This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece of man vs. nature, ‘Jaws’, and with the 4th of July marking the unofficial middle of the summer blockbuster season, it is a perfect time to revisit this classic film. The movie was released in June of 1975, and basically took over theaters – at the time, there really was no such thing as the multiplex, theater owners chose to run what they felt the audience wanted to see. Films were given room to breathe, growing in popularity through word-of-mouth and critical response, as opposed to the current trend of huge opening weekend followed by a sharp decline in attendance. ‘Jaws’ was the first movie to fire on all cylinders – due to minimalist marketing, its’ opening was an event where lines wrapped around buildings, but it also kept audiences entertained and enthralled throughout the summer of ’75 and beyond.
‘Jaws’ taps into two primal American fears, the fear of the unknown / uncontrollable, as well as the fear of public relation risk in the service of capitalism. Peter Benchley, author of the book on which the movie is based, as well as having a hand in the screenplay, set his modern-day ‘Moby Dick’ tale purposefully in a summer beach town just prior to the 4th of July. The movie is unique as there are really no true villains – the shark is a force of nature, as described by Richard Dreyfuss’ shark expert Hooper, a perfect machine of killing and eating; even the Amity, MA island mayor, Vaughn (Murray Hamiltion), who connives and asserts his power to keep the beaches open, is doing so in protection of a town economy and residents dependent on the revenue stream. Since there are no motivations of the shark, it is a symbol of all things that we as humans can’t control, yet will impact our lives and expectations.
The film is filled with classic lines (‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat,’ ‘1100 men went in the water, 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945, anyway, we delivered the bomb . . . ), but it’s the hand of director Spielberg, his cast, and crew, that deserve the credit for launching ‘Jaws’ to the height of film classics. It’s amazing to understand that this assured, beautifully shot, precisely directed & edited, master-class of tension, was fraught with so much difficulty during production and was the director’s first large scale (if moderately budgeted) film. Spielberg famously warned (and continues to caution) other filmmakers to avoid shooting on water. The tribulations they had handling the mechanical shark, dubbed ‘Bruce’, resulted in what most critics cited as genius, the fact that the shark is only shown fleetingly, adding to the tension (if this is truly the reason why the shark pops up to shock at perfect moments in the final, brilliant, 45-minute fishing expedition sequence, this was a fortuitous development, but it is hard to believe, based on his consequent works, that the humble director did not have some hand in building these sequences on purpose).
Spielberg invented so many tropes of modern action thrillers with this movie – the underwater camera work representing the stalker’s perspective, the incredible beach sequence of Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) surveying for danger in an oblivious crowd which ends in a perfect reverse doom dolly shot that still impresses to this day; the jump-scare of poor fisherman Ben Gardner’s sea-water engorged head; the linking of the iconic slow-building bass score (courtesy of John Williams, of course) with the stalking of the predator; and so much more . . . The most indelible characters in the film, the trifecta of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, as salty sea-dog and instant classic movie character, Quint, have left a mark on viewers with their easy rapport, convincing face-offs, and realistic interactions with one of the best ensembles of supporting characters committed to celluloid (especially Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody – in a few key scenes she brings this displaced New Yawk family to life).
Perhaps ‘Jaws’s most lasting legacy (and some cynics might say curse) was ushering in a new age of escapist cinema. Movie-goers that love to catch some AC-fueled relief on a summer’s day or night can thank Spielberg and company for creating the type of entertainment most people crave during the lazy, hazy days of summer. ‘Jaws’ scares and enthralls audiences to this day, making the ocean an exciting place filled with unseen wonders, evoking that sense of summer fun, with a side of danger, and ultimately with catharsis in that last memorable scene of male camaraderie . . .
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb
Running Time: 124 min.
Rated: PG (although keep in mind this was pre-PG-13 so this rating is a stretch)
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -or- A+ (rare score for a true movie classic)