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Jaws (1975)::rating::5::rating::5

I have an informal list of around twenty five perfect movies, and Jaws maintains a permanent residence.  Everything about it is a master class in cinema, from the cinematography, editing, directing, to the note-perfect acting.  And that’s to say nothing of John Williams’ score, which economically builds the most terrifying motif this side of Psycho out of just two notes.  Even the troubled nature of the film’s production ended up making it better.  For just over two hours, Jaws shows us every reason why movies are made.

The story (deriving from Peter Benchley’s potboiler novel) is probably familiar to most, but I’ll offer a surface skim anyway:  Amity, a New England resort town, is gearing up for a big 4th of July holiday.  Unfortunately, a great white shark has staked out a feeding area just off the beaches.  One by one, local residents are getting gobbled in a thrashing, screaming frenzy.

The investigation of this movable feast falls to Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Amity’s brand new police chief.  He’s a transplant from New York City, along with his wife (Lorraine Gary) and two young sons.  Ironically, the film implies that Brody relocated his family to escape the billowing cesspool of NYC’s crime.  Well, the goriest scenes of his career are about to play.

As the mangled remains of swimmers wash in with the tide, the coroner’s verdict is succinct:  Shark attack.  With that, Brody dutifully fashions a few “Beach Closed” signs and begins hammering them into the sand.  Of course, this situation is thornier than the chief could ever realize.  The town’s smarmy mayor (Murray Hamilton) steps in, and warns that Brody’s knee-jerk reaction might doom the town, which depends on tourism dollars.  Maybe this wasn’t a shark attack?  Maybe it was, you know, a boat propellor?

This means that Brody now has a war on two fronts:  First, he must convince the politicians that human lives are more important than covering their own asses.  Second, he has to kill the killer, in case the first mission fails.  For the former, Brody enlists Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a geeky shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute.  The latter involves Mr. Quint (Robert Shaw), a salty, weather-beaten shark hunter who sounds like how cheap bourbon smells.  While Hooper informs the town what they’re up against, Quint prepares to track and kill the beast.

It’s crazy that we’re roughly an hour into Jaws, and Spielberg hasn’t even shown us a clear shot of the shark.  While this seems like a coup of artistic genius, it’s actually a happy accident:  The mechanical shark built for this movie kept malfunctioning, so Spielberg was greatly limited in its use.  Thus, he was forced to be choosy about revealing it, which ended up enhancing the movie’s horror.  After all, human nature tells us nothing is scarier than the monster we know, but can’t see.

At this midpoint, the movie switches gears and becomes a propulsive adventure epic.  Brody, Hooper, and Quint venture to sea, aboard Quint’s sputtering, soot-stained boat, in the hopes of finally killing the shark.  Spielberg intersperses frantic action scenes with brilliant character beats.  This includes the scene in Quint’s galley, where the men bond over their respective scars and the stories behind them.  Quint beats them all with his first-hand account of the USS Indianapolis, a (true-life) tragedy in which the survivors of a torpedoed WWII cruiser fell prey to ravenous tiger sharks.  It’s one of the most chilling monologues in movie history, and Shaw’s take is Oscar-level genius.

Naturally, Spielberg is just building to a brawny action finale.  This may have been just his second feature (the underrated Sugarland Express came first), but Jaws shows a top-tier auteur, already in peak form.  The final act of this movie is as gripping as anything in cinema history.

With that said, Spielberg didn’t pull off this miracle alone.  One of his greatest skills is choosing the right cadre of collaborators, and this film is no exception.  Cinematographer Bill Butler shoots the first half of the movie in bright, bold colors, giving the Amity scenes a Norman Rockwellian beauty.  Then, as the action picks up at sea, Butler turns down the lights and color.  In many of the shark hunt scenes, we see characters in silhouette and shadow, as an ominous gloom settles in.  Verna Field’s masterful editing only cranks up that tension, and would win her a much-deserved Academy Award.

Another Oscar would go to Williams, his second of five wins.  This was the second Spielberg/Williams teaming, with dozens more to follow.  Here, Williams straddles two worlds, blending the lush sweep of Bernard Hermann with some decidedly modern touches.  (His soft, contemporary cue for the quiet scene where Brody and his toddler son mimic each other is a self-contained masterpiece.)  He deploys a two-note motif for Jaws, alternating between E and F.  Cellos and pianos thunder at the bottom of their registers, joining the deep honk of a brass section.  As the terror builds, Williams sends the violins into a Norman Bates screeching frenzy.  This score doesn’t so much support the movie as become an entire character all its own.  I don’t know what Jaws would’ve been without John Williams, except it would’ve been something less.

What Jaws did become was a pop culture milestone–a massive water cooler event.  (The cooler was as close as some people would get to water after seeing it.)  For better or worse, the summer blockbuster was now a thing.  Some viewers will argue that this is nothing more than junk food entertainment.  To a point, I agree.  But this is guilty pleasure food prepared by a chef with three Michelin stars.  Jaws is delicious, addictive, and perfect.

124 min.  PG.  Peacock.




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