A film review by Craig J. Koban
30th Anniversary Retrospective
30th Anniversary Retrospective
1975, PG, 118 mins.
Roy Scheider (Brody) / Robert Sahw (Quint)
/ Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) / Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody) /
Murray Hamilton (Mayor)
"When I first hear the words JAWS I think of a period of my life when I was much younger than I am now and because I was younger I feel that maybe I was more courageous, or I was more stupid....So when I think about JAWS, I think about my courage and stupidity."
- Steven Spielberg
For a film that a rather young Steven Spielberg had absolutely no faith in during its monstrous 155 day shooting schedule in the mid-1970’s, then JAWS, in hindsight, proved to be one of the cinema’s greatest gambles and triumphs.
This was a production that was plagued with now infamous production problems, excesses in budget, viscous quarrels with the actors and writers, and a genuinely resentful (but visionary) novice director that managed to carry it all forward to fruition…come hell or high water. The film that emerged from its murky and troubled production became the most financially prodigious of its time. In 1975, JAWS was seen by a then astounding 69 million Americans and eventually went on to out-gross the highest earning films of that time (it easily burst past previous record holders like THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC). The film became the very first to earn $100 million dollars and became - at its time - the highest grossing film of all-time until a small little independent and low budget sci-fi flick called STAR WARS took its crown away.
JAWS, from a fiduciary and popularity standpoint, should never be underestimated, nor unappreciated, in the annals of escapist cinema. The film’s earnings may seem paltry by today’s behemoth standards, but if adjusted for inflation the film would have grossed over $800 million contemporary dollars (to put that in perspective, the reigning king of the all-time box office – TITANIC – grossed $600 million). Everyone went to see Spielberg’s chilling thriller and they went over and over again in 1975. As a result, JAWS can easily lay claim to being the very first blockbuster summer film that seemingly ushered in the era of summer escapist entertainments. Future modern blockbusters, like STAR WARS, achieved their success in JAWS’ wake. JAWS’ success fundamentally changed Hollywood’s outlook on the summer movie season, whereas before it the season was populated by B-grade and exploitative fair, now studio executives demanded more films with larger budgets, bigger visuals, more elaborate special effects that they thought would be what the post-JAWS audiences wanted. For better or worse, JAWS irrevocably altered the landscape of populist entertainment.
On an artistic side, JAWS ushered in the emerging talent of a then late twenty-something director whose only previous screen credits included the stylish and simple SUGARLAND EXPRESS as well as small screen ventures like DUEL and many stints on shows like COLUMBO and NIGHT GALLERY. If Spielberg was unknown to contemporary audiences and critics before 1975 then he surely became a big name in Hollywood circles afterwards. JAWS is the film that catapulted Spielberg into the public eye and acted as an artistic launching pad for a series of other seminal works that have emerged as some of the finest films of the last 30 years. Spielberg’s post-JAWS resume is an incredible body of work, from his CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND in 1977 (one of the best films of the 70’s) to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (one of the greatest adventure films of all-time) and E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (one of the finest family films ever made). JAWS forged and created a moviemaker that became, arguably, one of the most successful and important of the last quarter of a century.
Looking back on the film - on a glorious remastered DVD special edition celebrating the film’s 30th Anniversary - sort of reveals what a brave, gutsy, and - by his own admission – stupid filmmaker the 28-year-old Spielberg must have been. The film is a seamless and timeless piece - tense, thrilling, funny, with wonderfully realized characters and careful and intelligent dialogue that is both sparse, yet evocative and meaningful in simple strokes. Watching JAWS it's hard to see the problems that Spielberg and company obviously faced during the huge production.
The laundry list of problems were numerous. The film was to have been made on a shoestring budget, which soon escalated to $12 million. It was to be made in 51 days, which ballooned to 155 (still long by today’s standards). The mechanical shark that was constructed, at an enormous expense to the production, was inexplicably never tested for use in the water. Upon this fabricated monster’s first day on set in the waters of Martha’s Vineyard it sank to the bottom of the harbor (a team of divers were forced to go to the bottom of the waters to retrieve it). The shark itself, when it did work, was still marred by mechanical breakdowns on set that caused Spielberg many assumed sleepless nights and his own thoughts of possible firing by Universal Pictures. Author Peter Benchley (who wrote the book that the movie is based on) was booted off the set for disapproving of the film’s climax, and to add fuel to an already huge fire, actors Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss argued constantly and bitterly.
