Sitting in the near 100°F thermal waters of Budapest’s famed Gellért Baths, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is talking to Anthony Bourdain, star of CNN’s travel/culinary show Parts Unknown, about his journey from his birth city of Szeged, home of one of Hungary’s great universities, to Budapest.
Zsigmond came to this cultural, literary and scientific capital of the former Austro-Hungary Empire to study cinematography at the famed State Academy of Drama and Film. It was here that he sparked a lifelong friendship with fellow student Laszlo Kovacs, a relationship that soon was to be forged and tested in the violence of the October 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The two young filmmakers obtained about 30,000 feet of black-and-white 35mm film negative, and with an Arri II camera “liberated” from the university and hidden in a shopping bag, they filmed invading troops and tanks sent by Moscow to squelch the fires of the Hungarians’ revolt. After recording those days of mayhem and chaos, the two young men escaped with their exposed film across the Austrian border into Vienna. They made their way to New York City, where CBS News with Walter Cronkite aired their footage. Many of the iconic images of that brief uprising came from their camera. (Their story is much like that of Josef Koudelka’s dramatic photographs of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in the spring of 1968.)
A few years after their arrival in the United States, Vilmos and Laszlo began shooting low-budget exploitation movies in 1960s Hollywood amid the dying embers of the old studio system. Vilmos’ debut feature was 1963’s The Sadist, a hostage thriller that, despite itself, has become a kind of cult film. Before his breakthrough annus mirabilis in 1971 with a trio of films, Red Sky at Morning, The Hired Hand and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Vilmos amassed a roster of drive-in programmers with titles like Psycho a Go-Go, Five Bloody Graves and Horror of the Blood Monsters. Not to be outmatched in the schlock department, Laszlo shot biker films like Hell’s Angels on Wheels and The Savage Seven before photographing the defining biker film of the American New Wave, Easy Rider. Once McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Easy Rider were out in the world, neither of these émigré artists looked back.
In the ensuing decades, Vilmos won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and received nominations for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia. Unbelievably, Laszlo never received an Oscar nomination. But both men were given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Cinematographers, Vilmos in 1999 and Laszlo three years later. In successive years, 1997 and 1998, Vilmos and Laszlo were also honored with the Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award.
During the 1960s exploitation period, when Vilmos and Laszlo were called “Willy” and “Leslie,” respectively, some of us who were fresh out of film school at USC and UCLA landed jobs with these two rapidly rising Hungarians, who were in a desperate struggle to gain a foothold in a powerful, closed union shop. We all found a modicum of protection from bottom-feeding producers through the smaller motion-picture wing of the TV broadcast union, NABET. As more and more young cinematographers battered at the industry’s formidable union gates, and as more and more of the great, old guard cinematographers like James Wong Howe and George Folsey retired, the gates slowly opened — not only for Vilmos and Laszlo, but also for outsiders like John Alonzo and Haskell Wexler. The tiny but talent-laden NABET film local was absorbed by the behemoth IATSE, and many of us camera assistants and operators rode the merger’s coattails into IA membership alongside the cinematographers. With Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, Owen Roizman, William Fraker and Jordan Cronenweth (who had risen through the ranks in the mainstream industry), this generation defined the best American cinematography for the rest of the 20th century. Vilmos and Laszlo were at the forefront of the group whose members had come of age under the heady influence of the French Nouvelle Vague.
Laszlo died in 2007, but his and Vilmos’ lives remained closely intertwined. James Chressanthis’ 2008 documentary feature, No Subtitles Necessary, not only follows their career tracks from their student period, but also offers insight into the love and respect they had for each other. Here is a moving clip of the two men discussing how they photographed street scenes during the violent days of the 1956 uprising:
Vilmos’ widow, Susan, explained, “They were as close as two men could ever be.” They were so bound together as artists and friends that even John Patterson of The Guardian misattributed four of Laszlo’s early credits to Vilmos in his recent tribute.
When Vilmos was photographing films for Robert Altman in the early 1970s, I was working on Altman-produced films for his Lion’s Gate Studio, mostly as a camera operator for Chuck Rosher and Dave Myers on films directed by Robert Benton and Alan Rudolph, though I also operated on Altman’s Three Women. It might have been my history with Altman that prompted Vilmos to ask me to be his camera operator on the ill-fated indie film Winter Kills. I still recall how Vilmos and I were standing high in the perms of MGM’s Stage 27, lost in the labyrinth of production designer Robert Boyle’s surreal set, lining up a two-shot of Tony Perkins and Jeff Bridges, when reps from several IATSE locals threw the huge stage doors open, flooding the low-key set with blazing sunlight, and called out to us, “All of you, get on down here! We’re shutting down the show!”
Crew-salary fringes had not been paid to the union for some weeks, and our own salaries were arriving from New York on Fridays via a stone-faced courier who entered the stage with bags of cash. There had been rumors of Mob financing for some time. Months later, one of the producers was found murdered in a hotel room. Another served a lengthy prison term for selling drugs.
A few months later, Vilmos flew to Philadelphia and shot a few scenes without me, operating the camera himself in an aborted attempt to finish the film with young first-time director Bill Richert. More than a year later, more cash was scraped together for the production, but Vilmos was unavailable for an ambitious new scene. I had just moved up to director of photography, so Vilmos asked me to follow his notes to shoot a new sequence: a dirt road face-off in the Northern California hills between Jeff Bridges, driving a compact car, and Sterling Hayden, a right-wing lunatic astride a vintage tank. Bridges’ car is encircled by Hayden’s private army.
Winter Kills was finally finished, released to great anticipation but no distribution support from Avco-Embassy, and died instantly. Vilmos and I talked about this bizarre adventure, a dark comedy of conspiracy and chicanery, for years afterwards. Though almost forgotten by the public, Winter Kills held a particular pride of place in his filmography, and it remained one of those “What if…?” links between us. The sad tale of the movie’s fate is told by Richert, as well as Vilmos, Boyle, Bridges and other cast and crew, in "Who Killed Winter Kills," this half-hour video on YouTube:
Much like my friendship with Haskell Wexler (which I wrote about in my last post), Vilmos and I often shared war stories at the ASC Clubhouse on Orange Drive in Hollywood. After Vilmos and Susan moved to Big Sur, we Hollywood-based cinematographers saw less of him. But last year, Kim Hendrickson at The Criterion Collection asked me if I would do a video interview with Vilmos for Criterion’s upcoming 4K remaster of The Rose, Mark Rydell’s stunning portrait of a Janis Joplin-like rock diva (played by Bette Midler in her first starring role). Our half-hour conversation, a supplement on Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray, reveals an eloquent, thoughtful artist who seldom spoke at length, but, when he did, did so with a quiet and firm conviction about his work. You can read my post about our conversation and watch clips from it here.
Lee Kline, the technical director at Criterion, recently posted his own recollection of working with Vilmos on the remastering of The Rose.
When sitting opposite Vilmos for any discussion, whether in a DI suite or at the ASC Clubhouse, it was always his intense eyes that quickly got your attention, perhaps because they were a window into deciphering what was still, despite 50-odd years in the U.S., a formidable Hungarian accent. And watching Vilmos walk the streets of Budapest next to the 6’-plus Bourdain in Parts Unknown made me marvel again at the huge creative mark this slight and gentle man made on American cinema.