Movies We Like
The summer of 1975 saw a decline in beach activity and beach resort profits, not because of anything that happened in real life, but because what happened in the cinemas that summer. It was a little film, by a twenty-something director, that due to technical problems was barely able to get out of the water. At the time of its release Jaws may have been the biggest cultural blockbuster since Gone With The Wind. It was all the talk, all the rage, and its effect on beach life and the reputation of sharks is still felt today. But more importantly, hype aside, Jaws is also some good old-fashioned filmmaking, and is still one of the greatest adventure, horror films ever.
In the mid '70s it was rare for a director of a major studio movie to only be in his 20s, but after a string of acclaimed TV movies, including the landmark thriller Duel, Steven Spielberg was called a wunderkind. His first go at the big screen, The Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn, was a well done road picture. Though it was steeped in '70s rebellion, it didn’t come close to revealing just how in touch with the pulse of audiences Spielberg would prove to be.
As the summer season begins on the tourist trap island of Amityville, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) seems to be the only voice of reason as he investigates a string of shark attacks. The town's lifeblood depends on the tourist trade, so higher-ups push for a quiet investigation, if not a cover-up. In mid-'70s America, fresh from the Vietnam War and Watergate this made the fish-outta-water Brody an even more credible hero, fighting a shark and “the man” at the same time. Eventually he is joined by a cocky college-boy oceanographer, Hopper (Richard Dreyfuss), and an ornery older fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw), to take on the monstrous great white shark.
Forgetting the genuine scares and thrills, what makes Jaws really work are those three main characters; unlike the lame Jaws sequels or most horror flicks, it has fantastic character development. As the three men go off on a boat journey to hunt the shark, we get to know them and understand their motivations a lot clearer, as they come to understand each other. Brody, an ex-big city cop, brought his family to a resort for a safer life, but being afraid of the water makes him an unlikely islander. Following his terrific villainous turn in The Sting, Shaw is perfect as Quint. At first he may appear a little too salty, but after his powerful monologue (that reportedly Shaw himself wrote), you can understand why he hates sharks and takes the fight so personally. After American Graffiti, Dreyfuss was an inspired choice to represent the youthful, counterculture. At first he is pushed aside by his elders, but eventually Quint realizes the kid might know what he’s talking about (similar to Spielberg’s own experiences on sets full of much older technicians). Spielberg would use Dreyfuss as his full stand-in on his Jaws follow-up, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, though in that one the sharks would end up being gentle aliens (they would also reteam many years later on the unwatchable, awful flick called Always).
Based on a popular but limp potboiler book, with the same title, by Peter Benchley (who would spend decades writing and producing his own Jaws rip-offs), Jaws is one of the rare occasions where the movie is indeed far better than the book. Benchley was credited along with Carl Gottlieb (Doctor Detroit) on the screenplay that wisely cut a lot of the extra soap opera elements (shoot outs with gangsters, Hopper’s affair with Brody’s wife, etc.). This is a perfectly tight screenplay with no fat that needed to be trimmed. Even more than the acting and script the most electrifying element may be the iconic score by John Williams. The “shark theme” was everywhere eliciting terror and it truly is a great piece of music for creating a feeling of dread and menace, though Jaws’s one flaw may be the other moments in the score of giddy excitement are a little too light and airy.
Due to problems with filming on the water and a mechanical shark that did not work the film went way over budget and over schedule; apparently Spielberg was constantly in fear of being fired. It forced them to use more actual shark footage and only giving the mechanical shark its questionable big close-up scene when it starts eating the boat at the end. The original intention was to show the shark much more - lesson learned, less is more. Because the shark is usually only revealed as a fin he becomes a much more mysterious monster and therefore the mounting tension in the film is that much more powerful.
Jaws was a massive box office success, good or bad, it began the summer movie tradition of mass marketing, commercial tie-ins, and serious financial expectations from the studios using a wide release distribution pattern. Of course, this would ratchet-up to new heights two years later with the ultimate summer box office superstar, Star Wars. Though Jaws would make Spielberg a major director, it would also spell the beginning of the end for the magical era of great films led by exciting new directors bringing personal projects to the screen. As Spielberg embraced the new commercialism like no director has done as successfully before or since, as Jaws and later Raiders Of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial showed, he was able to balance both surprising and feeding audience’s needs with quality and a filmmaking know-how based on a respect for films that came before. Of course he often over-stepped those bounds (especially as a money hungry producer) with the four sequels he directed over the years, even worse, Hook.
Still a landmark, Jaws is still a scary and exciting film, it’s also often very funny, and a significant reflection of its times. With Williams' score, the snarky kids, its identification with pop culture and Verna Fields' brisk editing, you can see the “American” style that would become Spielberg’s hallmark. Perhaps the unwarranted Jaws sequels and Spielberg’s own continuing commercial success have hurt the film's legacy, making people assume it's just popcorn. But the test of time has shown the opposite, Jaws stands up with the other great flicks of the '70s (Mean Streets, The Godfather, The French Connection, etc.), and proved to be great entertainment as well as a calling card for a major new voice in film.
Jaws won three Oscars: Best Editing (Verna Fields), Best Original Score, and Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Picture.