Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
People will never truly agree on which movie founded the phenomenon of the true summer blockbuster, but one thing that’s inarguable is that Jaws changed Hollywood forever, and probably not for the better. An A-picture with a B-picture conceit, an auteurist thriller that suddenly fulfilled all the promise of Steven Spielberg’s prior work, it nevertheless was quickly overshadowed by its own success: the highest-grossing film made up to its time, a complete renewal of Universal’s fortunes, and the catalyst for Hollywood to spend every decade since falling over itself to find the next Event film. Of course, putting Spielberg on the map as a key popular director would be enough to render Jaws some sort of a legend, but beyond its context and business concerns, the film is squarely aimed, economical and searing, and completely brilliant — it deserved all of its ample success, no matter what that success might have done to the art and craft of movies. Its largeness is no obstacle to its art. It’s easy to forget that.
Easy, anyway, until you happen to catch one of the film’s umpteen television showings in a given year. If you’re like me, this is the film you are never able to turn off once it’s on. Even though you know it by heart. Even though you know all of its tricks and can anticipate every line and action. And even though you probably catch it halfway through, the channel’s edited and formatted it badly, and there are commercials. Too bad. There’s a reason the film’s stature was so intimidating: it’s irresistible. In part due to editor Verna Fields’ infallible tightness, somewhere in the course of these two hours (not a second of them wasted), Spielberg the impressive filmmaker becomes Spielberg the Maverick. All of it’s here: the enviable quickness and thoroughness of his character development, the seamless sweep of his suspense sequences, the patience inherent to his sense of rhythm, and more than anything else, the boldness in his execution. Jaws doesn’t flinch before its terror; those who’ve classified it as a horror film rather than a thriller have a point. It’s a horror film in the close tradition of something like The Birds, with its insurmountable unknown menace from outside. The difference is that Spielberg understands the catharsis that such a story requires, and he provides the explosion thus demanded. As devilishly fun as the gradual building of fear and tension is, as joyfully if sometimes traumatically tormented by it as audiences often were, they walked away from the theater whistling because the blood and booming and destruction that closes the film fulfilled their brightest dreams of it.
Although the director had made a name for himself with the brooding Richard Matheson-penned Duel, a telefilm brilliant enough that it eventually received theatrical release (and is thus rightly regarded as Spielberg’s first real feature), his full-on bow The Sugarland Express was a poetic tragedy that merited little audience excitement. When Spielberg took on a silly Peter Benchley bestseller and spent the better part of a year struggling with a mechanical shark for what amounted to an oceanic monster movie, it might have been easy to grow depressed about the Hollywood narrative thus exemplified. And indeed, the legend of Jaws itself is inextricable from its own troubled production, hard as it now is to remember a time when Spielberg’s sets weren’t considered the model of efficiency in movie-world. What he finally makes of this big-budget, pain-in-the-ass stunt is a testament to his gifts and a broad sign of things to come. There’s frankly never been a time when U.S. cinema’s highest-ever grossing film was such a personal director-stamped work. The proof is in the context — Spielberg’s slightly off-kilter inner world provides a far deeper, richer reading of Jaws once you’re also familiar with Duel and Sugarland and can detect its repetition of their times, its mining of the same emotional sources; and outwardly, what fun to contemplate Jaws‘ bleeding ferociousness in comparison to quaint earlier “blockbusters” like The Sting and The Towering Inferno. Spielberg gave the cinema audience a thing it didn’t know it needed, a thing it would line up for miles to see. Others would try. Hell, he would try. It would never quite be the same, this perfect marriage of the impulsive with the populist.
You’ve seen Jaws, of course, so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know if I announce to you that it’s a beautifully, expertly made film that does thriller traditions proud, and pounds forward with convicted muscle in all areas… but also, of course, knows when to pull back. Its dynamics of the quiet, the shouting, the deathly fear, the scares large and small produce an almost supernaturally pleasurable effect. Folks aren’t kidding, though, when they mention that Jaws is great not because of the shark, that lumbering machine with its dead eyes, but because of the people. The characters are engineered ideally by Benchley for Spielberg to go to town on emphasizing what’s universal here: the relationship of each of them to a terrifying situation, and how those relationships cross into conflict and distrust. The intellectual outsider, the cocky self-made man, and the newcomer doing his best to blend in all rub up against denizens that seem both archetypal and deeply felt, and just as Spielberg never pulls back from the bloodiest and most vicious of shark attacks here, he is unflinching in moments of raw emotion. Even the peaceful scenes are often warmed over with intensity — and not just because you know, you just know, something is gonna happen.
The characterization is also the gateway to the thematic explorations of Jaws, which run far deeper than in most of Spielberg’s other blockbuster experiences — even among his more serious films, only Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Schindler’s List can claim anything like its sophistication. Jaws is far from an apolitical fun night out, alluding to Watergate in its constant examination of the look-the-other-way philosophies of a governmental institution whose commercial interests lie in opposition to the well-being of the people. (And even now, its prophetic pitting of masculinity against ingenuity, of compassion against capitalism, makes it arguably a braver civic parable than Lincoln.) Mayor Vaughn, slitheringly brought to life by Murry Hamilton with that same sideways smirk from The Graduate, constantly laughs off warnings that his sleepy beach town of Amity is being taunted by a killer shark in the runup to the all-important July 4th weekend. Having grown up in a small community extremely similar to this one, I suppose nothing in Jaws thrills me more than the extent to which it gets the tourism-based economy exactly right and with chilling wit, to say nothing of its completely spot-on portrayal of the eccentrics, petty little warfares, and sea-drunk comings and goings of the populace. You can almost smell the sea air, and you’d long to go swimming if you weren’t now terrified of it.
