Matchup of the Day: McCabe & Mrs. Miller VS Suspiria
Luciano Tovoli (born October 30, 1936 in Italy) and Vilmos Zsigmond (born June 16, 1930 in Hungary, died January 1, 2016) served as cinematographers on two of my favorite films: McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Suspiria. To quote John McCabe, both films have poetry in them. In an effort to bring the artistic contributions of these men into the light, today we’ll look at how they left their mark on those cinematic masterpieces.
In the article “Old, Faded Pictures: Vilmos Zsigmond on McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Vilmos Zsigmond says of the film, “We didn’t want it to look good. The whole idea was to make some old, faded pictures.” Director Robert Altman encouraged experimentation. To give McCabe its old-timey visual quality, Zsigmond employed the “flashing” technique, which involved, according to Criterion, “partially exposing the negatives to destroy the clarity of the film, creating the impression that one is viewing it through a pane of stained glass.” The studio found the decision disagreeable and wanted to fire him. According to Zsigmond, “We liked what we were doing – the studio hated it. Now everybody loves it. McCabe is one of my favorite movies.” On top of that, his eligibility for an Oscar that year was denied due to his not being a member of the cinematographer’s guild. Nearly forty years later, after winning an Academy Award for Close Encounters the Third Kind, the International Cinematographers Guild named him one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time.
Like Altman with Zsigmond, Suspiria‘s director Dario Argento supported innovation. Fairy tales were a major inspiration. Argento had Luciano Tovoli watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a guide for the film’s distinct visuals. Prior to working with Argento, Tovoli studied filmmaking under Michelangelo Antonioni and shot his film The Passenger. Tovoli had never worked on a motion picture so far removed from the realistic approach he was accustomed to. “It was a much freer horizon, with more fresh air than just the straightforward reproduction of the real world allowed,” he said. The article “14 Unforgettable Facts About Suspiria” explains that to “create the vibrant blues and reds, Tovoli took massive carbon arc lights and stretched colored fabric, rather than the traditional gel filters, over them.” This allowed the camera to be closer to the actors and intensify the colors in the frame. (Tovoli joked that the fear portrayed by the actors in the movie was from catching fire due to the heat.)
Suspiria performed well financially during its initial release, though it failed to impress critics. Today it’s considered a classic of the horror genre, influencing directors such as Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. McCabe & Mrs. Miller flopped at the box office despite positive reviews. Roger Ebert later called it “a perfect film.” In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, when asked what makes good cinema, Zsigmond responded:
I think film is about images. Cinema needs good images. I think that if you don’t have good images, it’s not going to be a film. I think all films should be really visual.
Both Zsigmond and Tovoli achieved that remarkably.