Monday, April 4, 2016

Looking at Movies (Classic Movie) - Jaws (1975)

I looked out my window Sunday evening and thought that it would be a great week for a classic summer movie. With the wife and I not feeling 100 percent and an April snowstorm moving in, I thought that Jaws would be the ideal classic movie review to do this week.

They say that when a person loses their sight, the rest of their senses are significantly enhanced. To me, that concept is what helped to make Jaws one of the greatest movies ever made. When the star of the movie could not be relied on to perform when needed, Steven Spielberg had to enhance the other elements of the film to get something that people would watch. When Jaws was finally released, Spielberg was rightfully recognized as a genius and I never went swimming in a large body of water ever again.

The star of Jaws is Bruce the Shark (Yes, Pixar got the name from Jaws), but Bruce was being a typical Hollywood diva and would not take direction. The original script and concept for Jaws was much more intense and graphic than the final version we actually have now. If Spielberg had made what was originally written, he would have made a B-movie grade chomp and stomp movie about a monster shark that kills people. Instead, he made a work of art that terrifies everyone who sees it, and continues to deliver terror over 40 years later.

When Bruce was AWOL for most of the filming, Spielberg enhanced elements such as lighting, timing, music, and camera effects to create his masterpiece. Spielberg used a simple camera and dolly system to create a type of theatrical shot called "the Jaws zoom" that is still used today. But when Spielberg did it, he combined visual and musical elements to increase the terror the audience feels. It worked then, it works today, and it will always work.

Try to imagine the opening scene of Jaws (You've seen Jaws, right? Of course you have.) in the middle of the day with a mechanical shark slithering up on the unsuspecting victim. It would be pretty gross, and completely ineffective. Spielberg spent most of the first half of the movie implying there is a shark, and the second half of the movie with quick bursts of shark sightings to remind us that we are indeed terrified of a shark. When I saw this movie I was barely 10 years old and it took me almost 45 minutes of watching the movie to realize what I would be traumatized by for the rest of my life. It was that good, and it was that effective.

Spielberg and writer Carl Gottlieb would shut down filming for days to get all of the production equipment repaired, and write the script. While they were filming many of the ocean scenes, Spielberg would have to improvise because Mother Nature simply would not cooperate. Between the malfunctioning diva shark and the fact that the movie was being shot on a real ocean, Spielberg often waited in his hotel room for the word that production had been shut down. That word never came, and a lot of us movie buffs are very thankful for that.

Jaws benefited from several elements that the audience may have been unaware of. John Williams is an absolute musical genius (41 Oscar nominations - enough said) and created a soundtrack that is scary even without the movie. The most famous line in the movie ("You're gonna need a bigger boat") was completely improvised at the moment it was being filmed by Roy Scheider. The friction between Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw was so real that the two barely spoke to each other after the movie was filmed and for the rest of Shaw's life. Without that friction, the scenes aboard Captain Quint's boat the Orca simply do not work. The Hollywood stars really aligned for the making of this cinematic masterpiece.

Jaws started out as one of the worst production ideas in the history of Hollywood. No one had ever shot a movie on the ocean before Jaws, and no one has done it since. But as things sometimes go when you put brilliant people in difficult situations, the heightening of everyone's senses has helped to make Jaws a movie that every human being must see at least once, if not over and over again.

George N Root III is a drive-in fanatic who appreciates great art. Follow him on Twitter @georgenroot3 or send him a message at Please, no email from sharks.