Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Jaws" (1975)

"Jaws" (1975)
Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw
Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Directed by Steven Spielberg

"Why don'tcha come down here and chum some of this shit?"
In 1975, Hollywood released the first blockbuster movie - "Jaws."  Set in the fictional vacation island community of Amity, the film stars Roy Scheider as police chief Martin Brody.  When a series of vicious shark attacks leaves some of the island residents dead,  Brody recruits Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt it down and kill it.  This is a fantastic adventure story loaded with memorable lines and sequences.

Brody is stuck between a rock and a hard place: he's charged with protecting the residents of Amity, but at the same time, closing the beaches would destroy the livelihoods of many of the residents.  Many of the residents decide they can take on the shark themselves, dangerously blundering out into the ocean in small, overcrowded boats, killing everything in sight.  Eventually, Brody hires Quint, an eccentric shark hunter and captain of the good ship Orca. Brody, Quint and shark expert Hooper head out on the Orca to take out the shark themselves.  The rest of the film is a series of wild chases and encounters, a thrilling back and forth between man and beast.

"Jaws" is the perfect example of a movie that probably should have beached itself like a whale.  By all accounts, nothing about this film was working - most critically, the shark.  While his special effects team struggled to make it all work, then-novice director Steven Spielberg decided to focus on the characters, slowly building the movie around a deadly, invisible force.  The result is a textbook example of restraint working for the betterment of the picture - not showing the shark until nearly 2/3 of the way through the movie works beautifully. 

I imagine that if we'd been seeing the shark throughout the entire movie, its effect would be lessened.  When it pops up out of the water and we get a good look at it for the first time, our reaction is much like Brody's.  But if we'd seen it every time throughout the run of the picture, we'd be simply bored with it by the time the big climax rolls around.  Instead, we get to focus on the the performances of the actors, all of whom are great, and the building suspense.  Scheider is a great straight man to Quint, whose eccentricities are expertly played by Robert Shaw.  A scene with the three of them eating dinner and trading tales is plain excellent, especially Quint's tale about surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

John Williams provides an iconic score, part of his output in the 70s and 80s that would not only define his career, but film scores in general.  Spielberg proves even early on that he's more than capable of constructing thrilling set pieces, even without showing the shark.  There's not much else to say about "Jaws" - it's just a plain great flick, with a behind-the-scenes story just as fascinating as the film itself.  I highly recommend watching the documentary included on the 30th anniversary DVD set.  It's two hours long, and goes into fantastic detail about the making of "Jaws."