JAWS, was unquestionably Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough film, launching the director’s career into the stratosphere, while simultaneously introducing the world to the summer Blockbuster. As part of Universal’s centenary they decided to digitally restore, 13 of their ‘classics’, and unsurprisingly JAWS was a no-brainer. Prior to the film’s release on Blu-Ray (later this year), Universal reissued the film in cinemas, for a brief theatrical run, and I had the pleasure of watching what is, the definitive, tent-pole summer film.
Writing a synopsis of JAWS seems somewhat pointless, however, the plot goes a little something like this: a rogue shark begins feeding along the coast of the small island, Amity. Chief of Police, Martin Brody, is eager to shut the beeches, but the busy summer season is only days away and to shut them would plunge the majority of the islanders into a winter of welfare. But as the number of the shark’s victims continues to rise, the Chief has little option, but to charter a vessel to hunt and kill the rogue predator.
I make no bones about it. JAWS is without doubt one of my favourite films, if not the favourite. Key to the film’s longevity -besides its B-movie plot about a really big shark plaguing the waters of small town America -is its characters, specifically the men. JAWS, is all about the homosocial sphere, with women being solely designated as housewives or grieving mothers. If JAWS were remade, we would no doubt see Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper recast as a woman.
Anyway, as I was saying, it’s a film about the boys, and unsurprisingly it’s a film which is infatuated with male relationships, specifically the father-son mode eg the teacher and the student. It is a motif which is continuously repeated and centres upon Chief Brody, with him as both teacher and student. For example, Chief Brody and his police deputy, Brody and Hooper, or Quint, Brody and Hooper -where both young men are like children bickering for their father’s praise. The film also features an awful lot of alpha-male posturing, and phallus waving -not literally, obviously -which shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the infidelity allegory that was in Peter Benchley’s book (although absent from Spielberg’s film).
Roy Scheider was an inspired choice for Martin Brody. Spielberg knowingly plays-up the big city cop, lost in the unfamiliar small town. It’s Brody’s first summer as Amity’s Chief of Police and it’s almost as if Detective Buddy Russo from Billy Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) threw in the towel, seeking a quieter life by the sea.
Scheider delivered an anxious performance, a man striving to do the best for the community he lives in, a man unhappy on the sea and unsure of his surroundings, but always endeavouring to do the right thing. Brody was the embodiment of the ‘modern man’ in cinema, before that phrase existed, and Brody is Spielberg’s perfect character. As a child/teenager I may have idolised the adventures of Indiana Jones, but it is Brody, who has my complete admiration.
The film’s other central performance, particularly in the film’s second hour, comes from the rambunctious Robert Shaw as Quint -the man Brody hires to help kill the shark. The film might rest on Scheider’s shoulders, but when Quint gives his Indianapolis speech (to Hooper and Brody), Spielberg wisely knew that all he had to do was film Shaw reeling this stuff off and the camera would do the rest. It is a beautiful scene and a scene which illustrates the horrors that Quint has witnessed and explains his chosen profession.
Dreyfuss, who had a notoriously difficult time acting alongside his co-star Robert Shaw, does a fine job as the marine biologist, Hooper. However, in his ‘it was a shark’ speech, where he examines the remains of the first victim, I do find his delivery somewhat clunky, particularly at the scene’s conclusion, where he blurts out, “IT WAS A SHARK!”
The camerawork is typical Spielberg, or rather, it set the standard for the typical Spielberg. The scene which precedes the Kintner boy’s death is still very impressive, where Spielberg cuts between the Chief looking anxiously out to sea, using medium close-ups and close-ups, before that infamous dolly zoom, which dramatically illustrates Brody’s internal horror as he realises what he is seeing.
Universal should be commended on their restoration job because seeing JAWS on the big screen was a pleasure to behold, in all its cinematic glory. But seeing the film on the big screen also reminded me of how effective the film is at building tension and the sense of dread that Spielberg builds with his monster beneath the waves.
Forget Schindler’s List (1993), Munich (2005) and War Horse (2011), the best Spielberg films are his popcorn flicks, and JAWS was (and is), the best film, Spielberg will ever make.