Jaws, which remains one of the (pun intended) high water benchmarks in the history of Hollywood, and is one of the scariest, sharply written, directed, acted, and not to mention edited films ever created, celebrates its 40th birthday today.
There are so many genres which owe tips of the hat to this film, what it has done to the pop cultural landscape, the standard it has set for the contemporary modern thriller, the blueprint for aquatic water thrillers, not to mention solidifying the career of Steven Spielberg, who made this film just he was creeping into his 30th year. Coupled with the powerhouse acting triad of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, and the memorable and now Hollywood folklore two-note heart-stopping theme by John Williams, there isn’t really much left to say about Jaws that hasn’t already been written, scrutinized, dissected, and most importantly, enjoyed by countless generations. But yet, despite all of this, Jaws still has plenty to say in all four corners of what it is and what it remains.
Bucking the odds in every way, the film is a living, breathing, entity of life on the screen. It’s adapted from Peter Benchley’s best selling tome, which was loosely based on shark attacks during the early strains of the 20th Century, and filled with characters which almost played out like a soap opera in many ways. Ask anyone about the film, and you’ll get a myriad of opinions about it. Some tout how scary it is. Some tout how smart it is. And some tout how funny it is, and indeed, it is a funny picture, even having the late film critic extraordinare Pauline Kael to liken it to “A Woody Allen movie,” in which many ways it is. But everyone will agree that it’s a powerhouse of filmmaking, a Hitchcockian potboiler which plays with emotions, and pushes buttons within the viewer with the ease of one working a calculator.
With the cinematic cocktail mix of Spielberg’s direction, Verna Fields’ Oscar winning editing, to that John Williams score (which also won an Oscar), and the one-two-three punch by the triple-billed lead characters, Jaws is as intense as it was when first released to American theaters. This was back during the muggy, post–Watergate summer of 1975. And the Watergate reference is like the metaphoric ocean floor of the film… not too far-fetched when put into that perspective. One extra note about the editing – the dazzling beauty of it is… that you hardly even see the shark during the early moments of the film. It creates a tension of unease throughout, that is temporarily quelled by the moments of the aforementioned Woody Allen styled, almost zaniness that permeates the film.
The shark, in its evil predator stance, was almost like a sinister brooding government, rendering the unsuspecting folks of fictional Amity Island in extreme bondage. Who at first, resist the severity of the situation, but then are forced to deal with it as the body count mounts. The local Mayor of the town and his yes-men styled brethren try to enforce what is in essence a “cover up.” But then they ultimately have to come to grips with the natural disaster that has infected their small, yet running-on-an-intravenous-wire-of-tourist-dollars-to-survive-and-thrive island, when the grim reality sets in. Led by Murray Hamilton (Mayor Vaughn), who has the expert touch of insincere oiliness, is at first portrayed with a kind of unflappable ignorance. It is only by his last scenes do we see the real man behind the powder blue anchor suit he dons through most of the film. As the bloody homicides by the great white waterlogged jack-the-ripper forces him to come to terms with the grim reality, he embodies in essence what Richard Nixon’s crew were doing in the throes of Watergate. Except there it wasn’t just a small piece of land with loyal inhabitants being terrorized, but the entire country.
And then there are the film’s three main leads. Roy Scheider is the conscientious and reasonable Chief Brody, who at first is in way over his head, and then ultimately becomes the film’s only savior. Richard Dreyfuss is Hooper, the cocky young rich brat who still retains a valuable knowledge as a top of the line oceanographer, who warns the town again and again of the coming horrors of the big fish in the small pond at Amity Island. He is consistently rebuked (another sort of old school against youth kind of metaphor that was still fresh in 1975, and resembling a sort of late 1960s counterculture against the establishment kind of theme). Robert Shaw is the salty, magnetic, stubborn, and ultimately tragic Quint, who consistently goes loggerheads with Hooper, when the two men (along with a reluctant but determined Brody) go it alone to try and reign in the devilish behemoth, and engage each other old school versus new school kinds of conversations. Ultimately, the three men need each other as they come to understand that whatever tenets that they have learned and are utilizing, all go out the window when they realize the true horror they are dealing with. It’s the acting again, coupled with the editing, music, framing, staging, and absolute genius approach by Steven Spielberg, not to mention the surefooted and fun screenplay by Carl Gottlieb and Benchley, which is why Jaws rises above what in essence is a simple B horror movie, to a class act of its own, which almost singlehandedly ushered in the blockbuster, and changed the game of Hollywood.
Jaws, at 40 years old, is still alive and pulsing with life, just as it did during the mid-1970s, or 1980s, or 1990s, or whenever. It’s chock full of endlessly quotable dialogue. It’s engrained in our cerebellums and memories forever and ever, upon seeing it once or thousands of times. In fact, it’s so many things that there have been endless articles, and books, and discussions about it. But one thing that remains and always will, is absolutely unforgettable. Even to this very day, one doesn’t walk or gaze upon a beach without hearing those ominous notes in their head of that radiant, yet so unsettling John Williams score. It’s a rare case of a crackerjack story working brilliantly, which is why Jaws is one of the greatest films of all time and always will be.
Jaws Official Trailer #1 – Richard Dreyfuss, Steven Spielberg Movie (1975) HD