‘Jaws’ Remains a Thrilling Experience Decades After its Release

Jaws movie poster

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is one of those movies I thought I watched a few years after it came out, but in retrospect I had only seen bits and pieces before finally watching it all the way through. It came out in 1975 a couple of months before I was born, and I can still vividly remember people talking about it while in a carpool to school. One of my kindergarten buddies kept telling me about all the blood the great white shark ends up spilling, and what he said made me NOT want to see “Jaws” for the longest time.

I do remember seeing certain scenes from “Jaws” for the very first time, and those moments remain forever burned in my conscious mind. When ABC presented its network television premiere of the movie, I remember those giant red letters coming out at me from the TV screen, and it was enough to have my hair standing on end. It was also the first time I saw little Alex Kintner getting dragged down to his bloody death, a very frightening image to be featured in any movie, let alone one with a PG rating.

Years later, I was watching an episode of “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert where they were talking about Spielberg’s movies in general. This was when I first saw the scene where Roy Scheider is throwing chum into the water, and the great white shark ends up rising out of the water which leads Scheider to tell Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” This appearance of the shark scared me to death back then, and I felt exactly like Scheider’s character did as he slowly backed away from the boat’s rear.

A few years later, “Jaws” was again showing on television, and it was one of the few motion pictures shown unedited on television. Most movies, when they make their network television debut, are edited for content, but “Jaws” is so highly regarded to where it had to be shown with all the good parts intact. It was then I got my introduction to when Richard Dreyfuss was exploring Ben Gardner’s boat and Gardner’s head pops out of the hull. This proved to be another sequence which almost stopped my heart.

By the time I reached junior high school, I was already fully aware “Jaws” ended with the shark getting blown up. In fact, I had seen all the sequels by then and watched those other great white sharks bite the dust in their individual ways. Heck, I remember my brother renting “Jaws 3” on videotape, and we watched the shark getting blown up by a grenade and parts of his teeth getting thrust out at us with those 3D effects which never translated to the small screen.

While watching the last half of “Jaws” at a friend’s house all those years ago, I was truly astonished at how thrilling the movie was. I figured knowing the movie’s ending would rob it of any suspense or tension Spielberg managed to generate for audiences back in 1975, but man was I wrong. Seeing Dreyfuss trapped in the shark cage while the great white makes an effort to “reach out and touch someone” by attempting to smash through those metal bars had me begging for someone to kill it. Watching Scheider trying to keep his head above water as the boat sank had me wondering how the hell he was going to make it back to shore in one piece as his character hates the water.

I eventually rented “Jaws” on VHS in the days before Blockbuster Video became a dominant force in the video rental market. Seeing the movie in its entirety was a great experience, and it’s still one which I cannot ever get sick of watching. Even though I knew certain moments were coming, the anticipation of them still had me on the edge of my seat.

Having watched “Jaws” so many times before its Blu-ray release, the thing which keeps bringing me back to it is the human element. What Spielberg does best here is give us characters who are human and not mere clichés. Whether you’ve ever lived on an island like Amity or not, we know its inhabitants up close and why they depend on the summer months for their very lives.

Now while Spielberg did have problems with the mechanical shark which he named after his lawyer, he did have tremendous luck with his cast. What I love about Scheider, who plays Police Chief Martin Brody, is he doesn’t act the part as much as he becomes it. Those who read my reviews know I love talking about actors who inhabit their roles more than act, and Scheider proved to be one of those actors who did this very effectively. Brody is not out to be the hero, and he is like any other husband and father who just wants to keep his family safe. Scheider also makes you admire this ordinary police chief as he faces his fear of water so he can to put an end to the shark’s reign of terror.

Dreyfuss proves to be endlessly entertaining as Matt Hooper, a man whose love of the ocean and the animals inhabiting it keeps him from ever becoming a cynical bastard. Even after all these years, Dreyfuss is so much fun to watch as he shares his shark expertise with Scheider’s character and endures constant battles with Robert Shaw’s Quint who thinks this oceanographer is a little too domesticated to be sailing the ocean with him.

Speaking of Shaw, he has always struck me as one of those actors who proved to be as tough as the characters he played. This must be why he inhabits Quint so effectively, and his performance is one of the most unforgettable I have ever witnessed. Quint proves to be very hard to get along with, but then he goes into his long speech regarding his experiences on board the USS Indianapolis and of what happened after it sank. This monologue still gives us all chills every single time.

It’s the strong human element which makes “Jaws” work so phenomenally well as we come to care deeply about these characters and their hairy predicament. This could have been one of those pictures which lived or died on the quality of its special effects, and here they really could have been a detriment here more than anything else. The stories behind the making of this movie have long since become legendary as the filmmakers dealt with endless obstacles in making anything about the shark work.

But I also love how what worked against “Jaws” actually helped it in the long run. Dreyfuss loves to joke about how he kept hearing crew members saying “the shark is not working” on their walkie talkies, but it turned out the less we saw of the shark the better (something the sequels would quickly forget). “Jaws’” overall effectiveness came from the terror of what we didn’t see as opposed to what we did see. Many may prefer to see the monster, but the lack of its appearance forces our imaginations to go into overdrive, and this makes the monster so infinitely frightening.

“Jaws” is also aided tremendously by John Williams’ unforgettable music which still freaks us out whenever we hear those “dum-dum-dum-dum” sounds. So much attention is placed on this part of his score, however, to where other parts of it don’t get the praise they deserve. The music where Brody’s son mimics his dad’s every move at the dinner table is beautiful, and the same goes for the end theme which is mournful of what’s been lost and yet thankful this ordeal has finally come to an end.

This was the first movie to make $100 million at the box office, and that forever changed the way movies were made and distributed. As a result, many blame Spielberg for putting an end to the thoughtful, character-driven movies of the 1970’s, but that’s not fair. “Jaws’” success got Wall Street interested in the money which could be made from movies, and this proved to be the death knell to 70’s filmmaking. If Wall Street had looked more closely at the success of “Jaws,” they’d see how it focused as much on its characters as it did on the shark.

“Jaws” inspired a lot of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith and Eli Roth, and it is bound to inspire many more in the future. Many have even gone on to name their companies after famous lines of dialogue like A Bigger Boat and Bad Hat Harry. It says a lot how “Jaws” is as powerful today as when it first came out in 1975, and I hope movie studios remember this if they ever foolishly decide to remake it, and heaven forbid this ever happens.

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