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Tonight's Feature Presentation

JAWS (1975)

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton

Written By: Peter Benchley (also novel), Carl Gottlieb Directed By: Steven Spielberg

The Short Version

Jaws is one of the movies that changed everything.

Robert Shaw gives a career performance.

Jaws may have influenced everything, but it’s a movie that wouldn’t be made today.

It stands the test of time well, but it’s not perfect.

As one of the all-time classics, Jaws is pretty much required viewing.

The Long Version

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“Wanna get drunk and fool around?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Show me the way to go home…

“I’m tired and I wanna go to bed…

“I had a little drink about an hour ago

“And it went right to my head…

“Wherever I may roam

“On land or sea or foam…

“You can always hear me singin’ a song…

“Show me the way to go home!”

The author of the novel later said that if he’d known at the time how real sharks actually behave, he’d never have written it.

The producers would go on to say that if they’d bothered to read the novel more than once, they’d never have gone ahead with making the movie.

The original director was fired almost immediately when at his first meeting with the producers he demonstrated that he didn’t know the difference between a shark and a whale.

When the film’s composer first presented the theme music to the new director, the director asked if he was serious and wanted to hear the “real” theme music.

When the mechanical shark that was to be the movie’s star attraction was first put into the water, it sank, and even afterward, it was so unreliable that a large number of its scenes were scrapped in favor of POV shots.

The cost overruns on the movie were astronomical.

When the author learned of the changes made to the story’s ending, he was appalled.

For all of these reasons and many more, Jaws was supposed to be just another cheesy monster movie to keep the dumb kids happy over the summer.

Instead, Jaws became the movie that changed everything.

We all know the story.  A gigantic rogue Great White shark decides to turn the coast of the Massachusetts resort town of Amity into its personal lunch counter.  The recently arrived chief of police, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider, Blue Thunder), wants to close the beaches right away, but considering that it’s the 4th of July weekend in a town that lives and dies by tourist dollars, Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, The Graduate) doesn’t want to hear it… until the third victim gets eaten right at the beach in the middle of the day while everyone’s watching.  At that point, there seems to be no choice but to pony up the $10,000 demanded by local fisherman Sam Quint (Robert Shaw, From Russia with Love) to hunt down the shark and kill it.

They’re gonna need a bigger boat.  Too bad they don’t have one…

Once upon a time, almost no one had heard of Steven Spielberg, there wasn’t such a thing as a “summer blockbuster,” and movies certainly didn’t ever make a hundred million dollars.  All of that changed with the coming of Jaws.  Indeed, so much changed because of or came to be defined by Jaws that many people find it difficult to go back to simply relating to it as a standalone movie without the baggage.  That theme music that Spielberg was iffy about at first can be readily hummed and identified by people who’ve never even seen the film.  The poster has been copied/ripped off/lifted from a thousand times over.  The entire business of moviemaking got flipped over onto its head because of the success of this movie; it really did alter the way studios thought about the pictures they made, especially “genre” pictures that before this were generally given the lowbrow treatment.  Hell, the explosion of shark fishing after this movie and its highly exaggerated portrayal of sharks actually led to species becoming dangerously thinned and even endangered.  Baggage?  Oh yes, Jaws has baggage.

But accepting the breadth of its influence as a given and then setting it aside, how does Jaws stand on its own as a creature flick more than three and a half decades later?  I will dare to blaspheme here by saying “it depends.”

One thing it depends upon is how thoroughly trained you’ve become in the modern moviemaking mindset, because without question, there’s no way a modern studio would have made Jaws the way you see it today.

Indeed, the one factor that most people agree makes Jaws work the best would never have come about because its reason for being would never have occurred.  I refer, of course, to the fact that you rarely see the shark; instead, camera POV and the simple recurrence of the shark’s theme music are often used as substitutes.  It is widely agreed (and in this case I do agree with the mainstream) that this “holding back” on the shark served to make it scarier and to make the movie more intense, and that had the shark appeared in full as often as the original script called for, Jaws would probably have been “just another creature movie.”  Had Jaws been made now, of course, that’s exactly what would have happened, because the shark would have been a CGI effect, and computer effects don’t break like Bruce the Mechanical Shark did, which was the reason for all of those POV shots in the first place.

There’s also very little chance that Jaws would have been cast the same way.  The notion of “youth” is represented by 28-year-old-and-looking-older Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and that’s it.  There are no potential shirtless models of either gender to speak of here, and let’s face it, in modern genre filmmaking, that’s a no-no.  But just because the beefcake and cheesecake counters are closed for the summer, that doesn’t mean that anyone made any casting mistakes.  Roy Scheider is magnificently cast in the leading role, instantly believable as both an everyman and as a decisive authority figure and family man.  Dreyfuss plays the intellectual rich boy who still can get his hands dirty and get under the skin of anyone without a college education in under three seconds to perfection.  Stealing the show, however, is Robert Shaw, who delivers a career performance here.  That Quint was written as a retooled Captain Ahab is obvious, but what Shaw then does with this blueprint is something truly special.  He owns literally every moment that he has on the screen, even when he’s in direct competition with the shark.  And, of course, his delivery of the Indianapolis monologue – much of which was ad-libbed by Shaw himself – is some of the most powerful stuff you’ll ever witness on film.  (He even did it in one take.  He’d tried several times the day before, but he had been intoxicated, and none of the material was usable.  That night he called Spielberg and apologized and asked to go again, and what you see is the single take he did that next day.)  The tension demonstrated between Shaw and his two main cast mates during the second half of the film also goes a long way toward keeping things lively… and was certainly aided by the fact that he and Richard Dreyfuss couldn’t stand each other off camera, either.

