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Jaws

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Jaws

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG
RunTime: 123 Minutes
Release Date: June 1975
Genres: Classic, Suspense, Action, Horror


*Also starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, Carl Gottlieb



Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

George Lucas is often blamed for the great decline in the quality of American movies, because the success of his STAR WARS in 1977 introduced the concept of blockbusters to Hollywood producers, and redirected most of the studios' capital towards utterly expensive, sometimes lucrative but usually artistically insufficient movie products. Lucas might be one of the people responsible for that, but the very first summer blockbuster was shot and distributed two years before his - JAWS by Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful and most influential films of all times.

At the time of the production, Spielberg was still young and relatively unknown director, far from being critics' darling and successful crowd-pleaser. The producers, David Brown and Richard B. Zanuck, were actually quite sceptical towards him when they hired him to direct movie adaptation of Peter Bentley's best-seller novel about man-eating shark that terrorises small town on New England coast. Their suspicions proved almost correct, because the production of JAWS was plagued by rising budget, huge technical difficulties associated with the shooting at sea, problems with casting and, finally, rows between screenwriter and director. In many ways, production of JAWS resembled the production of ill-fated WATERWORLD twenty years later. Many people actually questioned producers' sanity, because the film needed almost impossibly high earnings in order to cover its expenses. But, unlike WATERWORLD, miracle happened. JAWS was not just the first film to break 100 million US$ mark in box-office totals; it turned out to be one of top grossing films of all times, where it remained for many years, together with many other films created by Lucas and Spielberg. Its popularity among the audience, surprisingly in tune with the perception of critics, could be witnessed by endless references and homage, from disco-tunes of John Williams' musical score in 1970s, till plenty of horror films still being inspired by it today, like Harlin's DEEP BLUE SEA.

The plot takes place in the small island town of Amity, off the coast of New England. Its beaches are very popular among tourists, including group of young, carefree students that spends a pleasant evening there. One of them is Karen Watkins (played by Susan Blacklinie), who flirts with a boy and goes skinny-dipping, only to never come out of water again. Investigation is led by Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider), former New York cop who took the job of police chief in small community only to evade violence of large urban centres. When he finds the dismembered remains of a girl on the beach, he is almost certain that the large shark was perpetrator. He wants to close the beaches, but the city administration, led by Mayor Larry Vaughn (played by Murray Hamilton) is against it, fearing for the precious tourism dollars. Brody reluctantly agrees to file the incident as a boating accident, but later regrets his decision after few more fatal incidents. City fathers are still stubborn, even after marine biologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) warns them that they have man-eating and very territorial Great White shark in their waters. Brody is willing to take his advice and company, and decides to hire services of Quint (played by Robert Shaw), eccentric fisherman and local shark expert, who would lead their little shark-hunting expedition.

JAWS is often called one of the best horror films of all times. It is quite understandable, since very few movies manage to cause so intense feeling of anxiety and fear among the audience. The fear felt by the viewers is a reflection of subconscious fear of the Unknown. And the deep, blue and dark depths of the ocean are perfect embodiment of the Unknown. People watching this film are more than aware that some unspeakable horrors lurk in those deeps and that any man entering the water runs the risk of being nothing more than a helpless victim. What makes this film even more effective than other horror films was the fact that it dealt with nothing supernatural or exotic; the audience knows that creatures like Great White sharks exist in the oceans and that some unfortunate people occasionally do indeed suffer the gruesome fate of the fictional victims in this movie. And, in this film, unlike many horrors and, same as in the real life, nobody is immune - children, pets and even the protagonists can be killed. The element of realism, very rare in horror genre, made this film very effective indeed, and it is quite understandable why many people, author of this review included, feel rather uneasy when they enter ocean water for a swim (although the streets and roads are more life-threatening places, according to statistics). It is somewhat ironic that JAWS as a very un-cliched horror still uses the very popular horror cliche of "sex equals death" in its opening.

The realism of the menace is just one part of the explanation for the success of JAWS. The other part of the answer lies in a way that Spielberg used to portray that menace. Faced with huge technical difficulties and accidents involving underwater equipment, together with a relatively crude and still undeveloped special effects, Spielberg was using many simple, but ingenious and very effective ways to portray the fictional sea monster. He used unusual shooting angles, but the best and most effective method was in not portraying the monster at all. We actually don't see the shark until late in the movie; before that we saw it only through its own POV or actions that very convincingly give away its huge size and incredible physical strength (one of the most memorable and effective scenes is an entire pier being pulled towards the ocean). When we finally see the monster, the result is fantastic, since the otherwise down-to-earth fish (relatively speaking, of course) had already been connected with the scariest results of our imagination.

The most important factor that contributed to the realism of the film are, naturally, the characters. And this film introduces them gradually, in orderly but very effective action. First the deadly but magnificent menace of the dark ocean deeps is contrasted with the quiet, every- day life of semi-rural would-be utopia. Roy Scheider, one of the best Hollywood actors of the 1970s (and, unfortunately, almost forgotten now), plays the role of his life. His Brody is a dedicated family man, whose need to protect his wife and children led him to small town where the biggest crime happened to be children vandalising picket fences. Every action or choice he makes in this film, even the wrong one, like leaving the beaches open, was motivated with the need to protect his job and family bliss provided by it. Then we are introduced to Richard Dreyfuss as rich and arrogant, but in the same time very valuable scientific expert. Dreyfuss played this role very well, in many ways trying to become Spielberg's alter ego and he is often most remembered for this particular role. It is ironic that the actor himself forgot about it, according to the anecdote that later led to the movie trivia reference in 1987 film STAKEOUT. But the most memorable performance comes from Robert Shaw. His Quint, rude working class eccentric whose rugged, easy-going personality hides tragic secret from the past, is one of the most vivid characters in the history of cinema. The late actor's contribution to this film is even more important when we take into account that the credit for most memorable words in the film - legendary USS Indianapolis story (itself being based on real life history, another element of realism in this film) - must go exclusively to him. All three actors had wonderful interaction, both in the scenes of male bonding and exciting but very realistic and believable action scenes.

Those three giants of course, shadowed other actors. Lorraine Gary was good as Brody's wife, but the script didn't give her much material. Murray Hamilton was wonderful as mayor; at first he is a creep whose actions and mishandling of the crisis was motivated only by greed; at the end he reveals himself as normal, caring human being. Lee Fierro as Mrs. Kintner also delivered few powerful scenes in short space. The acting talent was accompanied by the talents of almost anyone else in this film, especially Verna Fields with its perfect editing and John Williams with his effective, "Oscar"-awarded and now all-too-familiar musical score. Talents of those two combined provided some of the scariest and most memorable scenes in the history of film.

Unfortunately, even the greatest of all films age through the time and JAWS, the first film of modern Hollywood era, didn't escape that fate. Compared with plenty of similar, more recent films with bigger budgets and modern special effects technology, it seems somewhat obsolete. It is especially so in some of the night scenes, with sometimes annoying use of "day for night" techniques that provide too dark picture. On the other hand, such minor flaws were not the authors' fault and insistence on them would look like unnecessary nit- picking. All technical insufficiencies of JAWS are still being, same as they always were, compensated with excellent story, atmosphere and characters that work now as effectively as they worked quarter of a century ago. JAWS is one of those rare films that really deserved its commercial success and its place among the best films of all times.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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