James Dickey’s Deliverance is one of the all-time great action novels, a chilling tale of four friends who take a canoe trip and find themselves up against dangerous forces of nature as well as deranged locals who resent their presence in the woods. Over the course of their journey, the protagonists find themselves tested in ways far more extreme than they had ever imagined when they decided to set out on a weekend “adventure.” When director John Boorman gave Dickey’s characters living, breathing incarnations by casting Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty in his motion-picture adaptation of the book, the resulting movie had even greater emotional impact.
A great deal of Deliverance’s primal power comes from its production methods, which were unorthodox, to say the least. Boorman shot the entire film on location without stuntmen. When deadly rapids challenged the characters, it was actually Reynolds and his costars in the canoes fighting for survival. (The director shot the entire movie in sequence so he could incorporate any unforeseen developments that came up during the shoot.) Because of his risky approach, Boorman was unable to insure the picture, but he kept the budget low enough for Warner Bros. to take a chance. That chance paid off in the form of a critically acclaimed box-office success that was nominated for the best-picture Oscar.
The unique demands of the production led Boorman to seek a cinematographer who had not only the necessary technical chops, but also the ability to double as operator under harrowing physical conditions. When Boorman saw footage from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he decided Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, fit the bill artistically. Upon meeting with the cinematographer and learning of his dangerous passage out of Hungary in his youth, Boorman decided Zsigmond could handle the physical and logistical challenges of his production as well. For all of the scenes on the river, Boorman, Zsigmond and a grip rode in one canoe and filmed the actors while the rest of the crew waited at a prearranged pick-up spot. The result was a completely immersive cinematic experience for both audience and filmmakers.
This new Blu-ray offers a fantastic means by which to study Zsigmond’s audacious and expressive cinematography. Using an anamorphic frame, he subtly emphasizes the characters’ emotional loyalties by way of their spatial relationships in the composition and makes deft use of negative space to create a constant atmosphere of paranoia and danger. The sense of unease is exacerbated by the picture’s muted palette, which relies on blacks and desaturated greens and browns to drain the beauty from the film’s setting. This high-definition transfer impeccably captures the details and nuances of Zsigmond’s lighting and color scheme, with impressive fidelity to the original skin tones, contrast and grain. The uncompressed 5.1 sound mix is also outstanding, with dense sound effects spread across the rear channels and clear, sharp dialogue in the center.
The extras in this package are first-class, starting with a new half-hour featurette in which the four principal actors reminisce about the making of the film 40 years after its production. Their funny, touching and illuminating conversation reveals why Deliverance worked so well: these guys genuinely love each other, and Boorman was clearly able to capture their camaraderie on screen. The disc also contains an excellent commentary track by Boorman and a one-hour collection of featurettes in which Boorman, Zsigmond and the actors provide insights into the movie’s development, production and reception. Finally, a 10-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, “The Dangerous World of Deliverance,” is far more informative and honest about the filmmaking process than one might expect from a promotional short. A theatrical trailer completes this top-notch package.