Friday, September 3, 2010

'Deliverance' Movie Still Delivers Nearly 40 Years Later

By Mike Gillis

The New York Times recently acknowledged the 40th anniversary this year of James Dickey’s novel “Deliverance,” a book that catapulted Dickey to fame. That celebrity was well deserved: Dickey’s novel leans on the linguistic mechanics of poetry, of which Dickey was a master, and weaves a brutal tale of four men who navigate away from the city to the backwoods of Appalachia for a respite, and, perhaps, a smattering of soul-searching. Instead, they stir up primal fear and death, and none leave the woods unchanged, if alive.

Dickey’s celebrity wrecked his family, according to a memoir he and his son, Christopher, penned, “The Summer of Deliverance.” It diluted his writing, too, he admits in the book.

It did, though, two years after its publication in 1970, lend itself to a rare phenomenon: a movie that rivals its source material.

Directed by John Boorman in 1972, the film version of “Deliverance” stars Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and Burt Reynolds. All four deliver remarkable performances -- one wonders how the film’s tenor may have changed with Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando, who opted out because of the rigorous shoot -- and it remains Reynolds’ best, even though his character, a machismo outdoorsman and bow hunter in a dated wetsuit, may show the only real sign of weathering over nearly 40 years.

I recently had a chance to watch “Deliverance” in its original form. Several versions of the picture exist, including an early print that features synthesizers on the soundtrack, as well as subsequent versions “edited for television.” (The notorious “squeal like a pig” scene -- which too many people associate with the picture, whether they’ve seen it or not -- was shot twice to accommodate the burgeoning television market.)

“Deliverance” is a sparse film, threaded with exceptional dialogue and long stretches of disquiet. The four men -- Ed (Voight), a soft-spoken and somewhat passive businessman; Lewis (Reynolds); Bobby (Beatty), a doughy insurance salesman softened by life; and Drew (Cox), a quiet, guitar-toting introvert -- are already on their way into the woods at the beginning of the movie. The credits rolling over dialogue from the city and images of the Georgia landscape. Boorman has no need, nor do we, to see these men depart from the city. We know what the city is and we know the four men quickly enough.

Our familiarity with the men and the world, or what we think the world is in modern times, is what powers “Deliverance” -- the thin line between civilization and barbarism can be crossed quickly. On the other side of that line, the informed world is at the mercy of the fiends who ignore it.

Tackling that theme can easily fail, and Boorman seems to know this. His film, a horror film for sure, needs no special effects nor artificial music cues to signal his audience. The fear, anguish, anxiety and survival of four men are crystal clear. It’s on their faces and voices. That is what makes “Deliverance” a triumph of filmmaking and continues to earn it a place among movies still worth watching.

(Worth saving, too: In 2008, the picture was chosen for preservation by the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance.)