Greetings again from the darkness. Ba-dum. Two of the more recognizable notes from any movie musical score are courtesy of 5-time Academy Award winner (48 nominations!), composer John Williams. A truly great score plays a vital role in the emotional connection that a viewer makes with a movie. In some movies, we barely notice the music. Not so with the Jaws theme. In 1975, it signaled an immediate jump in our blood pressure and has since glided right into becoming part of our societal lexicon – musical slang for “danger is on the way”.
You are probably wondering why I am writing about a 38-year old movie … especially one that revolves around shark attacks. Haven’t we had more than our share of monster and disaster flicks? Well, my friends, it’s time for you to re-discover the wonderment, joy, anxiety, humor and humanity of Jaws. It’s part of the Cinemark Summer series and that’s a great opportunity to catch it on the big screen where it belongs.
When Jaws was first released in 1975, I saw it three times over three consecutive days. I couldn’t get enough! It was, after all, the first “summer blockbuster”. At the time, I was the ultimate beach lover, and along came a movie that was so frightening, it convinced people to stay out of the water! Over the years, I have watched it quite a few times on cable/tape/DVD, but not until last evening was I able to re-live that theatrical experience from the summer that changed movies forever. Last night the theatre was full, and nearly a third of those in attendance claimed to have never before seen the movie. So my hope is that you will make time for this classic film … whether it’s your first time, or your twentieth. Introduce it to your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews (if they are ready). Talk about what makes it great, and about all the movies it has since influenced.
Rather than “review” the movie, I will point out some interesting details on how it was made, its legacy and even some of my favorite moments from the movie.
Director Steven Spielberg was 28 years old when the movie was released. He had already made some noise as a filmmaker with Duel and Sugarland Express, but it was the success of Jaws that labeled him wunderkind. The now-legendary Spielberg went on to direct such classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, three Indiana Jones movies, The Color Purple, the first two Jurassic Park‘s, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and most recently Lincoln. He is also listed as Producer on more than 120 other projects. He is the ultimate ‘mover and shaker’ in Hollywood. But Jaws was his last movie where the burden of expectations and box office results were minimal. Jaws went on to gross almost a half billion dollars worldwide … an unheard of level at the time (movie tickets cost about $2.oo each in 1975).
The story is based on the first novel by Peter Benchley, who would later write “The Deep” and “The Island“. Mr. Benchley also appears briefly in the film version of Jaws as a reporter on the Amity beach. The novel was a best seller, but much darker in tone than the Spielberg film. Spielberg turned the book’s key characters into less abrasive personalities, while maintaining the colorful attitudes.
Speaking of characters, many people tend to focus on Roy Scheider‘s Martin Brody, Chief of Police on Amity Island. He really does a nice job as the no-nonsense non-islander attempting to fit in without poking too much fun at the “problems” of the locals. Others are drawn to the performance of Richard Dreyfuss as Oceanographer Matt Hooper. Dreyfuss is far and away the most energetic of the actors, and his cocky, know-it-all, rich boy makes for a terrific contrast with the other more subdued characters.
The guy to really watch in this movie is the great Robert Shaw as Quint, the crusty local fisherman who vows to kill the shark for a huge fee. Spielberg originally wanted Lee Marvin for the role, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Shaw as the tough-as-nails Quint. His sililoquy regarding his USS Indianapolis ordeal is mesmerizing and fascinating … and that scene alone should have won him the Best Supporting Actor. Yet somehow, he wasn’t even nominated in the year that had, yes, George Burns winning for The Sunshine Boys. Shaw’s character comes across as true salt of the sea, and watching him co-exist on a small boat with Scheider and Dreyfuss for the entire second half is movie-watching glory. As they compare scars and enjoy an adult beverage, we are afforded a brief laugh outloud moment. And don’t miss Scheider giving momentary consideration to flaunting his appendix scar.
Much has been written over the years about the animatronic shark. It was nicknamed Bruce, after Spielberg’s attorney. Bruce gave the filmmakers a great deal of trouble and, because of that, the film works even better. We don’t glimpse the shark until well into the movie, giving tension and anticipation much time to build. Until the last few minutes, we really don’t get a full-on view of the shark, but it SEEMS like we do!
The Mayor of Amity is played by Murray Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton is well remembered as Mr. Robinson … husband to THAT Mrs. Robinson … in The Graduate (1967). In that movie, he refused to shake Dustin Hoffman‘s hand. Here, he refuses to close the beaches, for fear of losing tourist revenue. He only has a hand full of scenes in Jaws, but each is quite memorable. Watching him speechify to the cameras, politicize to the citizens, and nearly break down while smoking in the hospital, adds depth and intensity to the film.
The trivia associated with Jaws is abundant. What’s really important is that this is an incredibly well made movie that holds up extremely well today. When you watch it, notice how you immediately understand the feelings of the locals at the town hall meeting, the desperation of the deputy, the shame of the Medical Examiner, the bravado of the fishermen and the confusion of Brody’s wife. Notice the camerawork as it varies between the viewpoint of the shark, the viewpoint of a character, or interested onlooker to the beach happenings. Check out the masterful film editing with three characters battling for space aboard the Orca. Great stuff.
Jaws was nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It did win for Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Music (score). Its lasting impact includes the genius of Spielberg, turning Summer into Movie time, and that iconic score. Ba-dum. Stay out of the water!