‘Deliverance’: tomorrow night in Bethel

When Burt Reynolds died last month, I began chatting with CTFilmFest 52 director Tom Carruthers about the possibility of showing one of the star’s films as part of the classics series I’ve been hosting for him at the Bethel Cinema.

The Hearst Movie & A Martini group and CTFilmFest 52 have had a good run over the past couple of years, drawing large crowds for screenings of “The Third Man,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Doctor Zhivago” and other older films we thought would benefit from being shown on a big screen.

Almost all older films are available for screening at home, but movies with strong cinematography lose a lot on smaller screens.

I’ve tried to push for classics with great visual style, so it seemed obvious that the best Burt Reynolds film from that standpoint is “Deliverance,” which will be shown tomorrow night at 7 p.m.

The 1972 film launched Reynolds as a major film star after many years of working in television and B-movies. The actor had also become a TV talk show guest who was prized for his self-deprecating take on Hollywood and his own somewhat jinxed career. (It was during one talk show appearance that fellow guest, editor Helen Gurley Brown got Reynolds to agree to a nude centerfold in her magazine, Cosmopolitan. The resulting photo spread became an iconic image of the early 1970s and something Reynolds believed hurt his critical reputation for years.)

Reynolds was perfectly cast by director John Boorman as the most macho of the four Atlanta businessmen who decide to get away from their city life for a weekend of canoeing in the wilderness. When things go bad, the Reynolds character takes charge of the situation until he is injured.

The movie is based on a best-selling novel by James Dickey that works on many levels – a wilderness adventure, a horror story, and a treatise on the effects of urban life and “civilization” on masculinity.

In addition to serving as Reynolds’ breakthrough movie role – he would go on to be the biggest Hollywood box office attraction for five straight years – “Deliverance” solidified cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond’s position as one of the top new men in his field. Zsigmond’s use of the wide screen and filtered natural light gave his early pictures, such as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Long Goodbye” and “Deliverance,” a fresh new graphic style.

Boorman’s decision to shoot the movie entirely on location, and to give Zsigmond the freedom to use his new camera techniques, added immeasurably to the power of “Deliverance.” It also demonstrated that horror played out in daylight – in entirely realistic settings – is much more frightening than the clichés of stormy nights and creepy old houses.

Tomorrow night’s screening will serve as a dual tribute – to Reynolds, in his best movie, and to camera revolutionary Zsigmond (who died two years ago). I hope you can join us.