I’ve picked up a few of Universal’s gorgeous 100 Year Anniversary editions of their most classic films, including Born on the Fourth of July (click here for my review), The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
What can I possibly write about Jaws that hasn’t already been written? Its reputation as a masterpiece is solidly deserved, and the film really hasn’t aged a day. Of course the film is dazzling on blu-ray, crisp and clean. But more than that, I can’t really point to a single moment in the movie that seems obviously fake or phony. The visual effects hold up because, unlike many modern blockbusters, Jaws isn’t a film about visual effects. As the often-told stories go, the mechanical shark Mr. Spielberg had on-site hardly ever worked, forcing the young director to find ingenious ways to shoot around the fake shark and find ways to depict the creature without our actually seeing it (resulting in, for example, the brilliant use of the yellow barrels as a way to suggest the shark’s menacing presence without actually showing it) and to build suspense and horror based on NOT seeing the shark.
But even more than that, Jaws holds up because, visual effects or no visual effects, there is far more to the film (whose screenplay was written by Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley) than just the shark. The film isn’t about the shark. It’s about characters. It’s the characters who leave the biggest impression on the viewer — Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint — not the shark.
Jaws has an interesting structure. The film is basically divided into two distinct halves. The first half is set on land, as Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) gradually grows more and more concerned about the shark he believes is menacing the small, picturesque community of Amity Island, where he is the new Chief of Police. The second half of the film is an entirely different movie, set on board Quint’s raggedy old ship, the Orca, as Brody, Hooper, and Quint set out to chase down and kill the shark. The brilliance of the film — and, I think, a critical component to its success — is that both halves work equally well. I love the first half, particularly for its exploration of the many colorful characters of Amity island. I love the gradual way that we get inside Chief Brody’s head, I love the dynamic between Brody and his wife (Lorraine Gary) and son, I love every moment with Amity’s mayor (played so wonderfully by Murray Hamilton) and the other government officials, I love it all and I don’t want the film to get to the Orca scenes. But then Brody breaks his promise to himself and steps on-board the Orca, and suddenly I’m so happy the second half has arrived. I love every moment with Quint and Hooper, I love the barrel-chase scenes, I love the Indianapolis speech, I love it all.
Boy, does Steven Spielberg direct the hell out of this film. Every moment is so perfectly staged. Right from the opening scene — the iconic death of the beautiful skinny-dipper (Susan Backlinie) — Mr. Spielberg is able to play the audience to perfection, making us laugh when he wants us to laugh (which is often — it’s not its reputation, but Jaws is a very funny film), and scream when he wants to scare the bejesus out of us. Although I will confess that I don’t exactly find Jaws to be scary the way that filmgoers in 1975 probably did, I was without question hooked into the intensity and the horror of the shark-attack sequences.
Special note, of course, must be made to the death-by-shark of the young boy, Alex Kintner. The explosion of blood when poor Alex meets his fate is probably the single most horrifying and shocking image in the film. Holy cow, can you name a modern blockbuster that would so ruthlessly kill off a cute, innocent little kid like that? Wow.
The acting is, of course, perfection. Pages upon pages have been written about the magnificence of all three leads. I’ll just say that Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw were all perfectly cast, and the chemistry between the three men is magical. I could have watched two more hours of those guys bumping off each other aboard the Orca. But for me, the first among equals is the great Robert Shaw. I just find myself devouring every moment Mr. Shaw is on-screen (an interesting metaphor, considering Quint’s ultimate fate). Mr. Shaw is magnificent, at once despicable and lovable. His delivery of the monologue about the Indianapolis stands as one of the greatest scenes in movie history. I could watch that speech a thousand times and never cease to find it absolutely compelling.
Unlike the other Universal 100 year anniversary blu-rays, this new edition of Jaws is jam-packed with extras. Not only do we get Laurent Bouzereau’s uncut two-hour-long documentary about the making of Jaws, but we also get the brand-new feature-length documentary The Shark is Still Working, about the impact and legacy of Jaws. Together, that’s over four hours of behind-the-scenes stories and footage, and I found every minute to be fascinating and great fun. It’s a stellar package, headlined of course by the gorgeous presentation of the film itself.
There’s a reason that Jaws made Steven Spielberg famous. The film worked like gangbusters in 1975, and it still works like gangbusters in 2012. It’s a milestone of movie-making, and great fun to re-watch.
“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: War Horse (2012), The Adventures of Tintin (2012), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull(2008), Munich (2005), War of the Worlds (2005), The Terminal (2004), Catch Me If You Can(2002), Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad(1997), The Lost World(1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).