Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Shaw and Lorraine Gary
In a nutshell: The quiet New England tourist town of Amity Island is terrorized by a great white shark. The local police chief, an ichthyologist and a grizzled ship captain must join forces to stop the shark’s reign of terror.
Steven Spielberg’s landmark film JAWS recently celebrated its 42nd anniversary, but as cliche as it may sound, it still feels as fresh and innovative and nail-bitingly tense as its opening weekend.
Shockingly, Spielberg had directed only one other theatrical film before JAWS, along with some TV movies and television shows, but he handled the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel like a seasoned pro, harkening shades of Hitchcock at his finest.
The stroke of genius in this movie is the filmmaker’s realization that nothing in life is as frightening as what our imaginations can conjure. As crazy exciting as the final quarter of this movie is when we witness the battle of man vs. monster, the real tension is built during the first half.
It would have been very easy to show Bruce the Shark (as he was commonly referred to on the movie’s set) in full force right at the beginning of the movie. I mean, come on, that’s what everyone paid to see. Let’s give ’em what they want.
Spielberg is and was a much better filmmaker than that even at his relatively young age. True terror is in the unknown. The opening shark attack is all about the victim as we witness her dragged under the water, screaming for help to no avail. We gradually catch glimpses of the creature – a fin here, an eye there.
Spielberg treats us to the biggest tease show in movie history. The miracle is that even though the eventual reveal of the shark in its full glory can’t equal what we imagined, it comes pretty darn close.
The Oscar-winning musical score by John Williams has obviously become one of the most recognized and ultimately mimicked scores in cinema history. While often known for massive orchestrations, Williams’ simple back and forth on two notes has rightfully become legendary. Anyone who has ever doubted the impact a musical score has on a film need not look any further than JAWS.
Incidentally, in addition to its Oscar for the music, JAWS also won Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It also scored a major coup by receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, an astounding achievement for this type of movie.
TRIVIA: What movie beat JAWS for Best Picture of 1975?
Another aspect of JAWS I deeply appreciate is Spielberg gift of a main protagonist, police chief Martin Brody, played wonderfully by Roy Scheider, for whom we develop a real connection and concern. He takes the time to introduce us to Brody’s wife and young sons, to let us watch him interact with his staff at work and the citizens of the small community. We come to appreciate Brody as a good man who deeply cares for the people he protects. His antagonism with the mayor, who doesn’t want to close the beach during prime tourist time because of a pesky ole shark, is proof of his decency.
So often in films like this, we know next to nothing about the characters and therefore have no emotional connection to their struggle. I can’t help but think of all those awful slasher films like FRIDAY THE 13TH that are peppered with two-dimensional cardboard cut-out characters with whom we have no fighting interest in their survival. Many times they are so annoying, we end up rooting for the villain.
JAWS, while basically a thrilling “popcorn” movie at its core, takes itself more seriously than that, and we are all the better for it.
Speaking of slasher films, JAWS is mercifully rather sparse with the blood and gore that seem to overtake many of these kinds of movies. I’ve always said that there is absolutely nothing scary about loads of blood and gore. That’s repellance not scariness.
If you haven’t seen JAWS in awhile, give it another look. This movie holds up well. And if you have teen-agers at home who want nothing more than to watch the next SAW or NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, sit down with them for a couple hours and let them see a true masterpiece of suspense!
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