All things considered, it was incredible that the film was finished altogether in one piece, and with the final product being what it was, it's clear that Spielberg solidified himself as a director of intuitiveness, inventiveness, courage, wit, and obsessive perseverance. To his own admission, Spielberg has often credited the film’s overall success as an edge-of-your seat thriller by the production’s own shortcomings. When you ponder it even modestly, the JAWS of 1975 would have never been made the same way today and with the same level of visceral effect. “Mother of invention” (a industry euphemism for “nothing that we wanted to work worked so we took shortcuts) is so indicative of every frame of JAWS. There is no doubt that modern advances in CG technology and visual effects could have made JAWS a fundamentally easier film to make. On the other hand, polished visuals would have lead to an abundance of glorified shark visuals that would have completely undermined why JAWS worked. JAWS is scary by what you don’t see, not by what you do see.
Yes, we do see the shark from time to time, but they are mostly is discreet, expertly timed, and chaotic glimpses here and there. In actuality, after you sit through its 118 minutes, it's completely stunning just how little you see of the shark in JAWS. It makes no appearance until the 90 minute mark in true full form, but by that time the film has generated enough faultless scares to the point where seeing the actual shark becomes almost an afterthought. The lack of a presence of the shark reveals an important lesson in terror that modern films, with their bloated and in-your face MTV-inspired visuals, lack altogether. We are terrified and scared by the thought of the creature, not by seeing it every five minutes. Modern directors like M. Night Shyamalan impeccably know this principle, which is evident in his brilliant 2000 work SIGNS, but too many contemporary films are made for viewers with some sort of attention deficit disorder. Most studio executives would have never let JAWS be released today and that sort of reflects the general malaise I have about the cinema now. I respect this film’s artifice more than most of the visually opulent works that are released now. Creating a shark would be easier today, but Spielberg’s team had to make it with old-fashioned hydraulics, mechanics, animatronics, and blue screen work.
You sort of have to appreciate what a mad stroke of guts and feverous effort that it must have taken Spielberg to make this film. Creating a completely convincing 26-foot great white shark must have been tirelessly difficult, and the final result of the shark’s few minutes of screen time show this. Yes, the fake shark looks fake, but this was a blessing in disguise for Spielberg and his editor. The film’s eerie and tense vibe was most likely created in the editing room, during which Spielberg probably realized that he did not have much acceptable working footage of the shark at all. This is where the film’s failure becomes its ultimate triumph. Because good working footage could not be used, Spielberg instead used the simplest of old-school movies tricks – subjective camera work and shots combined with an equally immersing music score by John Williams (whose theme here is probably, next to that in STAR WARS, the most recognizable piece of music ever created for a film). We don’t see the shark, but we are always aware of its presence to the point where it creates a sort of hallucinogenic state in the audience. Through shots, music, and dialogue, Spielberg does everything to suggest the shark and it’s amazing how effective his approach is here. If there was ever a film that so fully encapsulated the principle that “less is more” than it would surly be JAWS.
As for the story itself, JAWS is deceptively simple in its construction and execution. One key to its successful approach is the way it grounds the film firmly in the reality of small town America during one of the most beloved holidays of the year. Early on we are introduced to Amity Island’s Police Chief Brody (in one of Roy Scheider’s least appreciated performances – Spielberg’s first choice, interestingly enough, was Charlton Heston). It seems that Brody was once a big city cop that decided to uproot his small family to the tiny resort town of Amity to get away from it all. Unfortunately, Amity is no New York, and the less hectic lifestyle that he is afforded is starting to take its mental toll. This changes soon, for the worse, when during a week before the Fourth of July a mutilated body of a young swimmer washes up on shore. It appears that this is clearly the work of a killer shark, despite the fact the city councilmen, led by the mayor (the sly and slimy Murray Hamilton), decides to continue to keep the beaches open.
