Producing summer shocks

Scary fish tale is a great white blockbuster

Published: Jul 28 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, June 20, 1975.
JAWS. Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley. Music by John Williams. Directed by Steven Spieberg. Running time: 124 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some gory violence, frightening scenes.
Through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terror of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw.
— from Moby Dick  (1851), by Herman Melville

THIS YEAR, 1975, IS the 200th anniversary of the final voyage of the Pequod. American movie-makers might have marked the occasion with yet another remake of Herman Melville's literary classic Moby Dick.
    Such was not to be the case. A more recent property was at hand, one more likely to find favour with the filmgoing public. In Jaws, director Steven Spielberg gives us, not the pursuit of the Great White Whale, but of a Great White Shark.
    The result is a fish story of electrifying proportions. More exciting as a screen concept than Melville's multi-layered novel, it is an allegory designed for the age of The Exorcist. An incredible motion-picture experience, Jaws shocks, stuns, terrifies and thoroughly entertains from its first moment to the last.
    As in 1973's The Exorcist, we are introduced to a force that is both inhuman and virtually invincible. A prehistoric killer, the giant shark is 6,000 pounds of malice and cunning.
    He rules his world by terror. For an Old Testament prophet, he'd have been a perfect symbol for pure evil.
    All of that was probably quite far from the mind of the original novelist, 35-year-old Peter Benchley. The scion of a long literary line and a former presidential speech writer, he set out to write a summertime best-seller.
    He cheerfully tarted up his tale with a lot of the things that publishers think people want to read on the plane between Chicago and New York — sybaritic youths, class consciousness, decadence, adultery, lust, greed and the Mafia.
    Credit Spielberg with having enough sense to order up a screenplay that pared out the extraneous nonsense. His film version is not only more timely, but timeless. It is not only different from the book, it's better.
    As in Benchley's novel, the story unfolds around three characters. First on the scene is Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a transplanted New York City cop who is starting a new life as the police chief of coastal Amity, a New England resort town.
    Remains have washed up on the beach. Brody's conclusion: shark attack.
    Next to arrive is Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a young oceanographer who specializes in sharks. Finally, we meet Quint (called Moon in the book, he is played by Robert Shaw), a well-salted old shark hunter.
    The story begins with one of the most effective opening sequences that I've ever seen. During the credit titles, we hear the deep notes of an ominous theme. The camera offers us a shark's-eye point of view as it glides beneath the water's surface.
    The music stops, and the scene shifts to a beach where it is already night. A fire blazes. A party is winding down. Across the flames, eyes meet, and a young couple leave the group to run down to the water.
    The girl — Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) — makes it first. She is swimming towards a marker buoy, when suddenly the camera shifts back to the underwater view, and we hear the shark
theme again. Closer and closer it comes to her shapely, kicking legs . . .
    We never see the shark. Indeed, the film is nearly half over before Spielberg shows us so much as a fin. But from this point on, whenever the camera goes beneath the surface, whenever composer John Williams's pounding shark theme is heard, we know through whose eyes we're looking, and what we're looking for.
    Spielberg has structured  his film in two movements. In the first, the shark stakes his claim to the Amity beach. In the second, the men challenge him to mortal combat.
    The film is powered by three flawless performances (or four, if you count Williams's score as the voice of the shark). Scheider, an intense, intelligent actor, shows us a man who thought that by leaving the city he could escape mindless violence.
    "In Amity," he says with frontiersman-like hopefulness. "one man can make a difference." The shark situation turns his world upside down and, although neither stupid nor cowardly, he seems to be both until the initial shock wears off.
    Fresh from his triumph in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974),  Richard Dreyfuss brings his own intensity to the role of Hooper, a rich kid who has a weak stomach and a deep-seated fear of sharks. In common with Scheider, he makes the part his own, shaping and developing it as the story unfolds.
    Facing considerable competition from his co-stars is Robert Shaw, as the Ahab-like Quint. He enters the film with a melodramatic flourish that might have turned into caricature.
    It doesn't, because the characterization has been thought through, and is supported in the script. "That must be Quint," says Brody's wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary), focusing on a man carrying on like Jack Palance playing Wolf Larson.
    "Colourful, isn't he?" says her somewhat daunted husband. Less polite is Hooper. Given a knot-tying test by the old sailor, the bearded young scientist loses his temper.
    "I don't need this working-class hero crap!" he snarls. The three are, of course, destined to become grudging allies in the final battle with the shark.
    And what a battle! Shorn of sub-plots and distracting complications, the story becomes a genuine adventure epic. If Moby Dick's whale was God rebuking man for his hubris, Jaws'  shark is Satan. The lesson, however, remains the same.
    Spielberg, 26, confirms the promise he showed in his two previous feature projects: the made-for-TV movie Duel (1971) and last year's Sugarland Express. A man with an appreciation for the menace of machines, he successfully transfers this feeling to one of nature's most efficient killing machines, the shark.
    His script, written by Benchley in collaboration with professional screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (both of whom have small parts in the film), is glib, contemporary, quick-witted and without a word of expository fat. By concentrating on the mythic dimensions that filming can bring to a story, he creates a splendidly visual, visually literate adventure.
    No ordinary thriller, this is an example of movie-making at its finest. The year's first must-see film, Jaws grips and never lets go.
    *     *     *
WHALE'S TALE — When Spielberg's trio set out to track down the Great White Shark, they do so on a boat called the Orca, a word familiar to crossword puzzle fans as the answer to the clue "killer whale."
    The Great White Whale's tale, incidentally, has been adapted to the screen at least three times to date. Both The Sea Beast (1926), and Moby Dick (1930), starred John Barrymore.
    More recently, the Ahab part has been played (with rather too much self-conscious dignity) by Gregory Peck. His Moby Dick was directed by John Huston in 1956.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In hindsight, we know that Jaws changed the economics of the U.S. picture business in the mid-1970s. Before the shark entered the market, the standard practice for releasing a film was to open in the major cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), and then "go wide" on the strength of the critical response. Tossing aside the rulebook, Jaws opened in 465 theatres nationwide, a blitz that was accompanied by an unprecedented television ad campaign. Its phenomenal success has been given credit (or the blame) for popularizing the practice of saturation booking to maximize first-weekend profits. It's also said to have turned summertime into a season for major film releases. The year's top-grossing film, Spielberg's scary fish tale generated three sequels, none of them directed by the original hit-maker. Roy Scheider was back on board for Jaws 2 (1978), but not for Jaws 3-D (1983), in which the action was relocated to Florida and involved the Scheider character's now grown sons. In the final installment, 1987's Jaws: The Revenge, the boys return to Amity Island and their widowed mom (Lorraine Gary reprising her role), for an encounter with a shark that just might be the mate of the great white killed in the first film.
    In the first paragraph of my 1975 review, I stated that "this year is the 200th anniversary of the final voyage of the Pequod," the ship captained by the ill-fated Ahab in Moby Dick. At the time, I was certain enough of my bit of literary trivia to go to print with it. Today, though, I have no recollection of what my source was for that factoid, and have yet to find any corroborating evidence on the Internet. What year did the Pequod last set sail? Thirty-nine years ago, I was sure that the answer was "1775." This morning, not so much.