Jaws (1975) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Last week was ‘shark week’ on the Discovery Channel, and so I’m a bit late on my timing. But it’s still the summer, which means it’s still blockbuster season, and there are few bigger blockbusters than “Jaws”. In fact, “Jaws” is generally considered the first summer blockbuster. It certainly was a true phenomenon and then, the highest grossing film of all time. With today’s eyes, it’s still a masterpiece and every bit as good and scary as it was in 1975. Many people would argue it's Spielberg’s best film.
The film opens with a great death scene. A drunken female swimmer, skinny dipping gets mauled in horrific fashion by some kind of creature of the deep. We then meet Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a man who is afraid of the water, yet is the chief of police on the island of Amity. He’s there for the peace and quiet, but when he learns the girl was attacked by a shark, he's quickly thrown into the deep end of island politics and shark hunting. Though there's no disputing the shark bite the stubborn Mayor (Murray Hamilton) refuses to close the beaches. Another kid dies and Brody takes the blame. But when his own child nearly becomes a victim the gauntlet is thrown down.
Brody teams up with college-bred oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and an old school shark-hunting curmudgeon named Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt down and kill the shark. The beast is as tough an opponent as the trio thought. It’s a 25 footer, too big for Quint’s small boat. Quint refuses to go back and takes on the shark like a live or deal duel.
The success of “Jaws” is aided by, ironically, the film’s production problems. The making of documentary on the DVD and the old laserdisc chronicles in entertaining fashion the hell Mr. Spielberg went through to get the film made. Shooting on water is never easy, but shooting on water with an electronically gimbled shark inside the water is just crazy. With the shark not working Spielberg’s directorial and storytelling instincts were put to the test. As we all know, the shark isn’t revealed until well into the second half, but using some classic cinematic techniques of suspense Spielberg generates more fear in not seeing the monster.
Spielberg was not even 30 when he directed the film and yet most of the hallmarks of his trademark style are on the screen. Spielberg’s a master of camera movement. Watch how he moves his actors in and out of frame, and how the camera moves to follow. In “Jaws” especially, the camera, motivated by the characters, prowls the scenes like the film’s antagonist. Watch the opening shot, a long take, which slowly dollies across a campfire site before settling on the shark’s first victim.
In other situations where he can't possible move his camera Spielberg creates the illusion of movement from a locked-down position. On the boat Hooper spots the shark in the distance. Ordinarily, a director would ‘push in’ to emphasize a reaction. On a moving boat, it’s much more difficult. Spielberg achieves the same effect by having Richard Dreyfuss moves from the back of the frame, climb a couple of steps and put himself mere inches from the camera lens, thus achieving his push in, without moving the camera. Spielberg would repeat this a number of times throughout his career.
Other than a perfect script, perfect casting, perfect direction, the icing on the cake is the coming out party for John Williams and his classic score. Williams was already a veteran composer before getting the “Jaws” gig. He had been scoring feature films since the mid 60’s, and before that a decade of television work (he wrote the theme song for “Gilligan’s Island”!). He was already an Oscar-winner for “Fiddler on the Roof.” But for all intents and purposes his career started with “Jaws”.
Who knows how "Jaws" would fare with today's audiences? Summer blockbusters are buoyed now more than ever by big scale production value. Though there's only one explosion in "Jaws", Spielberg's flare for action and cinematic momentum still trumps most of anything produced today. "Jaws" still is and will always be a remarkable piece of celluloid - one very big 'happy accident' for Steven Spielberg.