The mayor and the city’s coroner dream up an incredulous explanation for the girl’s death – a boating accident. This does not sit well with Brody. Being a man of suspicion and caution, Brody calls in for some scientific help in the form of shark expert Matt Hooper (the completely convincing Richard Dreyfuss). Hooper loves sharks so much that getting into a protective shark tank under water to see a giant shark is all in a day’s work for him. Hooper smells a rotten fish in Amity and easily surmises that the girl’s death is shark attack related. Soon, as more hideous attacks and deaths escalate, the mayor is forced to find a solution. We are then introduced to Quint, in one of the great reveals ever, and he is played by one of the most engrossing supporting performances of all-time by the cagey and crafty Robert Shaw. Quint is walking testosterone, a shark hunter that is guileless, fearless, and cunning. He agrees to kill the shark for $10,000 and then prepares his ship with two passengers – Brody and Hooper. All three men have their reasons for going; Brody wants ultimate closure to his town’s menace and wishes to overcome his fear of water; Hooper, of course, relishes in the chance for yet another opportunity to study a shark up close; Quint...well...his reasons are much, much more personal.
JAWS, as stated, is a masterstroke work of mood and tension, but very little is ever said about its well-drawn characters and great performances. Scheider as Brody effectively gives his police chief a humanity, inner drive, and paranoia, never more felt than during the film’s first major reveal of the shark to which he utters one of the most famous lines ever – “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Dreyfuss as Hooper is energetic and a man of spunk, a rich college man that is always at odds with the working class stiff that is Quint. I loved the way this film has the patience and time to develop its leads and forge and create a unique dynamic between all of them. To Brody, Quint is a loose cannon that will get them all killed. To Quint, Hooper is a rich university brat that spent all his life “counting his money and not working for a livin’.” To Hooper, Quint represents the epitome of working class apathy, to which he has to prove his relative worth to as a sea-faring man.
Despite all of its chills and scares, JAWS always finds time to be a character study. The film’s truly best moment occurs without the shark at all. During one night aboard their ship, restless and drunk, Hooper and Quint exchange old “war wounds” from their encounters with sharks in the past. Soon, Quint is asked about a peculiar scar his arm. What then occurs is one of the best movie monologues and Shaw sells it with precision and emotion without going overboard. He relives the story of the doomed USS Indianapolis that, in WWII, sank into dangerous shark-infested waters. He was among the men that went overboard. Of the 1100 men that went overboard, Quint tells of how the sharks ate all but 316 of them before the rescue ships could come. His monologue is filled with a sort of strangely haunting, harshly entrenched and suggestive language and descriptions: “The thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes after you, he doesn't seem to be living until he bites you, and those black eyes roll over white. . . ." Quint’s monologue remains one of my favourite movie moments.
JAWS was not only the film darling of the audiences, but also of the critical press of its time. The film went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and rightfully won for Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Music Score. Spielberg, for stupefying reasons, was not nominated. JAWS emerged as such a popular smash that it spawned the bane of all successful films – the inevitable sequel, or sequels in its case. First came 1978’s inferior JAWS 2, then 1983’s insidiously silly JAWS 3D, and then the uproariously terrible JAWS: THE REVENGE, which I would gladly placed on my list of the worst films ever made. Hyperbole aside, if the appalling sequels proved one thing then it was that the first JAWS was an unadulterated magnum opus and masterpiece.
If one considers the great “out-of body” experience films (ones that fully engulf you in their strange worlds and realities) then I would easily and proudly place JAWS on the list. The film is a prime example of how meager and primal film making economy embraces its own inherent inadequacies and shortcomings and creates a wholly inimitable work that succeeds triumphantly. Many films have tried to recreate the same level of escapist and rousing scares that JAWS effectively concocted, but very few have achieved the same level of veracity and efficiency. Modern thrillers and action films that want to instill a sense of excitement seem to forget the important lessons that JAWS taught us. It’s not how much you throw up at the screen to show audiences, but rather how little you create. JAWS is a triumph of originality, creativity, and inventiveness over technology and preaches the virtues of how a young, brash, and shrewd director battled the elements to craft one of the century’s most prevailing entertainments.