For a film like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to be called a classic piece of cinema and one of the greatest films of all-time is well deserving, even after it first came to be 45 years ago. All these years later, it remains a film that never gets old whenever you turn it on in what has become now become known as the first blockbuster. Why? Because when this came out, people were so excited about this that they formed lines outside of the theaters around the block, literally busting the block since everyone had to wait and buy tickets in person. With that many wanting to see it, there’s a reason everybody was so afraid to go back in the water ever since.
What’s the Story: Based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, a man-eating great white shark has put terror in the residents’ eyes on the small tourist resort of Amity Island after a young woman was attacked on an early summer night. Refusing to close the beaches to the rest of the community invoke fear, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) go out on a hunt in the ocean on “The Orca” to put an end to the shocking attacks before it gets out of hand.
Even though Jaws was already famous in pop culture, I never saw it when I was young since I can just take a look at the iconic poster and be afraid of it. The first time I remembered being fully engrossed by it was only six years ago when I was still on summer break before starting my senior year of high school. I watched it early in the morning after I forgot to take the trash out or vice versa, and I was already awake, deciding to watch anything on my DVR that I haven’t seen yet. It was recorded after it was on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) a few days before. Nothing else was going on that day, so it was about time to see if this was a masterpiece like everyone said it was, and it’s pretty easy to see why this is one of Spielberg’s greatest films to ever be associated with his name as a director, along with being the ultimate fundamental change for film.
For the longest time, I always thought this was Spielberg’s very first time behind the camera, but then I learned about Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974) came before it. He was only 27-years-old when it started adapting Benchley’s novel. The film has become well known for having so many production problems, which is very common nowadays, but it was difficult to shoot on water and went over budget, having the shot for 159 days. Something like this could’ve easily become a gigantic failure in terms of box office and critics. Imagine what the world would be like if nothing came Spielberg’s way after this, and we’ve never seen the countless classics he did. But after all these failures, he perfectly crafts together a monster movie unlike anything else when overcoming heavy obstacles when getting everything done. Because of the success, this was the very film that made him a household name forever.
Everybody thought this wouldn’t be any good. From watching the HBO documentary on Spielberg, they were rewriting the script 12 hours before shooting, and it was tricky to shoot a film on the ocean since you never know when the conditions would change in the middle of filming. A film like Jaws would not look realistic on the back of the Universal lot, and it couldn’t have done it any other way. How he could accomplish everything and not get fired can be described as a miracle.
What I’ve always loved about the script by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb is how it’s easy to look at the film as a new take on the Moby Dick storyline but have it pay off in a way a great white shark can affect somewhere like Amity Island. We see everybody in this fictional town where there happens to be a dangerous shark on the loose with little protection on the beach. It’s hard to say if this was an actual situation at hand, it would be challenging to fight a creature we have no business dealing with in the endgame. And I never read the book, but I do know subplots were cut from the movie. Since I haven’t watched this in a while, this reminded me of how dumb it was to open beaches during this current pandemic. Because people like Brody, who is smart enough to feel like closing the beaches is the right idea, but the mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) wants to keep the beach open for the Fourth of July so the tourists can still visit without having fear placed in their minds.
You care about the three principal characters very much, especially when you never get tired of them. The trio pairing of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss is nothing short of great when these are just human characters you tend to look past that they’re performers and look at them as genuine people wanting to get this tough job done quickly. They have to work together despite two out of the three feeling the same wavelengths. Scheider was brilliant as the recent police chief Martin Brody is somebody who’s trying to balance his family and work life at the same time, trying to do the best he can when dealing with this situation. Dreyfuss, his first of three collaborations with Spielberg, gives what I believe is my favorite performance from him as Hooper, beard and all. And the late Robert Shaw as Quint shines through every single scene he’s in. Just his introduction when he scratches his nails on the chalkboard, pretty much foreshadowing his fate later on, is so memorable. His performance was so great it makes me sad he died three years later. I always knew he and Dreyfuss didn’t get along on set, but that might’ve helped the tension between their characters.
