With the Dark Knight Rises and the Amazing Spider-Man around the corner, it's worth going back to where the whole idea of the summer blockbuster all came from: one movie by a 26 year old called Steven Spielberg. About a shark.
Jaws has been re-released in Great Britain this summer, and I was delighted at the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
Like the shark itself, the film has such a raw, potent identity that even Philistines like myself who had never seen it before have still been exposed to its terrors in various unexpected ways. I remember seeing the famous girl-swimming-with-shark poster in a French textbook when I was 12. The ubiquitous score by John Williams I had first heard parodied in a local radio jingle dealing in boat trips. I'm guessing they've gone out of business since then.
This is strange for me because I consider myself an otherwise huge fan of Spielberg. I've not only seen every one of his films in the cinema pretty much since I've been alive, but watched most of his back catalogue on DVD — except Jaws. I even read his biography once. By perfectly blending pop satisfaction with artistic verve and cinematic literacy, Spielberg hits the same spot that Hitchcock hit before him, achieving adoration from critics and audiences alike. It only takes one viewing of the masterpiece that is Jaws to see why.
Those who are lucky enough to have witnessed the film on the big screen in 1975 will not be disappointed by its re-release. Unlike George Lucas, Spielberg has managed to avoid the trap of perfectionism. Instead of ruining his classic with gaudy graphics, 3D, and other pointless insertions, he has stuck to cleaning up and sharpening the print. It really is beautiful to behold.
Set on the island community of Amity, whose main business is beaches, the plot follows the local sheriff, Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider) who after discovering the presence of a shark in the surrounding waters attempts to close off the beaches to swimmers. This doesn’t sit well with the mayor, who is determined to maintain business as usual. But when a young boy is eaten by the shark, Sheriff Brody joins up with an effete marine scientist, played by Richard Dreyfuss, and the grizzled fisherman and shark hunter, Quint, determining to kill it. Besides the shark, Robert Shaw’s Ahab-like performance as Quint steals the show. The ensuing hunt is one of the most thrilling, terrifying and satisfying sequences of film I have ever seen.
It’s interesting to note just how difficult Jaws was to produce. As Spielberg’s third outing as director, following Amblin’ and Duel, the shoot went way over schedule and over budget. Ironically, the true blessing of this film was how bad the mechanical shark was. After it broke down several times on set, Spielberg was left with no choice but to press ahead with the schedule and merely suggest its presence with swimming shots and the music. The few moments we actually see the shark are less terrifying than the many times we don’t. Spielberg gets one important fact, lost on 90% of blockbuster directors these days, that the imagination is a far more effective canvas to exploit than the screen itself.
For many people Jaws will have a nostalgic quality, mixed up with memories of not wanting to go swimming, even in a pool, for months afterwards. I can’t say it scared me quite that much, but I consider myself uniquely privileged to be able to enjoy it for the first time as it’s meant to be enjoyed: in the movies. Before you hit the theatres this summer go back to the beginning. Go see Jaws!