Jaws is the rare perfect movie. Scared of the water? I am, and I won't be going anywhere near the water after watching this one.
Amity Island is a quiet, little resort town off the coast of New England, a town readying itself for huge crowds of tourists and vacationers on the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. The new police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), has a problem though as the bloody remains of a teenage girl wash up on shore. The culprit seems obvious; a shark, but no one else is willing to back the Chief up. He gets help -- and a confirmation on the shark -- from marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who recommends the beaches be closed with the immense, hunting shark in the waters. More attacks come fast and furious though, leaving Amity no choice but to pay for an experienced, grizzled shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill the great white shark once and for all. But as the trio heads to open waters, even they can't imagine what awaits in their hunt.
From a director who would go on to create a halfway decent name for himself, Steven Spielberg, 'Jaws' seemed doomed almost from the start. Based off a novel by Peter Benchley (the rare film better than the book here), the production went overbudget, over schedule and over everything as issues with a mechanical shark delayed shooting. A $4 million budget turned into $9 million. The end result? A classic film that audiences loved, the final product making $470,000,000 million in box office. It spawned three sequels -- none of them even remotely as good -- and changed the way films were made and the type of films Hollywood looked to make, market, and release for audiences. Not a bad formula for success, huh? Not at all.
On a very basic level, 'Jaws' is a horror movie. What is scarier than a creature that seemingly can't be stopped? The dark, gloomy, shadowy water can hide anything, and in this case it is an immensely terrifying 25-foot great white shark. As Hooper explains, all this oceanic creature does is swim and eat, eat and swim, nothing else. Maybe the best thing that could happen to Spielberg's famous film is the mechanical issues he had in shooting the shark. Because there were such issues, Spielberg tried to minimize the shark's actual on-screen time. We don't even get a really clear look/view of the shark until 80 minutes into a 124-minute movie (and it's a doozy of an appearance, watch the iconic scene HERE). It's all about the dread and impending doom. We know the attacks are coming, but that doesn't take away from that sense of doom hanging over every scene. It becomes almost unbearable at times, but more on that later.
I'll get to the actors and more focus on the story, but an additional star here is composer John Williams and his score, maybe the most instantly recognizable score EVER. Who doesn't know the dun-dun-dun-dun-DUNNA-DUNNA! theme that's paired with all of the shark's attacks? What separates a really good score from a great score is that ability to bring you into a movie. Williams' score succeeds on that level in epic fashion. You hear that theme, and for me, I get goosebumps right up my back (and I've seen this movie a ton of times!). It is moving and epic, unsettling and adventurous, a score that runs the gamut over the course of the entire flick.
From the opening scene -- skinny-dipping teenager eaten in pre-dawn darkness -- through the attacks and up to the finale, there's not really a weak point. Are there some parts that are better than others? Yes, most definitely. As good as the first hour is, the second hour is by far the best thing going here as Brody, Hooper and Quint board Quint's beat-up, shark-hunting ship, the Orca, and head out on the hunt. The next hour produces some of the most exciting chases and action scenes ever; just three men on a small boat doing battle with a shark of epic proportions. On a more personal level, the chemistry among Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw is phenomenal. It is perfect and simple and natural, three very different individuals forced to work together to accomplish a pretty suicidal mission. The movie is at home most on the high seas, Spielberg filming the entire shark hunt on the ocean. It sounds simple to do so, but it doesn't feel like a studio. It looks and feels like....the OCEAN!
When you think 'blockbuster,' you don't normally go to hugely impressive acting. Working with a scene-stealing shark, the cast here is spot-on and without the benefit of huge A-list stars, just hugely talented, reliable actors. I love Scheider as Brody, land-loving, water-hating Chief who wants to do right by the people nothing else. Dreyfuss as the highly intelligent Hooper is a perfect mix between inexperienced Brody and highly experienced Quint. Shaw of course is the biggest scene-stealer of them all, his grizzled veteran of the sea who's seen it all and done it all. Shaw's monologue explaining his involvement with the USS Indianapolis is a scene to behold as well (watch it HERE). Talk about a captivating, eye-popping scene, it's unreal and unsettling to watch. Kudos Mr. Shaw. Also look for Murray Hamilton as Amity Island's greedy mayor and Lorraine Gray as Ellen, Brody's wife.
It's easy to look past it when we're talking about the shark, the characters, the music and such that Spielberg at a young age is already showing a knack for the director's chair. If it gets lost in the shuffle, it's a shame, but this is an interesting visual movie to watch as Spielberg keeps us on our toes with his camera. Calm, cool long shots with little editing. Close-ups of Quint's eye, of the equipment clicking as the shark goes for the bait, the little things. The moral of the review is simple, I love this movie. It's got it all and features several of the greatest one-liners ever (my personal favorite being the subtle, perfectly delivered 'We're going to need a bigger boat.') It is a classic that deserves any and all of the accolades its received over the years. Look for reviews in the coming weeks of the sequels too.
Jaws (1975): ****/****