Bored with over-hyped, under-delivered summer flicks? TIFF Bell Lightbox's antidote is the return to the big screen, in pristine Spielberg-approved digital print, of dare I say his BEST film, 'Jaws'. The verve of a youthful filmmaker from the then 'wunderkind', Spielberg is in every frame of this film, a ripping yarn and pulpy cinematic comfort food at its best.
Jaws (1975) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
The film opens with a great death scene. A drunken, skinny-dipping female swimmer 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. However, he refuses to go back and takes on the shark in a live-or-die duel.
The success of Jaws was famously 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 gimbaled 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. He'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 possibly 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 move 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 and 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 '60s, and before that he completed 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, Williams' career started with Jaws.
How would a young person view Jawstoday? It's hard to say. 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 always will be a remarkable piece of celluloid - one very big 'happy accident' for Steven Spielberg.