At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Jaws

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Thriller/ Stars: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, Lee Fierro/ Runtime: 124 minutes

Forty-five years ago, wow how time truly has flown, a twenty-six-year-old, and up and coming in the land of movie magic director by the name of Steven Spielberg, fresh off making his theatrical debut with a film known as The Sugarland Express, found himself taking on the task of adapting a novel written by an author named Peter Benchley and transforming it into, the hope was, at least somewhat of a motion picture. I say somewhat because the novel was about 3 men doing battle with a giant killer shark terrorizing an island community during the worst possible time: 4th of July weekend. Somehow, against all odds and a film shoot that could easily have been an entire seventh level to Dante’s layout of Hell, the film proved to be a smash hit when finally released, and by the time that re-releases occurred in the Summer of 1976 and 1979 respectively, had managed to gross the, at the time, phenomenal sum of one hundred twenty-three million dollars. Yet the best was still to come for this film. A best that consisted of not only winning 75% of the Oscars it was nominated for including best sound, film editing, and musical score, but also becoming a bonafide American classic that is now consistently regarded by many a film scholar, including this one, as truly one of the greatest films of all time. This, in case you hadn’t guessed it yet, is the story of a movie known simply as Jaws, and it is easily one of the finest films I have ever seen. Indeed the acting is spot-on, the directing is magnificent, the score instantly iconic, the work from the creative team undeniably amazing, and the memories that you have every time you choose to sit down and watch this movie be it your first or your 1,000th are absolutely and irrevocably unforgettable in the best way possible.

The plot is as follows:  I would just like to say right off the bat that honestly I don’t even know why I am doing this section for this particular film. I say this because I honestly have to ask: “Is there anyone in the world who, against all odds, actually, somehow, has not been able to find a copy of this either on DVD, VHS, Blu-Ray, Laser-Disc, or even heavily edited for TV and sat down and watched it?” I ask because if I am being completely honest the idea that there is a person out there who either hasn’t seen this landmark film or who, at the very least, doesn’t know the basic outline of the film’s narrative just seems completely improbable to me. With that being said however, I must admit that I have been surprised by readers who have told me that they have not seen such iconic and landmark movies as Casablanca, Planet of the Apes “68”, or even Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to say nothing of that landmark, and long aired on Easter Sunday staple The Ten Commandments. Therefore I guess I should just assume that there are those still unaware of the tale of what went on in the tiny island town of Amity one particular 4th of July weekend so here goes nothing. The story of Jaws revolves around the new head of police on the quiet yet beautiful island of Amity named Martin Brody. A man who, despite thinking he had most likely seen it all back when he was a cop in New York, finds himself walking head-on into a horrifying situation when a horrifically mutilated body decides to wash up on the lovely beach that Amity is most known for. Yet despite the fact that we as an audience have already been able to pick up a scant few hints as to what has occurred to this unfortunate individual, the situation is soon made worse for the chief following the medical examiner on the island coming to the conclusion that the young woman was brutally killed by a shark. Yet even with such a grim cloud hanging over the island, the schemes of the business-oriented, and if we are being honest quite desperate for the almighty tourist dollar, city council spearheaded by Mayor Vaughn continue to undermine each and every attempt made by the chief to keep the citizens of Amity safe by, rightfully so, closing all the beaches on the island until another tragedy rears its ugly head. Yet even with all of this going on, and the arrival of a young shark expert by the name of Matt Hooper sent to investigate the first incident, the mayor still is hell-bent on preventing the beach from being closed. Eventually however, things will occur that will prove both Brody and Hooper right and result in them teaming up with an irascible yet extremely talented fisherman by the name of Quint in his aging vessel the Orca to hunt down and exterminate whatever is behind all of this. What they will discover however is a creature significantly bigger and more ruthless than they could have imagined but even more horrifyingly seems dead-set on exterminating them as much as they wish to annihilate it. Thus the stage is now set for one of the most iconic conflicts between men on a boat and a large creature of the deep since Herman Melville put pen to paper and told the tale of a fearsome, and giant white whale by the name of Moby Dick….

