Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws is commonly regarded as the first summer blockbuster and as a result, the movie that lead to the death of the creative boom of “New Hollywood” in the late 60s and early 70s. Its influence on not just the movies that followed in its wake, but also the marketing, business and making of movies is incalculable. However, even among film fans who bemoan the changes that the massive success of Jaws brought on, it’s hard to find anyone who dislikes the movie itself. Unlike many sudden cinema phenomena, Jaws has had remarkable staying power, enchanting and scaring the wits out of audiences via cable TV and home video ever since owning the box-office in the summer of ’75.
What’s more is that instead of simply being a nostalgia trip that doesn’t really live up to the adoring affection of its hard core fans (I’m looking at you, Star Wars geeks), Jaws holds its own as a great movie. I know personally, the summer doesn’t feel complete without at least one evening spent watching Brody, Quint and Hooper aboard the Orca. All of this leads to the excitement surrounding the recent Blu-ray debut of Jaws earlier this month. The good news is that the movie hasn’t looked or sounded this good since the summer of ’75. (See the excellent review and screen capture comparisons here at the invaluable website, DVD Beaver.)
I recently read Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name for the first time, and I was eager to watch the movie again, comparing and contrasting what was kept, what was changed and what was completely eliminated for the screenplay, written largely by Carl Gottlieb (who also appears in the film as Meadows, the editor of the Amity town newspaper), with help from Benchley and uncredited work by playwright Howard Sackler, John Milius and Jaws co-star Robert Shaw. The novel Jaws was better than I’d expected it to be, but the screenplay and movie are a vast improvement.
It’s easy to jump on the obvious reasons the movie worked in ’75 and still works now – terrific performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Murray Hamilton and especially Robert Shaw, John Williams’ memorable score, Spielberg’s taut direction. Other reasons the film became a classic are less obvious, but no less important. The technological limits of the mid 70s meant that we didn’t see much of the shark. There was no CGI, and the mechanical shark was rarely functioning properly during the shoot.
The happy result is that the moments when we do actually see the shark make a huge impact and still make people jump in their seats. Spielberg has said that if he’d made the movie 30 years later, he would have used new technology, we would have seen a lot more of the shark and the resulting movie, by his own admission wouldn’t have been nearly as good. The audience relies on Williams’ score, POV shots of swimmers and clever visual cues like the floating barrels to let us know that the shark has returned to wreak havoc.
Another element that keeps the movie from being a staid, formulaic monster movie is Spielberg’s insistence on shooting on Martha’s Vineyard and on the Atlantic Ocean instead of in Hollywood. The Jaws shoot took over the island for months and incorporated many locals into the cast, not only as extras, but in key speaking parts as well. The organic small-town America feel of Amity Island would have been lost on the Universal lot. The film plays upon primal human fears; not simply that there are beasts in the wild who can kill and maim us when we least expect it, but also more mundane fears about losing our businesses, losing our standing in a community or within our family. It’s also simply a hell of a lot of fun.
If you haven’t seen it in years, or if you’re like me and can quote random lines from the movie at will, or if for some strange quirk of fate you’ve never seen Jaws, the new Blu-ray edition comes highly recommended.