DIR: Steven Spielberg • WRI: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb , Peter Benchley • PRO: David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck • DOP: Bill Butler • ED: Verna Fields • DES: Joe Alves • Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Universal’s 100-year anniversary occasions the re-release of the original blockbuster, in which a giant shark terrorises an American seaside resort over the July 4th holiday.
A shark attack at Amity causes concern. Police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) needs them open for revelers to spend summer dollars in the town’s hotels and other businesses. A further attack, the death of a young boy and the offer of a reward for killing the shark moves us into the second act. Ichthyologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives and confirms that a great white shark is responsible. Finally, shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) takes Brody and Hooper out to kill the monster.
The film features superb and celebrated action sequences. The terrific opening, in which the shark unseen attacks a young woman, matches Psycho’s shower scene. Police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) keeps lookout over sunbathers and swimmers when a dog disappears and the shark attacks a boy on a lilo. This features the classic track/reverse shot à la Vertigo. The final act, in which Quint, Brody and Hooper tackle the great white, provides the sequences best enjoyed on a big screen.
John Williams’ classic score enhances the action. How is it so effective? The recurring theme introduces the shark, its pulsing beat perhaps matching our own heart rates as the tension mounts. It established Williams as a leading film composer, started his relationship with Spielberg, and won him his second Oscar.
Jaws also earned Oscars for editing and sound. Spielberg’s approach to dialogue is Altman-esque. Overlapping dialogue makes it difficult to hear, but this naturalism makes the shark attacks more shocking. Difficulties with models made it necessary for a subtler approach to creating tension and establishing the shark’s presence. Despite his inexperience, Spielberg demonstrates masterly understanding of cinematic techniques.
Jaws omits the mawkishness that mars some of Spielberg’s work. Brody’s son imitates his father at the kitchen table while Brody decides whether to close the beaches in a scene that hints at the sentimentality that characterises his later work. The play on fear also distinguishes Jaws among Spielberg’s works; it’s the closest he comes to horror.
Few films share the movie’s cultural impact. Opening in over 450 screens in North America, Universal supported it with an intensive marketing campaign and established the model for today’s summer blockbuster. Even its promotional artwork pervades contemporary culture. The Irish Socialist Party modeled one of its posters on Jaws during the recent referendum campaign, and in August 2011 The Economist’s cover page used it in discussing fears of a double-dip recession in the USA.
These fears make Jaws relevant today. Commentators read the film as a conservative engagement with America’s involvement in Vietnam or as a patriarchal myth, but the scenes of officials confronted with expert evidence deciding in favour of business interests will strike a chord with today’s audiences. It’s a pity our problems can’t be solved by going out in a boat and killing a great white shark.
Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Jaws is released 15th June 2012