It looks like so far, our classic movie comes out on top of what modern sensibilities would have turned it into if given the chance.  Indeed, for many people, any real discussion is moot, because Jaws is obviously the perfect creature film and that’s that.

Only, that’s not that, because Jaws is not perfect.  It’s damn good – even great – but perfect?  No.  Assuming we set aside the “realism” arguments as items that people generally aren’t concerned with when they go to see a creature movie, it’s still got at least one big flaw, and it’s the kind of flaw that many people who don’t approach the movie as a foregone conclusion will not only notice, but become annoyed, bored, or frustrated with.

The flaw is that for roughly a quarter of the film – the second one, to be exact – the tension goes away and the movie gets to be, well, rather redundant and even slow, as in “slow enough to not bother with the pause button while heading to the kitchen for a few minutes.”  (Which is too bad, because there’s still some good stuff to be found even while the tension is off having lunch.)  Let’s have a look.

Realistically, Jaws is two movies slapped together end-to-end, divided up at almost exactly the halfway mark.  Each lasts roughly an hour.  The first half of the movie has an extensive cast of characters and is told from land, using Amity Island as its base.  It starts off with what is indeed one of the best creature movie openings of all time: the shark attack where you don’t see the shark, but you’re introduced to all of the cues that take its place (the theme, the POV shot, etc.) and the unmistakable proof that it’s there (blood, death).  It’s tense, and it’s awesome.  We then proceed to meet our characters and find out what they’re all about: Brody wants to keep the town safe and close the beaches immediately, while Vaughn wants to keep the town economically afloat and demands that the beaches stay open.  The shark attacks again, and things gets messy.  So far, so good… until the script goes to the well once too often.  Ironically, this is something that most of the Jaws imitators that would follow knew to avoid: the disbelieving mayor/resort owner starts off blind, but once he gets his comeuppance right before his eyes, he either has his crow or gets killed.  Here, though, the mayor needs to have the point that there’s a killer shark in the water proven to him not once, but twice, and the time between the first and second comeuppance really does murder the tension and feels like going around in a circle.  It is, frankly, a boring repetition, and though we do get a fun shark autopsy out of it, it really does kill the mood.  If there’s one glaring flaw to be found in Jaws, that’s it right there.

But then we get to the second half of the film, which conventional wisdom says shouldn’t work, seeing as that it involves a total of three actors on a boat that’s barely bigger than your living room and nothing else but a whole lot of ocean and a shark.  As it turns out, though, this part of the movie not only miraculously resurrects the tension we had at the beginning, but also plays at a much better pace (it lasts an hour and feels like half that) and really, so long as you’re willing to accept the exploding air tank that Peter Benchley hated so much, does come across as flawless.  It combines the best atmospheric elements of adventure and horror, and really serves as a showcase of Spielberg’s art as a director.  People who demand instant gratification and regular spurts of blood may balk (again, it depends on how entrenched in modernity you are), but for that old fashioned stuff referred to as the “thriller,” the second half of Jaws really is tough to beat.

At the end of the day, of course, Jaws stands as a classic in almost every sense.  Classic theme music, classic poster, classic of its genre.  It served and continues to serve as the baseline for most every creature movie that’s followed in one way or another, and its unprecedented success truly changed the motion picture business forever.  Even without the iconic shark and the amazing performances by the lead cast, Jaws would be required viewing for any true movie fan simply as a piece of history.  The fact that it also happens to be a great movie even after more than three and a half decades is just a bonus.

Great, but not perfect; and that is something that must also be recognized, especially considering that this particular flaw may be a turn-off for a significant number of modern moviegoers who have seen this plot a million times before and may no longer care what came first.  Even to those for whom it’s not a complete turn-off, that and the fact that it’s been imitated so often cause the movie’s repeat value to take a pretty big hit.

Bottom line, though, every movie fan owes it to him or herself to see Jaws at least once, and if the memory has become foggy from ages past, it’s worth seeing again with fresh eyes.  But once you have seen it with fresh eyes, I will say that even understanding Jaws to be a great film and very much appreciating all of the good stuff it has to offer, I’m finding its rewatchability value to be measurable in “years between” increments.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012

More From The Bar! | Empire of the Ants | Piranha (1978) | Alien | The Shallows |

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