It was the perfect action film.
Written with wit, performed with humor by actors with serious dramatic chops and structured for maximum sensory impact, “Jaws” instantly became the gold standard for smart, escapist entertainment when it was released in the summer of 1975. To date, very few movies have measured up to what director Steven Spielberg and his inspired collaborators achieved.
As I watched the first of four 40th anniversary screenings Sunday at the AMC Town Center 20 in Leawood, the movie’s high level of artistry and craftsmanship was as impressive as it was the first time I saw it at a theater in Dallas way back when. And as I observed with the matinee audience, “Jaws” still has the ability to make viewers flinch in unison.
Before Sunday, I had seen the movie twice in theaters and several times on TV, but even when I knew what was coming, Spielberg’s work still took me by surprise at certain moments. My familiarity with the movie also heightened my appreciation for its meticulous construction.
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By now it’s old news that the mechanical sharks didn’t work consistently, forcing Spielberg to hide the creature from sight until about halfway through the movie. It was a great stroke of luck, because “Jaws” builds tension with a vengeance.
Every movie is basically a series of events, and the payoff for the viewers comes only if the ground has been prepared carefully. In “Jaws,” foreshadowing is carefully woven into the story with such subtlety that you don’t know what it means until the film’s climax — assuming you’re one of the few people on Earth who hasn’t seen it.
Early in the movie we see Roy Scheider as the police chief of the fictional Amity, Mass. (shooting was done in and near Martha’s Vineyard), thumbing through a book on sharks. In a quick series of black-and-white photographs, we see horrendous injuries suffered by swimmers in actual shark attacks, jaws so massive that a group of men in laboratory coats can stand within their circumference and, briefly, a shark with what appears to be a metal canister lodged in its mouth.
The sequence drives home the horror of a shark attack but also prepares the viewer for some crucial business involving an oxygen tank later in the film. “Jaws” is full of details like that — carefully placed but woven into the storyline so deftly that they never slow the movie down.
The film was based on a best-seller by Peter Benchley that was — and is — basically a monster tale about a rogue shark terrorizing a beach community during the summer season. The filmmakers threw out some of Benchley’s subplots, streamlined the narrative and built up the principal characters: Brody, the former New York cop turned soft-duty police chief of a virtually crime-free tourist town; Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss, an oceanographer who is fascinated by sharks; and Quint, played by the magnificent Robert Shaw, the World War II survivor who hunts sharks for a living.
Together, this unlikely trio of heroes goes to sea to find and kill the beast that has been dining on summer tourists.
Each role is clearly drawn, and each actor invests flesh-and-blood believability in his performance. Shaw, who came from the British stage, plays Quint with Shakespearean authority. Quint is a sort of 20th-century descendant of Ahab in “Moby Dick,” driven by an obsessive hatred of sharks and a sense of his own inevitable doom.
Shaw, in fact, is responsible for a quality you hardly ever encounter in popcorn action movies — poetry.
Arguably the most famous scene in “Jaws” is Quint’s monologue about surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II. The survivors went into the water, where for several days they endured shark attacks. “Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you,” Quint says. “Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got … lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye.”
Several writers worked on the speech, but Shaw — a novelist and playwright — generally is credited with writing the final version. Without it, “Jaws” wouldn’t be the same movie. Not even with John Williams’ iconic music or Bill Butler’s amazing cinematography or Verna Fields’ brilliant editing. It sets up one of most horrific movie deaths in cinema history.
And it helps make “Jaws” what it is — a perfect action film.