Friday, September 21

Jaws: Favorite Movie #27

1975 Drama
From Universal Studios
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Roy Scheider
Robert Shaw
Richard Dreyfuss
Lorraine Gary
Murray Hamilton

Jaws may be my 27th favorite all-time film but it stands as another one of those films that was once higher on my chart.  There was a time that I was so taken in by this film.  The film has never slipped in my estimation as much as some others have simply crowded it out.  There is no point in discussing the plot of Jaws.  Everyone knows what it's about from start to exciting finish.  So we have to go someplace else.  Mmmm, let' see.

Starting with before its release and going right through even this year, I have read so much on this film.  We'll talk about some of that.  You true aficionados will know all this already so no surprise there.  But for some of you others, let's discuss more of the back story.

It starts with the writer, doncha know?  No Peter Benchley... no Jaws.  He wrote the novel on which the film is based and he did a number of the first screen treatments.  He shares writing credit with Carl Gottlieb who, in fact, contributed most of his talent while on actual location.  Co-star Richard Dreyfuss has said we started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.

After Benchley we have producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to thank.  Their abilities to acquire hot screen properties are why we have enjoyed The Sting, The Verdict, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy and A Few Good Men, among others.  As fond as I am of most all of their collaborations, I am confident that Jaws is their masterpiece. 

And that masterpiece was given a heart and brain and blood vessels by none other than the master of that new wave of directors,  Steven Spielberg.  When he signed to helm Jaws, he had only done The Sugarland Express, as far as theatrical films go, but he was lucky enough to have latched on to Zanuck-Brown for that film as well.  Spielberg was at first excited about this directorial chore but he did have doubts shortly thereafter and wanted to leave.  Luckily, for history, that didn't happen.

You've heard of the three R's?  Well, they're represented here in the form of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss.  Spielberg thought the film would be sold to the public better if the actors chosen for the island cop, the shark hunter and the oceanographer, respectively, were not huge names.  They also weren't original choices.  There had been talk of Robert Duvall playing the cop.  Charlton Heston expressed an interest in the role, as well.  (Oh God, thank you.)  Can you see Lee Marvin or Sterling Hayden as the shark hunter?  I certainly can.  Marvin turned it down outright and Hayden, a real life seaman, had to say no because he needed to spend more time out of the United States for tax reasons.  Jon Voight and Jeff Bridges were among those chatted up for the oceanographer role.  But in the end and as one who has seen this film more times than I can recall, I think the three chosen were as outstanding as the film itself.

The Amity Island of the story is supposed to be off Long Island.  In actuality Jaws was filmed in a fishing village called Menemsha and off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.  The ocean filming is part of the legendary problems this production would have.  When one thinks that James Cameron filmed Titanic using mainly sound stages and a big tank, the decision to film Jaws at sea was a risky one. 

The filming was scheduled to take place over 55 days. It ended up taking 159 days, which gives you some idea of the many problems they faced.  There were cameras falling into the water, actors and others getting seasick, new scenes or dialogue always popping up and other tiresome delays.  It was mostly about the shark (or sharks), named Bruce, and the constant and irritating malfunctions.  A lot of people were in some very bad moods a great deal of the time.

I love to be scared at the movies and as I said in a prior post, I have to believe what I am seeing.  I know there are those who say the Jaws story just doesn't happen in real life but I believed what I was seeing.  I am one of those who has been leery of the high seas ever since.  I lived near the Pacific Ocean and I did go in it after seeing Jaws.  Several times I dare say.  But I always wondered, always checked out the slightest irregularity.  Always made sure my important papers were in order.  Oh stop.  I was joshing on that last one, but you get the point.

When that water-logged head dropped down in the open hole of the overturned boat, I was glad I had used the facilities before sitting down for the movie. And we all remember when the shark jumps on the boat, knocking Quint to the floor and he slides down into the monster's mouth.  In the theater I can still recall how I automatically started lifting my legs off the theater floor.  What a genuinely creepy/scary scene. 

You want a reminder?

Also contributing to the heart-pounding suspense was that music (oh John...!) which kept one in a state of frayed nerves.
And do we recall that most of the underwater photography was done from the shark's point of view which more than added to the tension.  Somebody set out to scare the popcorn out of our boxes and they succeeded.  

I am a student of great movie lines.  My partner and I speak in what we call movie dialogue--eese.  We can have entire conversations, intending to be funny, of course, and borrow from one movie after another.  Jaws has one of the most memorable lines in American movie history... you're gonna need a bigger boat.  Many people think it was we're gonna need a bigger boat (count me among them) but that's not it.  It was said by Roy Scheider and he improvised it.  It was not in the script.  Whodathunk?

Old crusty Quint's tale of the men thrown into the sea from the USS Indianapolis, a true event, and said below deck during a brief moment of peace, was largely rewritten by Robert Shaw, Quint himself.

This became the highest-grossing American film of all time for a spell.  I know I helped.  I am sure I saw it a dozen times in theaters.  I was often telling people about it, talking them into attending and then tagging along.  The first time that I saw it in some dumpy theater on Hollywood Blvd. I stood in one of the longest lines I have ever had the misfortune to stand in.  Its early summer release became a template for summer blockbuster releases that we enjoy (some more than others) to this day.

I think it is one of the best-made American films ever.  Never mind that it also happens to be on my favorites list... it is simply a magnificent piece of film-making in every area.  It was honored with some accolades, prizes and tributes. The American Film Institute said its musical score was the 6th greatest of all time.  The United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry as being culturally significant.  The Writer's Guild ranked the Jaws screenplay as the 63rd best of all time.  It won Oscars for the score, the sound and the editing... deserving one and all.  It was beaten for Oscar's best picture by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

There is a seamless quality from start to finish (there's that editing).  It started off frighteningly enough, just to get one in the mood for what's to follow.  But then we get to be comfortable with the small fishing village.  We learn they need the summer visitors and the dollars they tuck into their suits.  We encounter a number of scary scenes before that small craft heads out to sea.  And when it does, the talents behind this exceptional film make certain we know we're in for quite an exciting trip.    

My only whine actually isn't about the film itself but about the several inferior sequels that were spawned.  It's a shame but it's so Hollywood.

A sad note is that Ron Taylor passed away in the last month.  He and his wife Valerie filmed the shark cage scene (supposedly Richard Dreyfuss inside trying to attract the shark and kill it) in Australia using some real sharks and some trickery.  It was very skillfully done.  Good job, Taylors.

Good job, everyone.

Review of
Trouble with the Curve


  1. This has convinced me to put Jaws on my Netflix! I was just a wee baby when it was released. I'm sure I saw it at my cousin's house when I was about 7 years old on VHS and hid under blanket half the time. Need to sit and watch it from start to finish (but might still keep the blanket nearby). :)

    1. Thanks for your comments. I love hearing this. It's at the heart of why I do a blog.