The Movie Waffler Retro Review - Jaws (1975) | The Movie Waffler

Retro Review - Jaws (1975)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary

A great white shark terrorises the resort island of Amity.
Like an old friend visiting town, "Jaws" is back on the big screen in a newly restored print, and Spielberg's classic has never looked or sounded better. 
When I hear the phrase "movie magic" I don't think of Michael Bay leaning over the shoulder of some computer whiz as he adds more pixels to a CG robot. I think of the sort of photos you see in any documentary about the filming of this movie, or those found in the pages of Carl Gottlieb's excellent account "The Jaws Log". Pictures of disgruntled fx men standing around a motionless rubber shark, scratching their heads, "how the hell do we make this work?". Make it work they did, thanks mainly to the improvisational genius of Spielberg. Knowing the shark, which came to be known as "Bruce", wouldn't always be available when needed, Spielberg had to come up with other ways to represent it's threat. Witness the scene involving two night fishermen who are menaced by the shark despite it never being visible. A broken piece of pier changing course in the water is all that's needed to terrify the audience. We know what that floating wood represents, there's no need to see a mouthful of teeth. Likewise the yellow barrels harpooned to the shark. Their change of speed and direction tell us everything we need to know. Had the shark actually worked every time it was originally thought necessary this would no doubt be a far less effective movie.
That the film would even be completed was often called into question. The studio execs were constantly on the young directors back, too many captains on the island. They constantly questioned his film-making decisions but thankfully Spielberg stuck to his guns. As a result the movie is packed from start to finish with some of cinema's greatest moments; Scheider's son mimicking his father at the dinner table, Ben Gardner's half-chewed head popping out of a damaged boat's hull, the shark rising out of the water as Scheider chums the water and the one-shot barge ride to mention but a few. Some of it's dialogue has become legendary, lines like "We're gonna need a bigger boat" and "Smile you son of a...",  along with Shaw's fantastic monologue recounting the USS Indianapolis sinking. I doubt there's any book of scenes for actors which doesn't feature the one penned by John Milius and delivered incredibly by Shaw.
The one part of "Jaws" that's become burned into our pop culture psyche is undoubtedly John Williams' fantastic score, recognised by even those few poor souls who have never seen this great movie. Williams is regularly criticised, often rightly, for his tendency to over-indulge himself, filling every scene with bombastic music. Here he gets it just right, a large portion of the  movie unaccompanied by score. When that staccato rhythm appears it does so at just the right moments. One of the most interesting parts of the score is that of the scenes where the three protagonists give chase to the shark. Williams gives us a joyful rather than ominous motif, reflecting the new found thrill Scheider's character has discovered. This is after all, like Spielberg's "Duel" and "Close Encounters" predominantly a movie about a man's escape from his mid-life crisis.
It might be the greatest adventure ever filmed but it's also a film rich with metaphor. If you like to find hidden meanings you could consider this the middle act in Spielberg's Jewish trilogy, sandwiched between "Duel" where Dennis Weaver finds himself out of place in a world of gruff Gentile truckers, and "Close Encounters" where Dreyfuss returns to a homeland he's never been to yet feels a kinship with, an outer space Zion. Here Scheider and Dreyfuss are two Jews on an island of Gentiles, desperate to alert them to a threat which is only dealt with after the unthinkable has happened. The entire movie could also be read as a WWII analogy. Scheider is America, reluctant to take action until Pearl Harbour (Amity Island) suffers a brutal attack and the threat is made explicit by it's European allies (Dreyfuss), and forced to form an uneasy alliance with Russia, represented by Shaw, the angry bear who makes the biggest sacrifice of all. This is never made more explicit than the scene in which the three compare scars, Dreyfuss' mainly the result of vanity and a spirit of conquest while Shaw's are the wounds of a proletariat struggle for survival. Scheider only has an appendectomy scar which he chooses not to reveal; his wounds will come later.
Coming to Blu-Ray on August, you may be tempted to sit this one out but you're doing yourself a disservice, you'll never see "Jaws" look this good. If you see one blockbuster this summer make it this one. A great script, quality actors, a director at the top of his game and a rubber monster; this is cinema.
Jaws (1975) on IMDb 8.2/10