A trailblazing musician who started out as a poet and novelist, Cohen established himself as one of the world’s most influential singer-songwriters, exploring themes of romantic longing and spiritual anguish over the course of a nearly five-decade career. His unmistakable baritone took on haunting new dimensions when brought to the big screen, most notably in Robert Altman’s melancholy 1971 western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which uses three songs from the singer’s 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Set in the Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church at the dawn of the twentieth century, Altman’s film centers on the relationship between wayward gambler John McCabe (Beatty) and cockney brothel madam Constance Miller (Christie), who partner up to provide the town with a high-class whorehouse. Christie plays the role of the opium-dependent Mrs. Miller with a mix of vulnerability and ferocious strength, while Beatty brings a bumbling, endearing quality to his performance as McCabe.
Vilmos Zsigmond was unquestionably one of the best cinematographers of all time. He won an Oscar for Close Encounters, and worked with Spielberg, Altman, Cimino, Boorman, De Palma, George Miller and Richard Donner.
But what separates him from all others is the look of his work. It’s hard to describe but you can see it above. It’s warm, it’s somehow intimate and sultry even in landscapes. There are all the techniques, filters and negative flashing, diffusion and all the rest but his works were always more than the sum of their parts. There’s a darkness to them that isn’t just visual. Some intangible tone that might escape description completely.
He may actually surpass Storaro as my favorite cinematographer.
Tonight, watching McCabe and Mrs Miller on the big screen for the first time, I realized the whole astonishing movie is about a man falling in love. M & M is essentially a dramatic screwball comedy. I also realized how beautifully Beatty, whom I have come to appreciate only this year (after teaching Splendor in the Grass and rewatching Shampoo and Reds for DECADES), plays love onscreen. His stupid “beauty” offset by his very real ability to express pathos and emotional frustration. Beatty has a special tenderness, which is all in the look he tries not to give.
Working with the likes of Spielberg, De Palma, Altman, and Cimino, Vilmos Zsigmond (1930–2016) shined his unmistakable light on so many of the films we love. We cherish every chance we had to talk about the movies with him.