Thursday, April 22, 2010

1975 - Jaws

The poll for the next year of review is now up, so have your say - it's over there on the right.

Kat and I had the chance to get out of the city last weekend with my parents, who are here visiting for a couple of weeks. We didn't go too far, though - only about an hour north of New York City to the town of Sleepy Hollow, named after the Washington Irving story. In fact, the town was known as North Tarrytown until 1996 when they decided to change the name to honour its most famous resident. We visited Irving's home as well as his grave in the ominously named Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Although I've seen the Johnny Depp movie, I've never actually read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and upon visiting the author's home, I am reminded of how little classic fiction I have read. Well, at least my complaint about not having seen enough classic cinema is being remedied. Perhaps when I finish this project, I can move on to Matt vs. the Pulitzer ... or not.

Last night, I was excited to join my wife as she experienced for the first time the modern classic and 1975 Best Picture nominee...

Steven Spielberg
Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
(based on the novel by Peter Benchley)
Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
3 wins, including Best Original Score (John Williams)

Often considered the father of the modern blockbuster, Jaws is Steven Spielberg's first big hit. The iconic film is set on idyllic Amity Island, a popular summer vacation spot. When a young woman is devoured by a shark during a late-night beach party, the Chief of Police, Martin Brody (Scheider), wants to shut the beaches down. Mayor Vaughn (Hamilton) resists the decision, claiming the town relies on summer tourism. The beaches remain open, but when the shark returns, causing more deaths, Brody teams up with Quint (Shaw), an eccentric old salt, and Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute. Together, the three set out on Quint's boat to capture the shark.

Right from the start, Jaws is all about the tension. The opening scene is simply chilling. As an audience, we are constantly waiting for something horribly nasty to happen and that agonising suspense is what makes this movie so darn watchable. Adding to this fear of the unknown is the fact that the shark itself only appears in glimpses for the most part. Apparently, this shyness is a lot to do with the complications involved in filming an often defective mechanical shark. But whatever the reason, the result is an amazing manipulation of the audience's imagination.

Certainly, Spielberg can be credited with the creation of an impressive thriller, perhaps influenced by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, the dolly zoom, a camera technique pioneered in Vertigo, is used with powerful effect in Jaws, highlighting Brody's worst fears. However, it would be improper not to recognise the other collaborators in this film's success, particularly Verna Fields and her Oscar-winning film editing, and John Williams and his Oscar-winning score. A relatively simple yet immensely effective orchestration that has embedded itself in popular culture.

The script, too, is well-constructed, the dialogue, at times chaotic, enhancing the sense of mayhem in the town. That frenzied feeling can also be attributed to the exceptional cast. Roy Scheider, in particular, perfectly represents a desperate man in over his head. Richard Dreyfuss portrays the expert with passion and humility. And Robert Shaw is absolutely delightful as the gruff but oddly lovable fisherman. His speech about the USS Indianapolis is surely one of the greatest monologues on celluloid.

Spielberg himself did not receive a nomination from the Academy for his direction of this film. However, Jaws won three of its four citations, only missing out on the big one itself, Best Picture.


  1. Excellent movie. Even now, when that mechanical shark shown at the end of the movie is clearly fake, i can still feel the tension and suspense building throughout the movie and makes me uncomfortable swimming in deep water...

    "We're gonna need a bigger boat..."

  2. It was tough to beat Cookoo's Nest that year for Best Picture.

  3. Jaws still remains one of the best constructed thrillers to come out of Hollywood - one of the rare genre pieces at over two hours that doesn't seem padded. While Spielberg didn't receive a Best Director nomination, he avoided the cloying sentiment that sometimes marred his more accomplished works in his later years.

    Resisting the temptation to cast more stars (novelist Peter Benchley wanted Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen) the lesser known trio seemed a good fit. It may have been interesting seeing either Lee Marvin or Sterling Hayden in the Quint role (they were first approached), but Robert Shaw was indelible. He probably just missed out on a Supporting Actor nomination in a very competitive year.

    Other than the sometimes phony looking close-ups of the shark, I don't think much could be done to improve this movie, and I hope no one ever tries.