What more can be said about this, the granddaddy of all monster and nature-run-amok movies? One part horror film, one part seafaring adventure, 100% sheer, knuckle-biting suspense. Much like its title menace, Jaws is a straight-up thrill machine. To paraphrase Richard Dreyfuss (as Hooper), all it does is swim, eat, and make baby sharks: in this case, the infinite number of Jaws knock-offs, imitators and wannabes, some of them decent in their own right (Alligator, Piranha), some mediocre (Grizzly) and all too many, awful (insert random Scy Fy channel schlock here).
Here we see director Steven Spielberg at the absolute peak of his powers. While Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably my favorite Spielberg film, there's no doubt that, when it comes to cinematic technique, Jaws is his masterpiece. It's just a superbly crafted film.
A lot of blame has been laid on Jaws as the film that ruined Hollywood moviemaking for adult audiences by ushering in the era of the blockbuster. That may be so, but there's nothing empty, juvenile or crass about Jaws itself. It's full of excitement and entertainment value, for sure, but its got plenty of meat to chew on, and artistry to admire, as well. From its wonderfully-drawn three lead characters (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Dreyfuss each arguably giving the performance of their respective careers), to its characteristic 70s era naturalistic, overlapping dialogue, to its sharp observations on tourist town politics, to its canny understanding and manipulation of human nature and our atavistic fears of the sea and what dangers may lurk beneath – this is a masterclass of top-drawer filmmaking.
Plenty has been written about what a nightmare shoot this was for the 29-year-old wunderkind director and his cast and crew, how "Bruce" the mechanical shark kept malfunctioning, forcing Spielberg to shoot around it and keep the monster off screen for long periods of time, only hinted at, and how this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Of course, none of this turmoil is noticeable in the final product, which seems as perfectly constructed as a Swiss clock, yet still pulses with real, messy, believable life. These people seem real, and so does the threat. Werewolves, vampires and big-eyed aliens from outer space are fun matinee fodder, but we're always aware that we're in the realms of make believe. Great white sharks, on the other hand, are very, very real, and are in fact deadly. (This past year alone has seen 5 fatalities in Western Australia from great white attacks).
While the shark in Jaws may at times come across as almost supernaturally cunning, overall the film builds to its terrific, man-versus-beast climax in a deliberate, patient and, above all, authentic manner. That's what makes the film such an effective and scary thrill ride.
It's hard to write about a movie as perfect as Jaws without running out of superlatives. Just a small example, then, of Spielberg's brilliant handling of a single scene, to illustrate in my own limited manner what makes this movie so memorable.
The scene in question: the masterfully-edited early scene on the beach, after the body of Chrissie has been discovered, yet the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) has refused to let Chief Brody close the beaches. Hundreds of tourists have flocked to Amity Island in the mid-summer heat.
A nervous Brody scans the water's edge for potential trouble. We see people moving across his field of vision, and after each cut, the camera zooms in closer and closer on Roy Scheider's face. Spielberg cranks up the tension, slowly, John Williams' famous da-dum theme music completely absent, just the squeals of children's laughter and the murmured talk of the adults sunning themselves on the beach. People cavorting and having fun, splashing about in the waves, a young man throwing a stick for his dog, etc. Yet we can almost hear Brody's heart racing.
Then comes the lull, the fake out, as Brody sees a shape coming in towards shore, then sees it's only an old man in a facemask. Spielberg distracts us now as the old man comes up to Brody and starts yammering away at him.
Then we're plunged right back in the terror zone as we realize the dog is missing, and suddenly, the shark attacks young Alex Kitner (in a scene so bloody, albeit brief, it amazes me that the film made it to theaters with a PG rating). The attack happens almost in the background, and its brevity has an almost subliminal effect – one moment of roiling, turbulent water, a great gout of blood, a flurry of flailing limbs - then nothing. Next comes the panicked rush, as everyone clears out of the water, and then the sad, finishing shot of the shredded remains of the Kitner boy's yellow innertube, washed up onto the beach by pale pink waves, the slowly dawning realization of tragedy as Mrs. Kitner looks in vain for her son.
This is the moment when the audience realizes: damn, this film means business.
Though I was 7-years-old when Jaws first became a box office sensation, I didn't catch up to it until my mid 20s (perhaps a good thing, as I missed out on the phobia of going in the sea that seeing the movie engendered in so many). I'm sorry to confess I've never had a chance to see it at full strength, in a packed cinema on the big screen. I have seen the laserdisc and DVD versions, and can attest that Universal's new Blu-Ray transfer is far and away the best the movie has ever looked on home video. The clarity of the transfer is stunning, and this is surely the next best thing to the theater experience.
Watching Jaws again recently, looking all shiny and sparkly in this digitally repaired and cleaned-up version, I sat enthralled all over again, even though I've seen the film half a dozen times before. To me, it doesn't seem dated in the least, despite it being 37 years old. In fact, I've little doubt that it'll go on scaring the crap out of new viewers for decades to come.
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