July 20, 2012


In Jaws (1975), a Northeastern beachfront town called Amity Island is threatened by a massive, aggressive Great White Shark. Despite three horrendous attacks on swimmers, the mayor and the small business owners put up a fight when the police chief (Roy Scheider) decides to close down the beaches. It's good old capitalism at work. Some critics have lamented that Jaws is some kind of left-wing attack on the free market, but are they in favor of sending droves of swimmers into the beaches to be eaten alive? The police chief has his hands full between the pressure from the public to catch the shark and the pressure from the local government to keep the beaches open (and thus, to keep the town's economy thriving.) He enlists the help of an egghead oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss) and a crusty old sailor (Robert Shaw) to catch the mammoth shark.

Jaws is a casebook example of the old monster-movie rule: show as little of the monster as possible for as long as possible. That way, the audience members have built up a picture of the beast in their minds that's far more terrifying than the actual thing, the eventual revelation of which then amplifies the terror. Apparently, director Steven Spielberg and his crew began referring to their movie as "Flaws" during the shoot, because they believed it wasn't going to work. The public thought differently, and Jaws was an enormous hit. The film's financial success--unexpected as it was--had far-reaching consequences, creating the "summer blockbuster movie." Between Jaws and Star Wars, a lot of damage was done to filmmakers who wanted to get funding for smaller movies. If studios could get a crowd-pleasing product like Jaws out, and make a bundle on it (not to mention all the money made via the connected merchandise), then taking risks on so-called "little" movies became even more dangerous and unappealing. Jaws is an efficient, expert thriller, bolstered by a leavening sense of humor and three strong leads, but it's hard not to feel somewhat frustrated by the consequences of its success.

The fun thing about Jaws is in watching how the filmmakers tried to get around actually showing us their beast. The editor, Verna Fields (who won an Oscar for her work), keeps the scare sequences moving, never letting us rest too long on one given image. But she also spends enough time with each shot to let us take in what's happening. That balance gives Jaws a certain charm when compared to today's thrillers, which cut so fast we're often completely in the dark about what's going on. Nothing turns the audience off like being kept out of the loop, and yet it seems to have become a popular movie-making trend, perhaps a cheap way to conceal mistakes from observant movie-goers. With Jaws, we're completely invested, and that ramps up the suspense even more.

I think the biggest problem I have with Jaws is how much it's been built up over the years as a classic. It's better when you don't have such grandiose expectations for it. Then you can sit back and let it entertain you. There are slow spots: the last thirty minutes get to be quite repetitive and you wish they'd just hurry up and kill the damn thing. But the big crowd scenes are well-thought-out for the most part, and there's enough energy and excitement in them to sustain you through the periodic lulls in the movie. And Scheider has great chemistry with Dreyfuss, and with Lorraine Gary, who plays his wife.

With Murray Hamilton as the mayor of Amity Island and Jeffrey Kramer as Scheider's deputy. Adapted by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley from Benchley's novel. John Williams composed the now famous music score.

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