On New Year’s Day, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the man who shot blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Deliverance passed away at the age of 85. During his long and prolific career, Zsigmond worked in just about every genre imaginable and photographed for everyone from Robert Altman to Brian De Palma, but he got his start in quickie westerns and low budget horror films. His first feature-length movie was the 1963 exploitation flick The Sadist.
The Sadist begins with Ed Stiles (The Pit’s Richard Alden), Carl Oliver (Ron Russell from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?), and Doris Page (Helen Hovey in her only film appearance) on their way to a Los Angeles Dodgers game when their car’s fuel pump goes out. The trio are able to limp the car to a gas station, but it appears to be deserted. They snoop around and find tools to fix the car, but they also find out that they are not alone at the station; a thrill-killer named Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall Jr. from Wild Guitar) and his girlfriend, Judy (Eegah’s Marilyn Manning), got there first and murdered the owner. Charlie puts the three travelers through bouts of psychological torture, but it turns out that they have something he needs – Charlie’s car is broken as well, and Ed is the only one with the know-how to fix it. Charlie and his captives play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, and it’s only a matter of time before someone loses.
Written and directed by James Landis (Airborne, Stakeout!), The Sadist is a pretty fine example of a fifties exploitation flick. From the warning voiceover and the shadowy shot of the crazy paranoid eyes that opens the film to the cheesy foreshadowing in the dialogue that runs throughout (gems like “you’ve have a fine and full life” and “the wife and I are going back for the graduation!”), the film just reeks of the same cautionary vision and vibe that made films like Reefer Madness and The Cocaine Fiends what they were. Heavy handed messaging and imagery aside, The Sadist is still an engaging and interesting film, especially considering that it basically takes place in real time and in the same solitary location. It’s a perfect less-is-more masterclass in economical filmmaking.
The situation that is depicted in The Sadist is loosely based upon the killing spree of notorious murderer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Over the years, Starkweather’s antics have inspired many movies, from Badlands to Natural Born Killers, but The Sadist was the first dramatization of the senseless killings to hit the screen. The fact that The Sadist takes place over the course of just a few hours adds to the tension and suspense of the film; the over-the-top killer torments and teases his victims with figurative ticking clocks for most of the movie (“when this soda is gone, so are you!”), and the added touch of the baseball game which the heroes end up missing being heard on the radio in the background tugs further at the heartstrings, serving as a constant reminder of the poor luck that led to their unfortunate circumstances. Charlie the killer is, in every sense of the word, truly The Sadist.
Although it doesn’t contain any imagery that is as grand or stunning as that which would be found in his later work, Vilmos Zsigmond’s potential as a cinematographer and an artist is on full display in The Sadist. Zsigmond gives The Sadist a distinct look by using plenty of point-of-view shots, creative framing, and atypical camera angles. Zsigmond follows the action in the film with copious camera movement as well, keeping the viewer from ever getting too comfortable while watching. Finally, in several places, Zsigmond uses an extremely wide focal plane, allowing focused images to be shown in both the background and foreground, thus letting different aspects of the story unfold at the same time. The small budget of The Sadist coupled with Zsigmond’s relative inexperience at the time of shooting keeps the film from being one of the cinematographer’s more celebrated works, but with it he proved that, even at that early stage in his career, he could do a whole lot with very little.
Like many low budget films from the fifties and sixties, The Sadist has a score that was culled together primarily from stock music. The compositions that provide the soundtrack were written by Paul Sawtell (The Fly, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and Bert Shefter (The Last Man on Earth, It! The Terror from Beyond Space), and they’re mostly the type of blaring horns and rhythmic percussion that remind the audience constantly (and loudly) that what they are watching is, in fact, an action movie. There are moments of tense, subtle orchestral vamps that pop up during some of the more suspenseful scenes in the film as well, keeping the score from being completely made up of in-your-face shouting brass and pounding drums. It’s great fun, but the whole thing does all sound as if it’s been heard before. Still, the fact that it’s stock music doesn’t mean that it’s not effective; the soundtrack for The Sadist works well within the confines of the movie.
Four days before the passing of Vilmos Zsigmond, another famous Hollywood cinematographer died as well – Haskell Wexler, the director of photography who shot classic films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Thomas Crown Affair. Both Wexler and Zsigmond are on the International Cinematographers Guild’s list of the ten most influential cinematographers, and both have several Oscar nominations to their credit (although Wexler won twice as many – two to Zsigmond’s one), but it’s Zsigmond who leaves behind a more versatile catalog of work; for every huge movie like The Deer Hunter, there’s a quick flick like The Sadist. And Zsigmond should be remembered for both the blockbusters and the sleepers.