The suspense throughout the film puts you in a mindset that lets the viewer imagine what this shark looks like, letting that anxiety kick in. Placing itself rightfully so in the horror genre, if some would call it that, it was almost feeling like Alfred Hitchcock made something that’s pretty equivalent to Psycho or The Birds. The reason an element like this of the story works so well is that the decision to not show the shark early on was a brilliant idea. The shark still looks great, and it wasn’t any trained shark used; all mechanical named Bruce (named after Spielberg’s lawyer). Jaws doesn’t want to make this like eating your dessert before the delicious meal comes ahead, as the best thing will come later. Yes, there’s a shark in here, but it’s not in it that much. Sometimes less is better. That’s mainly because the shark wasn’t working a lot, as it sunk after the first time. Thanks to editor Verna Fields, she helped in the best way possible. All we see is the point-of-view perspective underneath the water or showing the fin to signify it’s near.
To this day, it’s sometimes hard to watch when the shark is attacking innocent people in the ocean since it just looks so realistic. If it made this today, it would most definitely be CGI. This also has one of the best jump scares ever that always gets me, which was when Hooper was searching underneath the vessel and stumbles upon the corpse of fisherman Ben Gardner, dropping the shark’s tooth in the process. I would’ve reacted correctly in the theater. Something like that hasn’t left my mind ever since. But I also have to give credit to the humor thrown in here because it doesn’t get mentioned that much, and this has moments that made me laugh, especially when Brody said the most quoted and ad-libbed line in film history, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Even the smallest moments that have nothing to do with the shark are just unlistening to watch since those scenes work so naturally without giving a common complaint about them. Some of them include Brody’s son is mimicking every movement he makes at the dinner table (a moment that was real between Scheider and his real-life son). Or the entire sequence on the Orca at night when the guys reveal the scars they have on their bodies, followed by what has been described as one of the best scenes in the entire film with Quint’s going on this fascinating story about how he survived the U.S.S. Indianapolis. This was finally how the audience learns why he hates shark in a way that doesn’t sound boring for five minutes.
Every other aspect of Jaws is enough to take your breath away. The cinematography from Bill Butler (The Conversation, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is so beautiful just in the opening two minutes and when the other half takes place at sea. The overall picture quality has improved when looking at it in HD. But the thing everybody talks about whenever this film is being talked about in a positive light is the incredible score by the world’s greatest composer, John Williams. I can not tell you have much I find this iconic musical score memorable, that it’s a character of its own when establishing the tone. Without this simple, yet perfect music to accompany everything this has going for it, I feel the film wouldn’t work. Even if you haven’t seen it, you already know the suspenseful theme with the two-note pattern (dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun) whenever the shark is in the water.
The only minor complaint I have with the film is that it can be a little slow right around the second act going into the third. Such a nitpick to come up with, but you have to keep in mind that early films of that time weren’t having the amount of energy we see now. But I rarely mind it that much when it’s needed to focus on the storytelling more, even if the shark isn’t on screen. And because this still has a PG rating, there’s no way it would receive that rating now since it’s more in-line of an R-rated since there’s blood and the brief nudity in the beginning.
When this came out, the film was the first movie ever to gross over $100 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing movie before Star Wars blew everyone’s minds two years later. It’s a good thing this came out in the summer rather than the Christmas season of 1974. Along with it being nominated for four Academy Awards, it won three: Best Original Score for Williams, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. The strange thing about it how even though this was recognized for Best Picture, how in the world was Spielberg not nominated for Best Director? What sense does that make? This is one of those movies where there shouldn’t have been three sequels because none of them matched the potential this brought to the big screen. That also includes the other shark movies that have followed since most tried to rip-off the success this made, and the results are largely negative.
With everything from the ’70s and ’80s being remade recently for no reason, this is another movie from Universal that should never get touched. It’s already a perfect film for many people out there, and there’s really nothing to change about it quite honestly. The only thing I can imagine is if Michael Shannon plays Quint. That’s a casting choice that’s been in my mind for several years now. Out of everything that came out in the decade, it’s one of the best. But between this and Jurassic Park in films about killer animals, I always loved the latter a lot more.
Without Jaws, we wouldn’t have gotten some of the most entertaining Hollywood summer blockbusters to come out decades later. Being how this put a director like Steven Spielberg on the map, you can never go wrong with a thriller capitalizing on incorporating a sense of terror, outstanding performances from its three leads, and music. A lot of Spielberg fans have this as their number one favorite film of his, and it’s most definitely in my top five and top 20 favorites of all-time. Of the list of movies everybody has to see before they die, you better make sure this is on there because of how important this truly is.
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