Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #122
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: June 20, 1975
Sub-Genre: Thriller/Monster Movie
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $470,653,000
Running Time: 124 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Richard D Zanuck, David Brown
Screenplay: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Story: Jaws by Peter Benchley
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Score: John Williams
Editing: Verna Fields
Studio: Zanuck/Brown Productions, Universal pictures (uncredited)
Distributor: Universal Pictures (US), MCA/Universal Home Video, Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (UK)
Stars: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, Jonathan Filley, Ted Grossman, Chris Rebello, Jay Mello, Lee Fierro, Jeffrey Voorhees and Craig Kingsbury as Ben Gardner
Suggested Audio Chum Line
John Williams “Jaws”
If you asked me to divulge my greatest living fear then I would reply without a solitary moment’s pause. Treading water in a lake teaming with sharks at the dead of night would likely be sufficient to stop my heart outright. Come to think of it, a single great white would do. Of all of God’s little creatures, none are quite as formidable and their tiny blackened eyes are totally without mercy. Moreover, they reside at the very top of the food chain for good reason. To be fair, humans are not particularly high on their priority list, but they are still responsible for the largest number of unprovoked human fatalities of all marine mammals so that is reason enough to take them very seriously indeed.
Mt fascination with the great white shark started at a decidedly tender age and it was terror at first sight. The big screen provided my water wings as my father whisked me away to a cinematic double bill comprising Jaws I & II. Barely a minute had passed before I felt that first chill trickle down my spine and I knew straight away that off-shore swimming was a pastime I would no longer find appealing. In many respects, it was the first horror film I ever watched although to pigeon-hole Steven Spielberg’s monumental crowd-pleaser is to considerably lessen its eminence. You see, it is largely regarded as the first true summer blockbuster and set the standard by which all others are measured. However, remove the titular predator from the equation and it is actually more of a character study.
We’ve come to expect no less than a spectacle from Spielberg. His quest for world domination has yielded box office receipts to make your eyes bulge and, with a string of hits as long as Amity island’s coastline already banking him unprecedented spoils, it has long since been about consolidation, and feeding that great white ego of course. By 1975, he already had a number of notches to his belt, most of which were made-for-TV projects. While the excellent Duel had turned heads across the globe, nobody was expecting what came next. His silver screen adaptation Peter Benchley’s novel went on to amass nearly half a billion in box office receipts and suddenly he was considered as a major player. You only need to look at his output for the following decade to realize just how vital Jaws was to his evolution as a filmmaker.
After watching our first hapless water baby being dragged sub-aqua, the next thing that struck me was how idyllic this picturesque North Atlantic resort appeared to be. Stretched taut across the screen and literally heaving with joyful holiday makers, it seems like the ideal getaway on paper although looks can be mighty deceiving. You see, something ominous is lurking beneath these blue waters and it isn’t choosy about where its next meal ticket comes from. As the community becomes increasingly gripped by fear, it is left to Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to restore peace to this once peaceful bay and that means calling in reinforcements.
Enter affable marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and decidedly less agreeable local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to assist him with catching his killer. Three more accomplished actors are rarely seen sharing a screen. Scheider and Dreyfuss is one thing but, when you throw in an actor of Shaw’s godhead caliber, it is taken to an all new level. To his other two ship mates’ credit they both hold their own and neither seem overawed. Hooper has always been my personal favorite, both quick-witted and infectiously jovial, he works as the perfect joining agent and his numerous exchanges with the Cap’n are provided additional dimension by the fact that the two actors flat-out despised each other.
Shaw chews up the scenery like a rottweiler and is wonderfully singular in his pursuit of the “bad fish”. With a voice that could silence a Colosseum, distinguished yet gravel-like, he demands our unwavering attention every single time he prepares to unleash. They simply do not make them like this anymore. Between his delirious turn as tough talking Quint and fellow behemoth Richard Harris as The Man Called Horse and the cantankerous Captain Nolan from Orca: The Killer Whale, the seventies were pretty much sewn up for me and it is an absolute joy to drink in each monologue.
Scheider is perfectly cast as Brody and his glorious elongated face speaks in a thousand tongues as he attempts to keep the ship afloat. For a long period we kick back with the misshapen trio on Orca. In this time we are gifted with all manner of rousing sea shanties, smug shows of battle scars, and enough ale to fill an estuary. Their collaborative drunken sailor routine ensures that our spirits don’t flag and we almost forget the 40 ft great white circling them with intent. In a respect Jaws is as much of a character study as anything else, but there is one player I haven’t yet given the centre stage he wrestles from Quint quite literally. I refer, of course, to the beady-eyed assassin, sporting row upon row of pearly whites and very much aware of the group’s every movement.
The Great White Turd as renamed by Spielberg out of sheer frustration, proved consistently troublesome during the shoot, sinking to the foot of the pool on its maiden voyage and breaking down with almost clockwork regularity. This forced him into shooting from the POV of the shark, but if anything this approach adds to the build-up of suspense. We get to see through our very own fish lens and the sight of paddling legs up above, showcased stunningly by Bill Butler’s dream-like cinematography, but the true menace comes from a certain iconic piece of sheet music and few themes capture the essence of primal dread quite as effortlessly than John Williams’ compositions here.
How can we conceivably not fear the reaper when its pursuit is accompanied by possibly the most emblematic theme music in the history of the silver screen? Williams score whisks us away in its current, grinding us down with its instinctual tone, consisting of two alternating notes parped on tuba. It intentionally mirrors the approaching threat of its great white host; rupturing once prey has been consumed and all the while conditioning us to associate Jaws with its ominous jingle. Then, when we’re least expecting it, the shark appears without any musical overture whatsoever and coerces us straight from our wet suits.
Needless to say, it comes as no surprise to me that the release of Jaws in 1975 coincided with a noticeable downturn in the package holiday trade. Since then, Spielberg’s magnum opus has garnered unanimous adulation worldwide, finding its way onto most Best All-Time Movie lists in the process. However, not everyone was left smiling. Benchley absolutely despised the ending and had to be removed from set after electing to rock the boat. However, it proved to be an astute move on Spielberg’s part as his feature reached a far wider audience by ticking certain cinematic boxes. Large explosive endings equate to fannies on seats and it is hard to argue with a motion picture that continually matures with age.
The ultimate summer blockbuster is every bit as vital now as it was way back then. Shock jocks may find cause to point out the “rubber shark” but I would take animatronics over CGI any day of the week and the sight of 40ft of inescapable peril ghosting starboard pre-loads the shit nuggets even now. Jaws was the first motion picture to decorate my nightmares and I will always be thankful to Spielberg for the soiled bed sheets. The emblematic poster art says it all really and, if ever a film does what the tin states, then no other can boast of pointing out the plain obvious so exquisitely. When all is said and done, this remarkable movie remains the sole reason why I never have truly felt safe in the water and, for that, I will forever welcome its sinking feeling.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Quint was originally intended to be dragged beneath water by a harpoon embedded in his own leg but this gave way a far bloodier demise, although Spielberg trimmed the aftermath as he feared it would be deemed too gratuitous. Ptooey! To his credit, he did add the underwater head reveal at Ben Gardner’s boathouse at the eleventh hour to provide his audience one more scream and this gets him off the hook as I’ve rarely been so utterly mortified. Elsewhere the great white sinks its incisors into plenty of fleshy vacationers, chomping off appendages with gay abandon throughout.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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