Now from a technical standpoint, I would have to say that the 2 things that truly define this film would have to be both the musical score by composing legend John Williams and the creatively enormous lengths that Spielberg and his team took in showing the shark’s presence in the film while not showing the shark anywhere remotely within the frame. To be fair, a lot of the success in the latter does have a lot to do with the fact that the mechanical shark, known affectionately as Brucie by cast, crew, and avid Jaws fans alike, was an absolutely difficult co-star to work with (something about mechanics and salt water just doesn’t mix for whatever reason). As such the creative team had to find ways to herald the presence of the shark…..without the shark with such frightening yet iconic examples as a broken stretch of pier chasing a man in the water or a series of barrels utilized by Quint later in the film being etched into many a film goer’s memory. Yet when you look past those examples and just look at the vast stretches of film where there is no trace of the shark whatsoever, the fact remains to be seen that this definitely was a blessing in disguise because it allowed Spielberg to create an atmosphere absolutely rife with suspense and dread whenever the characters or the camera look out at the water and you know that something is out there, but you are not sure what. Thus your imagination begins to take over, and before you know it you are absolutely petrified with fear because you have filled in the intentional blanks that the creative team left for you to fill, and seeing as you are assuming the worst because that’s what people tend to do, you literally have created the monster of the deep for yourself. As for the former I feel that calling John Williams a musical genius is too small of praise to be given to a composer who, alongside Ennio Morricone, is easily the best composer of all time, and in this it is his simple yet potent score that is always the first thing people think of. Indeed whenever that score is heard in this film you know, more often than not, something’s about to happen. You’re not sure what, but you know it can’t be anything good, and it is this score which most people cite is one of the key reasons that this thrilling story even comes close to working half as well as it does.

Now when it comes to the casting work done on this film Spielberg, even at this stage in his career, manages to show quite the knack for casting individuals who might not be the biggest stars in the world, but who have the talent and skill necessary to make the character both work and believable for the audience. Yet even though we also get fine supporting work from the likes of Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, who also helped write the script, and Jeffrey Kramer, the three that everyone and their mother, unless that mom is Miss. Kitner, chooses to focus on is the trio of shark hunters at the heart of this wild and woolly Man v. Nature saga. Intriguingly however, Spielberg has chosen to make each of his male protagonists a different kind of male figure. For example Robert Shaw, who is absolutely phenomenal in this as Quint, is a poster child for the old-school way of masculinity. Indeed here is a man who has worked his whole life, is fantastic at what he does, but also comes saddled with a touch of arrogance in thinking that he doesn’t need help, and can do things all by himself. Yet Quint does have a softer side to him, a hidden, wounded side that only comes out either alone or with a touch of drink in him, and a side that Shaw finally reveals in one of the most incredible speeches by a character in a film like this. Indeed I won’t go into any more detail than that, but suffice it to say this is one heck of a performance, and Shaw is absolutely brilliant. Playing the yin to Shaw’s yang is a wonderful turn by Richard Dreyfuss as the well-off young shark expert Matt Hooper who is a wonderful representative of the new generation’s desire to use technology to help solve their problems for them, and yet Hooper, as much as he would like to act and say otherwise, is not that different from Quint in other respects. By that I mean they are both arrogant in their ways of thinking and they are both hunting this shark primarily out of a sense of personal motivation, in Hooper’s case, trying to get further recognized by the scientific community, in addition to trying to keep the community of Amity safe and Dreyfuss is truly phenomenal in selling us an expert who finally comes face to face with a creature he scarcely dreamed he ever would. Finally in the middle of these two dynamic personalities is a subtle yet wonderful performance by Roy Scheider as the undeniable true hero of the film Brody. Indeed Brody is supposed to be the everyman or the audience’s representative in this film and yet for the majority of the film Brody, a recent move to the island, finds his desire to keep Amity safe for the locals and the tourists to be one that is purely from a professional standpoint. Rather it isn’t until a personal encounter which I shan’t reveal that Brody finally finds the strength within to go out there, and hunt down this shark no matter what and Scheider manages to sell both sides of Brody fantastically to the audience.

All in all when “Jaws” was finally released in the summer of 1975 it quickly found itself becoming the highest-grossing picture made up to that time, that is until a little film by the name of Star Wars came along, and in the process of doing so managed to forever wrestle the summer season away from B movies and exploitation pictures as the major Hollywood studios, which until the release of Jaws had avoided summer, now would quickly identify it as the prime releasing season. Not only that, but Jaws would also find itself in the unique position of inspiring both hundreds of summer thrillers and f/x pictures like it, but also a lifelong fear of the water for the millions of people across the planet who have seen this truly icon and landmark film. As for its, at the time 27-year old film director Mr. Spielberg, the movie was the launching pad for easily the most extraordinary directorial career in modern movie history. This is because whereas before “Jaws,” he was known just as the gifted young director of films such as “Duel” (1971) and “The Sugarland Express”, but after JAWS he was one of the if not the toast of Hollywood, and after one watches it for the first time it’s no mystery as to why. Thus, despite the multitude of issues that were faced during production, I think it is safe to say that, even after all of this time in the wake of Jaws’ initial release, the shark is indeed still working. On a scale of 1-5 I give JAWS a 5 out of 5.