JAWS (1975) – Four decades later, it still has bite

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Three moronic sequels have not dimmed the power of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In fact, the sequels have only made the extraordinary qualities of the original more pointed. The shark was never the point; the characters were.

The movie’s plot sounds quite similar to the many rip-offs which followed. A beach is terrorized by a shark; the police chief (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beach down; but the tourist-conscious mayor (Murray Hamilton) won’t have it; tourists become so much appetizer while the mayor wallows in guilt; and finally, someone kills the sucker.

But again, it’s the way in which the shark is built up as a movie villain that had contemporary critics comparing Spielberg to Alfred Hitchcock. We never see the shark in full until movie’s end. More often, we get simply the shark’s actions. And they’re scary enough, as when the shark tears off the end of a pier where some bounty hunters were waiting to catch him.

Conflicting legends have grown up around the movie. One story has it that Spielberg, on the verge of establishing himself as a movie maverick, agreed to direct the movie only on the condition that the shark not been seen until the movie’s second half. The other story is that Spielberg intended to show the shark all along but had continual mechanical problems; as a result, the actors had plenty of time to improvise and get “into” their characters. Whatever the reason, the movie builds up as a model of suspense.

downloadAnd as a result, we get to know what makes the three primary shark-hunters tick. There’s Police Chief Brody, whose first view of the shark inspires the classic understatement, “I think you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” There’s macho Captain Quint (Robert Shaw), whose hardening was partially the result of his being on-board a ship that sunk into shark-infested waters (which he describes in the movie’s famous monologue). And there’s oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), who quickly throws in the towel on Quint’s machismo contest by parodying it (when Quint crushes a steel can with his bare hand, Hooper crushes a styrofoam cup).

Ever since Spielberg hit it big 40 years (!) ago, Hollywood has gone mad with special-effects follies. But as moviegoers (and Spielberg) have always known, special effects are a success only if you care about the characters first. Jaws still serves a textbook example of special effects giving payoffs to well-developed characters.

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Spielberg!

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Spielberg!

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