Monday, June 22, 2015

Jaws **** (1975)

Forty years ago this weekend Universal Studios released Jaws. I had a chance to finally see Jaws on the big screen, while the film plays wonderfully on television, it's a far more immersive experience in a theater. Despite all the inferior sequels, countless rip offs, and parodies, the original remains as compelling as ever.

Setting: The decision to shoot the film at Martha's Vineyard added a sense of place and local flavor. Not some generic American town we get in so many horror movies.

Casting: The three leads Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw were not Universal's first choice, they wanted A-list stars like Charlton Heston and Paul Newman. Casting lesser known actors added so much because they created characters we care about. As Chief Brody, Scheider plays against the traditional hero type. Out of his element, he makes mistakes and shows real fear at times, but manages to triumph against great obstacles.

Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss

Special Effects (or lack of): Ironically, the lack of dazzling effects works in the movie's favor.  The actual mechanical shark appears on screen for maybe 30 seconds, due to problems with getting the machine to work.  Spielberg used the absence of the shark to build up the suspense but the idea of the shark is ever present.

John Williams: John Williams' minimalist score remains one of the most effective soundtracks ever composed for a movie.  Spielberg credited 50% of the film's success to the music.

A Superior Adaptation: Jaws is an excellent case study of how to adapt a potboiler novel. There's no doubt Peter Benchley created amazing source material, but those who read the novel will be taken aback at the racy subplot involving an affair between Ellen Brody and Hooper and a tedious storyline involving the mob.  Removing those elements saved the movie.

A Realistic Sea Adventure: Really Jaws is two separate movies: the first half is Amity dealing with the threat to their livelihoods, while the second part is a hair raising sea adventure with many allusions to Melville's Moby Dick.  The two act structure is rare in mainstream movies, but it works perfectly in Jaws.  Verna Fields earned an Oscar for her meticulous editing.

A Siege Narrative: I'm not sure if I would classify Jaws as a horror film, but it has some horror elements.  The people of Amity island, cut off from the mainland, cannot go about their everyday lives because of the shark.  Later on Brody, Hooper, and Quint are under siege when the Orca is crippled, increasing the sense of isolation for the viewer. Classic siege narratives such as Night of the Living Dead and Halloween achieve a similar effect.

The town debates what to do after a string of deadly shark attacks.

Political Dimensions: Jaws also played upon the anxieties of the 70s. The mayor attempts a cover up because he places the town's economic interests ahead of the safety of his own people, his own little Watergate. The shark works as a metaphor of consumerism, as Hooper says "all sharks do is swim and eat and make little sharks."

Brody and Hooper argue with the Mayor.

Spielberg's Signature: Putting the family drama at the forefront would become a familiar trope in many Spielberg films  One can argue Brody joins Quint to protect his family.  We also see Spielberg's amazing ability to blend reality with the fantastic, a method he would perfect in his follow up to JawsClose Encounters of the Third kind.

Robert Shaw as Quint: Robert Shaw created a truly mythical character in Captain Quint. He dominates the last act of the film.  There's the obvious parallel with Melville's Captain Ahab and Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, but the USS Indianapolis speech feels like a separate movie, adding another layer to the character's myth.  According to The Making of Jaws on the DVD screenwriter Howard Sackler suggested the Indianapolis backstory for the character, then Spielberg's friend and fellow filmmaker John Milius wrote the speech, then Robert Shaw added his own revisions. Although remembered for his acting, Shaw was an accomplished playwright and novelist in his own right.

Humor: Watching Jaws with an audience reminded me of all the humor in the film, the slapstick Woody Allen type banter still works.  Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb who went on to write The Jerk earns much of the credit here.

A Shout Out to Duel: Spielberg's first feature Duel had a similar plot, an everyday man being chased by a maniacal truck driver.  The shark explodes in Jaws with the exact same sound effect when the truck crashes in Duel.

The Original Blockbuster: The making of Jaws went way over budget and almost derailed Spielberg's career. Instead the film went on to shatter every Box Office record, the first to make over $100 Million.  I don't wanna criticize every blockbuster Hollywood releases as inferior to Jaws - that's not the case.  However, I will point out Jaws did not rely on special effects, 3D, merchandising, or any other type of gimmick. Instead it relied on the basics of good storytelling: a strong sense of setting, well developed characters, and a compelling man vs nature conflict.  

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