The original summer blockbuster is back…
By Danila Lipatov | June 2012
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
WRITER(s): Carl Gottlieb / Peter Benchley (source)
Almost forty years after its initial theatrical release, Steven Spielberg’s psychological masterpiece swims into the heat of 2012’s sizzling blockbuster battle and offers a timely reminder how back in the summer of ’75 a mechanical shark contributed to an irreversible shift in the Hollywood business-model and forever made summer at the multiplexes the season of action-packed thrill rides for the masses.
Made in an era when easy riders and raging bull directors were attempting to break new ground by developing big-budget projects that showcased their cinematic ability to thrill and divert with well-written stories that focused as much on character as they did spectacle, Spielberg delivered a cautionary, sombre fairytale about a middle-class family man threatened by irrational, horrifying forces.
After moving from New York to a small summer resort town Amity Island police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is compelled to face his most primordial fears. Having fled from high crime rates and the constant dangers of living in a megalopolis, Brody expects to save his family’s welfare and integrity by relocating them to this quiet paradise on earth. However, much like with David Lynch’s surreal Blue Velvet, we never quite know what awaits us below the clear blue skies and white fancy fences of a quiet suburbia – a cut-off ear or as in this case – a severed, rotting hand on a peaceful sandy beach.
To destroy the all-devouring great white shark that ruthlessly terrorises the quaint town, Brody must overcome not only his fear of water but also the local authorities. Depicting the everyday of Amity Island, Spielberg borrows much from the gritty style of ’70s Hollywood giving a relentless satirical portrait of a town with its sweeping bureaucracy and provinciality.
In the early inland section of the film, Spielberg colours the story with post-Watergate cynicism with Brody fighting the Mayor of the city (who always smokes nervously and wears a nautical-inspired jacket with an overall anchor print) before realising that politicians at least seem to have their petty reasons to act mean, whereas the ominous great white, with its merciless jagged jaws, embodies a pure evil and menace that endangers everyone’s lives. After targeting a young child, the audience can no longer accept the animal as a symbol of all-purifying nature or as an exterminating angel destroying those who have sinned.
Throughout, the shark is brilliantly established, not only through a series of inventively staged attacks, but rather through unsettling pictures from Brody’s scientific books and oceanographer Matt Hooper’s (Richard Dreyfuss) bristling accounts of his previous encounters with sharks. The effect from such a multifaceted way of building up a fear of the water is further aggravated by Spielberg’s deft approach of not actually showing us the monster (owing much to the malfunction of the mechanical shark as it does Hitchcock) until the final showdown.
The shark’s constant presence is merely hinted by John Williams’ iconic two-note score and underwater point-of-view shots of a bloodthirsty beast approaching its next victim. Fully avoiding red in both scenery and wardrobe, Spielberg achieves a truly eerie effect in the violent attacks with bright red patches of blood in the muddy water. Even when the movie takes to the sea in the later acts, Spielberg cleverly invents an innovative way to show the shark through moving barrels.
A breathtaking shot of the Orca boat (with Brody, Hooper and local sea wolf Quint (Robert Shaw) on board) departing toward the open sea to hunt down the shark is shown through Quint’s window double-framed within shark’s jaws hanging as a token celebrating Quint’s skills. Although the audience is fully prepared for the inevitable duel between shark and man, the first unannounced sight of the glorious prop (named Bruce after Spielberg’s lawyer) remains one of the best staged scenes in cinema history.
Spielberg cleverly creates suspense through a visual conflict between background and foreground staging: in the foreground a relaxed Brody is enjoying a cigarette while throwing meat into the water to lure the shark; in the background we suddenly see it emerging, swallowing the meat and vanishing beneath the water. The boundless horror of this unexpected entrance is later balanced by Brody’s famous punch line: ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’.
Inspired, naturalistic performances from all the cast members also help make this middle-class fairytale so terrifyingly believable. Roy Scheider perfectly incorporates a helpless everyman with a fatal flaw giving the audience someone to identify with and root for during the dangerous sea hunt. While the unbelievable boldness of Spielberg’s direction and his perfect sense of timing are once again revealed in his decision to include Robert Shaw’s long monologue recalling his war-time experience when his ship, the US Indianapolis, was sunk by a Japanese torpedo after delivering the A-bomb and most of the survivors fell prey to sharks. Shaw’s heartfelt monologue is usually credited to John Milius (who is responsible for Colonel Kilgore’s lines in Apocalypse Now). Shot in pensive close-ups, Quint’s speech leaves an uneasy feeling after he ends it with: “Anyway – we delivered the bomb.”
Blessed with a spectacular title and memorable poster design Jaws remains a summer blockbuster like no other. Despite its relatively simple narrative and feel-good ending the movie’s ultimate message is interpreted in many ways: Marxist, Freudian. Most of the clues suggest that Jaws is a family man’s ultimate horror. In this case Brody’s last lines (‘I used to hate the water. I can’t imagine why’) prove cathartic as we finally see him liberated from his previous fears paddling towards Amity Island – his Paradise regained.
The water tight screenplay offers a well balanced combination of Peter Benchley’s
adventure novel and Carl Gottlieb’s naturalistic battle of the wits. 5
Despite the infamous tales of a troubled production, Spielberg masterfully
creates Hitchcockian suspense whilst fully realising the themes from his debut
feature Duel, creating his greatest, purest cinematic event to date. 5
[Still] the ultimate summer blockbuster. 5