By the time Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC collaborated with director Michael Cimino on The Deer Hunter, the cinematographer had already shot landmark films for Robert Altman, John Boorman and Steven Spielberg. Yet his partnership with Cimino brought Zsigmond’s art to a whole new level, as the visually oriented director encouraged Zsigmond to reach for breathtaking images while still remaining true to the reality of the film’s blue-collar characters. As a result, The Deer Hunter’s look is astonishingly rich.
At the time of its release, the picture was a lightning rod for controversy; many were in awe of its emotional impact and epic sweep, while others criticized its lack of political commitment. Viewed today, the movie takes on the mythic grandeur of a John Ford Western or a Visconti epic. Cimino shares those directors’ talents for both the grand gesture and the intimate detail. There are broad metaphors at work in The Deer Hunter, but its best moments are small ones.
The Deer Hunter follows a group of Pennsylvania steelworkers as they leave their loved ones for Vietnam and return (with one harrowing exception) as different, damaged men. The geographical and emotional breadth of the story allows Zsigmond to explore a variety of color schemes, from the blues and grays of the characters’ hometown to the warm and earthy color palette of Vietnam. Zsigmond is particularly deft at contrasting the beauty of nature with man’s despoiling of it, and there are a number of elegant visual motifs involving weapons and fire that bridge the American and Vietnam sequences in evocative ways.
Universal’s recently released “Legacy Series” DVD is the best The Deer Hunter has ever looked on home video. Previous versions have failed to fully capture the subtleties of Zsigmond’s lighting, which strikes a delicate balance between reality and romanticism. The gritty reality and visual poetry of the cinematographer’s most beautiful images are preserved in this flawless anamorphic transfer. The Dolby surround mix is equally impressive — no small feat, given Cimino’s unorthodox approach to sound design. Viewers who have strained to make out barely intelligible dialogue on some earlier transfers of the film will be astonished by the aural clarity on this disc.
This DVD features a feature-length audio commentary by Zsigmond and AC contributor Bob Fisher, in which the director of photography meticulously describes his approach to the material. Zsigmond covers lighting, lenses, composition and editing in a manner that is thoughtful and instructive without ever becoming dry or academic. Indeed, the cinematographer knows exactly how to pace and structure his commentary so that technical information and anecdotes achieve a perfect balance. The film’s epic running time allows Zsigmond to examine the picture from a variety of angles, and his commentary is exhaustive but not exhausting.
A disappointingly paltry second disc contains 17 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a few pages of production notes that provide brief background on Cimino’s approach to authenticity. Given the talent behind and in front of the camera, The Deer Hunter surely merits a contemporary making-of documentary. Despite the absence of such a feature, however, the film’s beautiful transfer and Zsigmond’s commentary make this DVD a must for any serious cinephile.