Film scholars are bound to have a field day, surely, with Spielberg’s use of children in his film, its emphasis on the idiosyncratic relationship of a family that becomes typical by never attempting to come across as “typical” (a lesson few other filmmakers have ever figured out) — but while these offer whiffs of evidence to his future fixations, it’s the shared drift with Duel that gives Jaws its indelible stamp of an individual’s obsession. In both films, a man must defeat a seemingly unstoppable “other” and must be frustrated and nearly thwarted, again and again, until a final confrontation comes down to a human and his inhuman adversary. And in both films, the physical manifestation of the man’s fear is a stand-in for something more nebulous, for a need to assert and to acquire a maturity that has evaded him. Roy Scheider’s Brody is certainly less pensive and weak-willed than Dennis Weaver in Duel, but both men have a need to prove themselves, and to protect their own lives and families: to attain the single-mindedness that a pulling in multiple directions by nature and outsiders will block. This vague “higher truth” of sorts is less explicit but rather more romantic in Sugarland, in which the characters share a quest for a common simple humanity and acknowledgement of birthright, of peace and righteousness and family (again) over violence and destruction.
Jaws does finally tower over its predecessors. Make all of the theoretical proclamations you like, but you’re scarcely breathing if that harrowing first murder doesn’t get to your core; if you don’t scream at the underwater discovery of the corpse; if the bravado in the shark’s revelation, sealing a comic moment, doesn’t throttle you; if you’re not swept up in the magic of Quint’s narrative of the U.S.S. Indianapolis disaster; if the slap from Alex’s mom doesn’t sting; if the ocean doesn’t seem to you for days afterward to be a bloody crime scene. The expertise in the three-act structure of it all, placid investigation to infighting and death to out-and-out battle, is such that it is hardly noticed — but it’s certainly felt; it does a number on you, because it skimps on nothing in emotional, storytelling, visual, or pacing terms. You can see the evidence falling into place back in Sugarland, but this remains a quantum leap.
Part of this is because neither Duel nor Sugarland could claim three so illustrious central performances as those in Jaws, nor a supporting cast as proficient and impressive. Roy Scheider sheds much of the tag-along toughness of his French Connection character and helps to craft Chief Brody as the most empathetic kind of well-meaning everyman hero; sure, he’s a cop, but he’s a cop who came to Amity so he could lounge with his wife and kids and not have to worry about everything so much — yet now, worry follows him. The background presence of Lorraine Gray as Brody’s wife grounds the first two thirds of the film splendidly, undercutting his complacency as her easygoing faith in Amity and in her husband fades. Richard Dreyfuss was never better than as Hooper, the well-to-do scientist who hilariously and believably corrupts the stereotyped liberal enlightenment figure of so many B-pictures (even, to an extent, Francois Truffaut’s wonderful turn in Close Encounters) with his wisecracking and perverse enthusiasms. But as so many times before, Robert Shaw owns the film from the first moment he puts nails to chalkboard to promote his shark-capturing abilities; his loudmouthed vulgarities and sneering condescension to the others around him, before and after the Indianapolis scene utterly humanizes him, have alternately an endearing and a distancing effect. Shaw’s performance is remarkable, but so is Quint’s actual place in the script, which is most closely comparable to the thesis laid out by the Burt Reynolds arc in Deliverance, that of the earthy old-world machismo that is most easily destroyed — and in the end has to be. Quint believes he can conquer the world but the world conquers him, and this underlines the manner in which Brody so amiably but uncertainly splits the difference between the earthy bullshitter’s bawdy-tongued stubbornness and Hooper’s dry, boyish intellectualism. Not so far apart in age, the three nevertheless seem to come from three separate generations, separate mindsets.
Jaws might be the only truly auteurist blockbuster — even a collaborator like cameraman Bill Butler fails to enjoy a major impact on the film, and John Williams’ distinctive, childlike boom boom music is nothing without Spielberg’s visuals. He could shed any of these associates and little would change, though he’s kept Williams around through thick and thicker ever since. The note of dread and ominousness is actually lifted slightly by Williams’ somewhat comedic themes; the film might be too harrowing to watch without them. Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s screenplay is strong enough, though the film is too obviously Spielberg’s show for their fixations not to appear subservient to his. This becomes clearest at the finale; though there is no silhouetted sunset shot as in the prior two films, it’s impossible not to witness the way that the same sense of defeat rhymes Duel, Sugarland, and Jaws, that the three are unmistakably the exorcisms of the same man’s psyche. And a deeper and clearer sinking into that psyche than we would perhaps ever see again. Close Encounters is an equally huge and personal film, yet for the most part Spielberg has remained a great filmmaker but seldom such a messily passionate and exuberant one. Beautifully made as Jaws is, he’d get technically stronger and slicker and even more convincingly serious over time — but thirty-eight years on, this remains very likely his best film.