Friday, November 15, 2013

Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg                              Writers: Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb
Film Score: John Williams                              Cinematography: Bill Butler
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary

Like so many great Hollywood blockbusters, you could never recreate this one in a million years. Everything had to be just right, a best-selling novel, a young director, a unique cast, a distinctive film score, the right time, and a mechanical shark that wouldn’t work. That’s right, probably the best thing about this film is the suspense that Spielberg was forced to create because he couldn’t film his mechanical shark. As a result, Jaws is one of the all-time great films in any genre. Sure, it was a summer scare movie, a popular success, and became part of the cultural consciousness, but it’s also an incredible artistic success as well. It boasts tremendous acting, a script that makes sense, a director who knows what he’s doing, and is just a great movie.

I can remember vividly reading Peter Benchley’s novel after I saw the film. It was impressive, especially for a first novel. There was so much backstory, and a relationship between Hooper and Ellen Brody that was both shocking and understandable. Benchley was given the opportunity to write the screenplay and did so, handing it off to Spielberg, who wrote his own version and then worked with playwright Howard Sackler and actor Carl Gottlieb to create the filmed version. Streamlining the whole thing down to a straight-ahead action picture was just as impressive. It begins with the death of a swimmer on Amity Island, a thinly-veiled Martha’s Vineyard where the shooting took place. The new chief of police, Roy Scheider, immediately wants to close the beaches down, but is manipulated into keeping them open by the mayor, Murray Hamilton. When there are more deaths he calls in shark expert Richard Dreyfuss, but still the mayor pushes back.

Of course there is another death and once it’s clear that Hamilton is the “mayor of shark city” they hire the old sea dog Robert Shaw to catch it, with Scheider and Dreyfuss aboard. This is where the brilliance of the broken shark kicks in. Without a visual, Spielberg needed another way to suggest the shark’s presence without it being seen. This was accomplished by the harpoons shot into the shark and the yellow barrels that followed the ship around. Not being able to see the shark, but knowing where he was and that he apparently had some intelligence was incredibly suspenseful. Spielberg also wisely chose to shoot the scenes on the boat as if they were far out to see, beyond the sight of land. This made the threat of the shark that much more dramatic.

Scheider had been seen by Spielberg in The French Connection and The Seven Ups, and he did a nice job here conveying fear of the water, but also an underlying strength in dealing with the city fathers and onboard the boat. He has some of the funniest lines as well. Dreyfuss was probably best known for American Graffiti before this, but this was a good film for him as it lead to more leading roles. Robert Shaw, who had been tremendous in The Sting the year before, was nearing the end of his career. It’s difficult to imagine anyone better to deliver the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech. Spielberg, young and brave, took on a colossal challenge and managed to make a tremendous film in the process. Jaws became the highest grossing picture ever at that time and remains one of the most iconic films in American Cinema, underrated artistically, but absolutely deserving of all its popularity.

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