JAWS – Spielberg’s First Masterpiece

I found this interesting take on JAWS over at TrashCinemaClub.com. More praise for our favorite film — aside from the badmouthing of Quint, that is …

TRASH CINEMA ESSENTIAL MOVIE

Only his second feature film, Jaws cemented Steven Spielberg’s status as a great director in my mind. Jaws was also the first modern blockbuster, which helped to usher in the dreadful three-month wasteland of mindless action pictures and comedies known as the summer season, but I won’t hold that against it.

Jaws is thought of as a simple popcorn flick, but it’s much more than that. It has elements of horror, action/adventure, character-based drama, and political commentary. Jaws is a very rich film with a very simple premise.

A Great White shark has a midnight snack off the shores of Amity Island right before the summer tourist season. Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) concludes that a shark is loose and wants to close the beaches. He gets some opposition from Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who’s primary concern is the local tourist economy. Eventually, the town hires local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt down the shark. Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) tag along.

Spielberg demonstrates his filmmaking mastery right off the bat with a late night party on the beach. He captures the spirit of the teen gathering in a way that doesn’t talk down to young people. This is important because we need to see the first victim as a flesh and blood human being, not merely a shark snack. The way the attack is filmed is bloodcurdling. Spielberg taps into the atavistic fear of what is unseen under the water by filming at water level. The performance of the young actress Susan Backlinie as the victim is fantastic and heartbreaking.

Back then, Spielberg’s mastery extended to character scenes as well. He economically sketches Chief Brody’s relationship with his wife and sons. Roy Scheider’s Brody comes off as a fully formed character. He’s sensitive, brave, self-doubting, righteous, and with a touch of wry humor. He’s a great hero, much more compelling than the usual monosyllabic slab of bulletproof machismo we’re accustomed to.

Oceanographer Matt Hooper shows up when he hears about the shark attacks, purely out of professional curiosity. Richard Dreyfuss makes him into a wonderful character. Hooper is brainy, combative, and has a sense of humor.

In fact, there is a lot of humor in Jaws. There are hilarious false alarms, mini-parodies of macho chest-beating, and swipes at the dopiness of human greed. Spielberg uses this humor not only to entertain us but to lull us into a false complacency before scaring the crap out of us yet again. He plays the audience like a Stradivarius.

The only character that’s problematic to a certain degree is Quint, the Great White shark hunter. Robert Shaw famously thought that the script for Jaws was a piece of #&*^ and it shows. Shaw condescends to the character and so Quint comes off as being corny. His portrayal doesn’t ruin Jaws, but it’s too bad Spielberg couldn’t get Lee Marvin, who was his first choice for Quint and probably would have played the role straight.

Murray Hamilton is wonderful as the smarmy mayor who wants to keep the beaches open. Hamilton was so effective that he became typecast in the role of the corrupt government bureaucrat who wants to preserve the status quo.

But as good as the dramatic and comedic elements are, the most impressive aspect of Jaws is Spielberg’s filmmaking prowess. Here’s a small example. In one scene, Brody is sitting in a lawn chair on the beach, trying to keep an eye on the water. Someone is talking to him. Spielberg uses a special lens with two magnifications on it, with the dividing line obscured by the waterline in the shot. The kid in the water that Brody is watching is magnified, mimicking Brody’s subjective reality. It’s just brilliant. And there’s examples like that all through the film.

The mechanical shark that Spielberg used on Jaws didn’t work most of the time, but Spielberg turns this to his advantage. He shows the shark very sparingly, which works out well because of the nature of man’s natural fear of sharks, part of which is you can’t see them most of the time because they are below the water. There’s one reveal of the shark which is just priceless, accompanied by a line, ad-libbed by Roy Scheider, which has made it into the popular consciousness — “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Finally, I should mention composer John Williams famous score. When Williams first played the dum-dum…dum-dum theme for Spielberg on piano, Spielberg thought he was joking because the theme was so primitive. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The score is terrific and tragically one of the last great scores Williams would write. Basically, his theme for Star Wars would ruin him. After that, directors just wanted him to regurgitate variations of the same heroic claptrap, over and over again.

It would be hard to overstress how good Jaws is. The reason that it was critically undervalued at the time is because Spielberg made it look too easy. Jaws goes down as easily as a glass of Sangria. It’s so entertaining that it’s easy to miss how profoundly accomplished the filmmaking is. Jaws succeeds on every possible level and remains one of Spielberg’s very best films.

<

  1. come to guadalajara jalisco mexico for,expo of jaws movie, thanks

  2. it is my pet shark and he will eat all up

  3. grundelwanderer

    Agree that the movie was underrated at the time ( though not anymore) I watch this anytime I run across it, so many things work in this. But I must disagree with the review of Quints character. Whether or not Shaw was working down in this movie, the man was a brillant actor and was always trying to get somethign in everything he did.I come from “down east” as they say and I knew men like Quint in my childhood, fishermen whoose entire life was taken away by commercial fishing,whoose family history of sailing ended with them, their sons ( if they had children) did not go back into the sea, but left for factory jobs, and moved away from the coast.Quint was a real character to me, I had seen him all my life. I think you might stop and re-consider that again, to understand what Quint was. I (without knowning for sure) am willing to bet Shaw knew that.

  4. Great story and example

  5. This is the singular movie that most scared me as a kid! I can remember that summer like it was yesterday, and I’m still scared about swimming out into the ocean, I much prefer swimming pools! Totally freaked me out!

Leave a Comment


*

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Featuring Recent Posts WordPress Widget development by YD