Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, Jonathan Filley, Ted Grossman, Chris Rebello, Jay Mello, Lee Fierro, Jeffrey Voorhees, Craig Kingsbury
(out of 4)
Hey, can you guys give me a lift to the harbor?
Jaws heralds the age of the blockbuster. In 1975, Universal enacted a plan that had never really been put to the test before. For three nights leading up to the film’s release in June of that year, they showed 30 second advertising spots on prime time network television (an expensive marketing strategy). In addition, Jaws would get a wide theater release, another relatively new strategy (in the old days, movie releases would be in limited areas at first, then moving into bigger cities like a wave). Believe it or not, at one time the summer season was not even considered the prime season to release big films. This all changed with Jaws, which would go on to gross over $200 million dollars on $12 million dollar budget. Since then, Hollywood typically makes about half its revenue from summer blockbusters, a time now almost exclusively known for “tentpole” films.*
Not that Jaws doesn’t deserve its box office success. Like the great white shark referred to by the title, the movie itself is an almost perfect machine. Its monster is terrifying, its main characters are compelling and human. The look of the film, John Williams’ famous musical score, the performances – all top notch. It’s also a significant cultural marker – inspiring fear of the ocean and a fear of sharks in a manner similar to how Psycho inspired fear of showers. Jaws is one of those high-concept movies that can be viewed as a major limb on the tree of horror – look at how many branches have sprung off from it (countless ripoffs, homages, and its own 3 sequels). Even movies like Ridley Scott’s Alien owe a little something to Jaws.
Tis a good thing we’re secure in our masculinity!
In case you’ve been living on a desert island for the past 40 years, Jaws (based on the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley) concerns Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a NYC transplant on the quaint little island community of Amity, along with his wife (Lorraine Gary) and sons (Chris Rebello, Jay Mello). It’s a cushy job, where the worst crime Brody has to deal with involves kids breaking fences, illegally parked vehicles, or zoning violations. Then there’s the upcoming 4th of July celebration, where scores of tourists will descend on Amity for some fun in the sun. All that is put in jeopardy when a girl (Susan Backlinie) is horribly attacked while night swimming and her mangled corpse washes up on the beach. (Sidenote: this first death and the final death-by-shark are the most disturbing deaths in the film). The mayor (Murray Hamilton) is a sleazeball (usually dressed in a tacky suit with anchors drawn on it) who doesn’t want to hear the word “shark,” since it would cause Amity to kiss its summer tourist dollars goodbye, so he tells the medical examiner to rewrite it as a boating accident and orders Brody to keep the beaches open.
After a young boy (Jeffrey Voorhees) becomes the shark’s next victim, the town freaks and everyone hits the waters looking to kill the shark and collect the reward money. A tiger shark is captured but Oceanographic Institute expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, amazing here) notices that the bite radius on the first victim is different. It’s not enough to convince Mayor Vaughn, who wants to keep the beaches open for July 4th festivities. Big mistake. This all leads to the second half of the film where Brody and Hooper charter a boat run by Quint (Robert Shaw, also great) and proceed to hunt the creature down.
We hope Quint and Hooper remember to drink to this guy’s leg later.
It’s actually in the second hour where Jaws really shines. In the way that Alien is like two films in one, Jaws‘ first hour is monster horror, buildup, and paranoia (all very well done), while the second hour is like a high-seas adventure. The first half introduces us to Brody’s fear of the water, guilt over the boy’s death, and worry as he watches the swimmers with great concern (the scene where the false alarms rack his nerves is expertly done). The fact that Spielberg’s mechanical shark “Bruce” was malfunctioning for most of the shoot is fortuitous, since he uses the opportunity to amp up the suspense levels by showing the shark’s point of view, accompanied by the familiar, menacing soundtrack. This works in the movie’s favor, since the shark is not constantly on display and consequently the audience does not become too used to seeing it.
Compared to a lot of horror movies released since 1975, Jaws isn’t particularly terrifying, but that’s ok, since it has more on its mind than sea monster horrors. This is a thriller that works on different levels – horror, drama, character piece, procedural. Robert Shaw’s iconic performance as Quint really steals the show here; he’s very close to a modern day Captain Ahab. (In fact, the technical aspects involved in shark hunting reminded me of some of the technical jargon that permeates Moby Dick). Quint is an old-school seaman, and he takes an immediate dislike to Hooper’s new-school, technology-dependent methods. But Spielberg lets these characters grow, leading to a reconciliation of sorts in a classic scene where Quint and Hooper compare battle scars, followed by Quint’s sobering story about the USS Indianapolis.
SeaQuest Captain Nathan Bridger takes shore leave.
There are a lot of classic scenes here – the underwater shots from the great white’s POV, the dialogue (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”), the Quint/Hooper rivalry (and the scene at the end where an exhausted Quint asks to use Hooper’s tools in desperation), the shark’s uncanny ability to turn the tables on the heroes, the music, Quint ominously singing Spanish Ladies. The only problems I have with Jaws are relatively minor: I find it difficult to accept that a small town of people would so eagerly put profits ahead of lives. I also find the survival of one particular character at the end a bit of a cop-out, but then again I have read that this may be a sly commentary on that person’s particular philosophy (as opposed to that of another, who doesn’t survive). I don’t know if I can read too much into Jaws‘ screenplay beyond the commonly discussed post-Watergate cynicism. (But even the asshole mayor finally reveals his humanity). I think Jaws is best seen, not as the perfect horror film, but perfect 1970s filmmaking – the kind of picture that takes its time, delivers naturalistic dialogue (and no ridiculous exposition needed), features wonderful acting on the part of Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss, and shows Spielberg’s obvious love for cinema and how it can be a communal, cathartic experience. It’s ironic that a movie responsible for the rise of the big budget blockbuster would have all the good qualities that today’s blockbusters lack. And about Bruce the shark – I think he looks great.
- Bill Gordon
The new Blu-ray release of Jaws in Universal’s 100th Anniversary collection is pristine. Steven Spielberg has given his own blessing over the transfer, restored from original film elements. The HD version of Jaws comes in 1080p 2:35:1, with DTS HD 7.1 audio. Bonus features are extensive: a 2 hour documentary called The Making of Jaws (everything you want to know about the making of the film is in here), a featurette called Jaws: The Restoration, delete scenes, a new feature length documentary called The Shark is Still Working (pretty decent, but more of a fan’s love letter than anything else), theatrical trailer, and more. The DVD that comes with it (this is a Blu-ray/DVD combo + digital copy) also has a 50 minute trimmed-down version of The Making of Jaws. You’re not going to find a better version than this one, so snap it up.
I’m proud of this one, even though it’s not my best Photoshop.
* For more, see PBS – The Monster that Ate Hollywood