Sunday, June 21, 2015

40 Years of Jaws (1975—2015)

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

I had never really given sharks much though before 1975, but all of that changed after watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws that summer. I was in junior high, between seventh and eighth grades, and I remember the theater being packed so that I had to sit fairly close to the front, something never liked to do. I can’t remember who I was with but I do remember the scene that had the most impact on me and, ironically it almost wasn’t in the finished film. Spielberg, after watching the previews said he got greedy. There was one more scream he knew he could get out of the audience so he went to an L.A. swimming pool and reshot the scene of Craig Kingsbury’s head coming out of the hole in the hull. Nothing had prepared me for that moment, not even the opening death of Susan Backlinie, which was horrifying but not startling. But when Richard Dreyfuss was prying the tooth out of the hull, and suddenly that lifeless head appeared, the entire theater erupted into screams. I’ve never experienced anything like that in a theater since. I went with my family to Hawaii the next summer and, as much as I tried, I could not enjoy swimming in the ocean for fear of sharks and have stuck to the swimming pool ever since.

Though I have probably watched this film in excess of twenty or thirty times over the years it never seems dated and never loses its ability to impress. The occasion for today’s viewing was the appearance of the film in theaters as part of Turner Classic Movies’ series of films being shown on big screens all across the country. In fact, all of the films I have seen in the theater in the last year have been classics rather than new films. This was the first, however, that I had actually seen in person when it was first released and the impact was tremendous. A couple of things struck me as I revisited this classic film. The first was, interestingly, the sound, though this should come as no surprise. The crew responsible for the sound on the film actually won an Academy Award. And it’s terrific. After watching the film on a TV set for decades, the presence of the original sound is a revelation, background discussions I hadn’t heard before, the subtlety of some of John Williams’ music cues, right down to the squeak when Dreyfuss takes the cork off of the shark gun. The other thing that made an impression on me was the close up work of Spielberg and cameraman Bill Butler and how confident Spielberg is at those kinds of camera angles in any number of situations in the film.

Back in 1975, after seeing the film, I sought out Peter Benchley’s original novel and was equally captivated, but in an entirely different way. In fact, the difference between the two could be used as a clinic in how to approach adaptations of popular novels for the screen. I’ve been saying for years that screenwriters who get bogged down attempting to duplicate what makes a novel great are setting themselves up for failure. Spielberg had exactly the right approach, re-imagining the story for a visual medium rather than attempting to maintain the introspective nature of characters in the novel. What he ended up with was his version of Jaws, a film that has been often imitated but never duplicated. The picture opened and closed with a piece by Ben Mankiewicz at the Atlanta TCM studios and he related a number of anecdotes familiar to fans of the film. What I found disappointing in doing research for this review is that the documentary The Shark is Still Working is only available on Blue Ray though it’s been out for several years now. That aside, it was great to return to the theater for a screening of Jaws, still one of the greatest films of all time.

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