Review: Jaws

It’s been 37 years since audiences first set sail aboard The Orca in Steven Spielberg’s suspense masterpiece Jaws, as part of Universal’s restoration program the original negative has been dusted down, cleaned up and is showing this month in a glorious new digital print.

Based on Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws is the story of a great white shark that terrorises the quiet beach community of Amity Island. Under pressure from its scheming Mayor and the islands tourist traders, out of town cop Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) agrees to play down the grizzly discovery of a teenager Chrissie Watkins as a ‘boating accident’. But as the body count rises and the beaches close, it’s up to Chief Brody, hippie rich kid Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and wily old salt Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt down the giant fish feeding on the islands bathers.

Jaws was a massive box office success and a cultural phenomenon in 1975, it was the first film to break the $100 million ceiling, becoming the most profitable film of its time and still remains 7th overall in adjusted box office takings. Its marketing campaign, merchandising and wide-spread opening lay the blueprint for the modern blockbuster, along with Star Wars two years later it herald the end of an era of risk and independence in US cinema and swung power firmly back into the hand of the studios.

Armed with what he would later call ‘courage and stupidity’, Spielberg was hired by Hollywood moguls Richard Zanuck and David Brown for only his second studio feature. Spielberg faced a torrid task wrestling with a story of which Brown would later say ‘If I’d have read the novel twice, we wouldn’t have tried to film it’.

Production proved every bit as difficult as Brown might have been predicated, its $4million dollar budget ballooned to $9million and it’s schedule from 55 days to 159. The script would often be finished only the night before each scene was filmed, boats sank, actors nearly drowned and the shark couldn’t swim. Great credit must me given to Zanuck and Brown for their faith in Spielberg. With the crew renaming the project ‘Flaws’ and under increasing pressure to halt production, they encouraged Spielberg to never stop filming. Even with their shark lying at the bottom of the ocean.

With no shark to film Spielberg would suggest the animal’s presence through his use of camera angles and music. It turned what could have been a laughable monster movie into a terrifying thriller reminiscent of Hitchcock, and with a lasting influence found in films such as Alien and as recently as in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Spielberg now calls the shark’s inability to swim ‘a godsend’, an example of disaster turning to triumph. Likewise with no finished script in place actors were encouraged to ad-lib, this gave the film it’s most memorable line ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’ and Robert Shaw the creative freedom to rewrite the famous ‘Indianapolis’ monologue.

Unlike the cynical summer movies it paved the way for Jaws is a film about characters with weight. The camaraderie between the three men on The Orca (helped in some part by off screen tension between Shaw and Dreyfuss) is the heart of the film. Robert Shaw’s Quint almost steals the show with his swaggering Captain Ahab performance, but equally the likeability of Hooper and Brody is essential to our investment in their fate.

Most of all Jaws is still as frightening as ever, helped along by John Williams incredible score, some of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema and excellently edited together by Verna Fields. And I would encourage everyone to go back into the water one last time.

12 A certificate

Review by Digital Reporter, Ben Williams

Jaws screens as part of our Matinee Classics season on Sun 22 & Wed 25 July. Book your tickets here.