“Slow ahead,” says Chief Martin Brody sarcastically. “I can go slow ahead. Come on down here and chum some of this shit.”
With the summer movie season already upon us, I’m reminded of something that happened 40 years ago. 1975 saw the birth of the modern blockbuster with the release of a little movie called Jaws (which happened to be directed by an ambitious young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg). It had an unusually wide release at the time due to Universal’s fear that it would be a flop. Unexpectedly, critics raved about the film and audiences showed up in droves to see it. As a kid growing up, I caught the film in pieces on TV. I finally got a chance to see Jaws in its entirety on the big screen at the Museum of the Moving Image 12 years ago as part of their NY Film Critics Circle series. It certainly lived up to the hype and I enjoyed it very much. This 40th anniversary review of Jaws is my entry in the Beach Party Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy & Silver Screenings.
1975’s Jaws follows aquaphobic Police Chief Martin Brody in Amity Island, New England as the waters begin to be terrorized by a man-eating, great white shark who is relentless and seemingly unstoppable. Brody is aided in his quest to stop the shark by an oceanographer and a veteran fisherman/shark hunter. Spielberg assembled an impressive cast that includes Roy Scheider (as Brody), Richard Dreyfuss (as Matt Hooper), Robert Shaw (as Quint), Lorraine Gary (as Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (as Mayor Vaughn), Carl Gottlieb (as Meadows), Jeffrey Kramer (as Deputy Hendricks), and Susan Backlinie (as Chrissie Watkins). Scheider is terrific as Brody; he brings vulnerability and strength to his role of an almost helpless lawman who must rise to the challenge to save his town. Dreyfuss brings some comic relief but is no pushover; he brings subtle toughness (and courage when it’s called for). Shaw is just mesmerizing as Quint, completely embodying the tough World War II vet (perhaps his most memorable role ever, which should’ve brought him an Academy Award nod for Best Supporting Actor).
The production problems of Jaws have been well-documented over the years (most famously the mechanical shark that hardly ever worked). These forced Spielberg to take a more Hitchcock approach to the film (using POV shots of the shark and showing the effects of its attacks rather than showing the shark itself, which actually added suspense). The screenplay by Gottlieb and Peter Benchley (based on Benchley’s best-selling novel) explores the evolution of Brody as he tries to confront his fear in order to deal with the shark attacks and the politics that hindered his actions. Bill Butler’s cinematography captures the tense mood of the story, and Verna Fields’ Oscar-winning editing gives the film a good pace and creates a lot of suspense. Joe Alves’ production design creates a believable small New England town dependent on summer tourism as its main source of income.
John Williams wrote a terrific, Oscar-winning score with a simple, suspenseful main theme for the shark so memorable it has been engrained in pop culture (and parodied many times). Williams’ action music, combined with Fields’ editing, was responsible for creating most of the film’s suspense. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is an amazing film to see, and one that has an even more amazing production history. It was so good that none of its sequels or imitators ever came close to matching its quality. Its critical and box office success has made it one of the greatest films of all time. If you haven’t already seen it, then you should stop procrastinating and see it (in fact, go see it at the beach if you dare).