
Prior to his collaborations with Spielberg, Hungarian-born Zsigmond had already worked alongside John Boorman on his rural thriller Deliverance and Robert Altman’s acclaimed The Long Goodbye, yet it would be Close Encounters of the Third Kind that would bring Zsigmond his first Academy Award nomination.
‘I was very happy to receive the award from Goldie Hawn and Jon Voight, who I knew personally, having worked with both of them,’ he told TCM. ‘Also I was sad that Steven Spielberg, Douglas Trumbull and many categories didn’t get rewarded. I believed that no other film came close to the passion and quality of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that year.
Yet despite the movie being praised for its visuals, largely due to the work of Zsigmond, this would prove to be their final collaboration. Zsigmond followed this success with a second Oscar nomination the following year for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but their next collaboration, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, would become notorious for its creative and financial failures.
‘Beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond and visually reminiscent of the epic cinema of David Lean,’ Heaven’s Gate nevertheless suffered from an often tedious and incoherent narrative, courtesy of Cimino’s self-penned script,’stated British critic Mark Kermode in Contemporary American Cinema. ‘The horror and shame of Heaven’s Gate,’ explained New York Magazine at the time of its release, ‘is that all this effort counts for so little.’After the disaster of Heaven’s Gate, Zsigmond worked with Brian De Palma on several projects, commencing in 1981 with Blow Out, an updating of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow Up, filtered through the works of Hitchcock and Argento. Other notable pictures shot by Zsigmond would include The Witches of Eastwick for George Miller, the Sharon Stone erotic thriller Sliver and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda.
Zsigmond passed away on New Year’s Day in Big Sur, California at the age of eighty-five. ‘Vilmos’ genius was not only in his images, but in his sense of duty to honest storytelling,’ said Steven Poster of the International Cinematographers Guild in a statement printed by Variety. ‘Working up close with him, I also learned about perseverance and an obligation to the story from the master. His brave beginnings providing footage from the Hungarian revolution will always be an important part of his legacy and to future generations of cinematographers and film students. He made a difference.’