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Five Favorite Films: Jaws (1975)

July 9, 2011
  • Dir. Steven Spielberg
  • Released by Universal
  • Based on the Peter Benchley  novel
  • Rating: ****

Bob Mattey’s mechanical shark, dubbed “Bruce” by the film’s young director, did not work properly most of the time. The same thing could not be said of the movie itself, adapted from Peter Benchley’s inferior novel. Richard Zanuck (recently kicked out of his father’s studio, 20th Century Fox) and David Brown of Universal Studios saw the potential in the tale of a killer shark at a New England summer resort town, and with the help of some great young talent, they would produce the first film to earn over $100 million at the box office.

Before Steven was Spielberg, he was a television director with one theatrical film to his credit. After the release of Jaws, he was the filmmaker behind the first true summer blockbuster and one of the big names in Hollywood. Alongside his friend George Lucas, he would be a major player in cinema’s return to big-budget, high-concept audience-pleasers, a move which would quickly phase out the New Hollywood era by the end of the decade.

That is not to say that Spielberg would throw away experimentation altogether; for instance, his reworking of Hitchcock’s famous Vertigo dolly/zoom shot into a subjective close-up would become a staple of visual storytelling in countless movies that followed. Also, this movie was quite groundbreaking in the ADR field, as the background voices in the film were provided by improvisational actors rather than stock sounds.

Although blockbuster movies are typically thought of as lowest-common-denominator drivel, this could not be said fairly of Jaws, a film that balances its popcorn fun with sharp writing and three-dimensional characters. Benchley wrote a script draft based on his novel, but rewrites by Howard Sackler and Carl Gottlieb freed the main narrative from the sleazy subplots and streamlined it without cheapening it. All of the main characters were reworked to be more likeable, and the rather dated feel of the book was eschewed for a more timeless approach to the story. Also, they just happened to write some really delightful and quotable (but never painfully cheesy) lines throughout the movie.

Also, unlike many summer films, the actors here are all excellent and none of them are stunt-cast. Roy Scheider gives Chief Brody a sense of dignity despite being a fish-out-of-water character. Robert Shaw turns his Ahab-esque captain Quint into an unforgettable character in his own right. Richard Dreyfuss makes the young scientist Hooper cocky without being annoying. Murray Hamilton’s mayor is sympathetic enough that his willful ignorance of the danger never makes us fully despise him. Everyone comes off as real human beings rather than black-and-white stereotypes.

Bruce the shark is fairly impessive on screen, but this mechanized monster is not alone in establishing the horror. Due to the constant malfunctions, Spielberg and cinematographer Bill Butler had to create the shark’s presence with eerie underwater POV shots. Butler also filmed the swimmers in such a way that the ocean water would lap over the camera lens, thus placing the audience in the danger zone with the characters. These moments are made even more horrific by the oft-imitated score by John Williams, which is frighteningly primal in its simplicity.

Further techinques were used to substitute for Mattey’s three fake sharks, such as dragging the actors with rope-and-pulley systems during the attack scenes and using a simple fin or, in the third act, Quint’s barrels to represent the shark. Such clever devices allowed the audience to scare themselves with their imaginations rather than being exposed to needlessly explicit images. Australian filmmakers Ron and Valerie Taylor would provide additional verisimilitude with their real footage of great white sharks.

The movie is a great suspense thriller both on land and sea, but it also has real charm and a tinge of adventure near the end (enhanced by Williams’ more whimsical musical cues). Also, the town of Amity Island feels like a real place rather than a creation of the filmmakers, helped immensely by the location shooting in Martha’s Vineyard and the proper use of extras on Spielberg’s part. Thus, it is the perfect escapist entertainment, accessible to all audiences.

Jaws received three sequels, all of which were quite inferior. The second film was a rehash made in a more teen-slasher vein, the third was a 3D disaster film at Sea World with very strained attempts at continuity, and the fourth film’s problems can be summed up by its title and tagline—Jaws: The Revenge…”This Time, It’s Personal.”

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From → Film Criticism

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