Oscar Vault Monday – Jaws, 1975 (dir. Steven Spielberg)

I don’t have a memory of the first time I saw this film; I think that’s because I was very little when I first saw it and I don’t remember a world wherein Jaws didn’t exist. I thought it would be fitting to write about this film as summer ends since it was the first summer blockbuster and to this day one of the most critically acclaimed. I love this film. I have seen it so many times now, including at least once in theaters, that I practically have it memorized. It’s only rated PG, but somehow it is insanely terrifying – even upon repeat viewings. I think Spielberg managed to create a film that is the perfect combination of chilling, exiting, heartfelt and innovative. What also makes this film work so well is the great performances from everyone in the cast. It’s almost as if they made a B movie at an A-list calibre (much like Hitchcock’s Psycho). It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won three – Best Film Editing (won), Best Score – John Williams (won), Best Sound (won) and Best Picture. It was up against Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville and winner One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

This was only Spielberg’s second feature film (third if you count his television film Duel). Although he wasn’t nominated for Best Director (I always find it odd when a film is up for Best Picture, but the director gets snubbed), Spielberg would be nominated for his first Oscar two years later for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Wherein he was nominated for Best Director, but the film was not nominated for Best Picture). I think this may well be my favorite of Spielberg’s films (although, I still have three that I have not seen), I can watch it over and over and am never sick of it.

From the very beginning of the film Spielberg establishes a sense of real terror. Susan Backlinie’s free-spirit Chrissie runs into the water with joyous abandon only to be brutally attacked by a shark that the audience barely sees. I saw a documentary once that said the reason they didn’t show the shark, nick-named Bruce, that often was because it malfunctioned. But by having the shark hidden through most of the film, it  just heightened the terror of its attacks. Audiences, as well as people, are more often scared by what they cannot see, by the unknown, rather than what they can see.

Instead we get to see the terror on the shark’s victim’s faces. This is one of my favorite scenes. Although at one point we see the shark bite off another victim’s leg, as well as see the bloody leg drop to the bottom of the ocean floor, it is Chief Brody’s terrified son that makes the scene so horrific. Here he is in the water, he knows there’s a shark, but he can’t move; he’s petrified. And so is the audience, waiting to see if the shark will eat the boy or will he be rescued just in time. Even after repeat viewings the scene remains one of the most intense, thrilling moments in cinematic history.

Even though they had a lot of problems with Bruce the shark robot, when he did show up on the screen he looked really menacing, don’t you think? Considering this is years, decades really, before CGI, etc. the special effects on this film were pretty revolutionary.

The underwater photography in the film is pretty phenomenal as well. Other than say, Jacques Cousteau, there hadn’t been many filmmakers that even tried to film underwater. Spielberg and cinematographer Bill Butler managed to capture some really stellar underwater film. How neither of them received a nomination from the Academy for their groundbreaking work is just beyond me.

There are several shots in this film that I find extremely beautiful. This shot of the Orca as it begins to sink is one of them. It’s so perfectly framed and adds to the harrowing scene that is unfolding. Part of what makes this film so timeless is the filmmakers’ attention to detail. Every shot, every scene, everything about the film is executed with such exquisite precision.

On top of the film’s technical perfection, the cast is simply marvelous. Lorraine Gary gives a stunning performance as Chief Brody’s loyal wife Ellen. At times she is a compassionate wife and partner to her husband, at others she’s a concerned mother. She always hits the right note at the right time. Also, there is such electric chemistry between Gary and Roy Scheider; never for a minute do you doubt that these two have been leaning on each other for years.

I really love Richard Dreyfuss in this movie. I think he was 25 or 26 when they filmed it and his performances is brimming with such amazing manic energy. He’s a little bit pompous, but he’s also a little bit right whenever he speaks. He’s charming and he’s fun and he’s grave and he’s solemn. There’s this spark about him every time he’s on the screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.

Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody is one of my all-time favorite film characters. He’s also one of my all-time heroes. He’s an everyman who rises to the occasion and saves the day. Only, unlike a lot of films, the way in which he saves the day is very believable; he doesn’t perform unrealistic feats, he simply does his job and does it well.

How Robert Shaw did not get a nomination as Best Supporting Actor for the Indianapolis monologue alone baffles me to this day. It’s some of the most spine-tingling 5 minutes you’ll find any film ever, and his line delivery is just perfection. Is Shaw’s Quint a modern-day Ahab? Yes. Is he a hero? Is he an anti-hero? I’m not sure. Is he one of the greatest constructed performances of the 1970s? Without a doubt.

I can’t not talk about the film’s climatic final scene. It is just one of the greatest endings to a film ever. You almost feel sorry for the shark, I mean it was just trying to survive, you know? But then it also ate A LOT of people, including a child and a dog. Is the shark evil? Or is the whole thing just a metaphor about nature adapting to the unnatural world of man? All I know is, Chief Brody is a badass.

Brody: Smile you son of a bitch.
[shoots at the air tank]
[Jaws blows up]
[Brody laughs maniacally]

If you’re interested in buying the film, you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 16, 2010, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I finally got to read this post today. Very nice. I saw this in the theater when it opened and it was horribly scary. My husband of course to this day hums the shark music. The score and those two repeated notes were perfect. I agree that the Indianopolis Monologue is one of the all-time scariest 5 minutes of cinema. Really a comparison of Jaws with Moby Dick would make a great master’s thesis or PHD disertation don’t you think?
    Chief Brody as Ishmael, Quint as Ahab , Richard Dreyfess as the harpooner….:)

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