Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is going to need a bigger boat.
"Smile, you son of a bitch!"
For better or worse, the entertainment world changed forever on June 20, 1975. On that day, a little film about a hungry shark opened on a now-paltry 409 screens. Within 78 days, Steven Spielberg's Jaws was the top-grossing film of all-time (and it still was under the 1000-screen mark), surpassing the $85M earned by The Godfather. By Labor Day, it had become the first film to break the $100M mark—and that was just in domestic receipts. Jaws had given birth to a new genre: the summer blockbuster.
Today, it's easy to forget about the impact and significance of Jaws, mainly because its box-office records lasted all of two years, whereupon they were obliterated by Spielberg buddy George Lucas's little space opera. Universal hasn't forgotten, though, which is why they've released yet another version of Jaws on DVD (the third, if you count the laserdisc version) to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary. Thirty years on, Jaws is still one of Spielberg's best films, and is still the gold standard by which other summer action thrillers are measured. Although it's a close call, this disc is just barely worth the double-dip, thanks mainly to Universal's two concessions to the film's fans. Do you need this disc if you own 2000's Anniversary Edition? No. But it is more complete than that version, and is obviously a better choice for those who don't own the film at all.
Facts of the Case
Sleepy Amity Island (Martha's Vineyard, Ted Kennedy's Car Accident) is preparing for the tourist-heavy July 4th weekend, as it does every year. This year, though, transplanted New Yorker Martin Brodie (Roy Scheider, The French Connection), Amity's new police chief, is overseeing the public's safety.
Trouble begins when assorted bits of a skinny-dipping coed (Susan Backlinie) turn up on the beach. The town coroner's analysis is clear: the girl was attacked by a shark. Brodie wants to close the beaches until they can figure out whether a shark is on the prowl—a move strongly opposed by the town's mayor (Murray Hamilton, The Graduate), who pressures the coroner to change his opinion on the cause of the girl's death from "shark attack" to "boating accident." So the beaches stay open—and, of course, little Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) winds up eaten in front of a large crowd of beachgoers.
Finally, the beaches are closed. Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) offers a reward for the capture of the shark, which brings every huntin' and fishin' yahoo in the greater New England area to the island on their bass boats. By now, a Woods Hole ichthyologist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, American Graffiti), has arrived on the scene, called in by Brodie to serve as a shark consultant. He confirms the coroner's original diagnosis—the girl was eaten by a shark. And not just any shark—the bite marks indicate a shark that is well above-average in size. Possibly a great white (a.k.a. white pointer), even though Amity isn't their normal habitat.
Shockingly, the Yahoo Armada manages to land a big tiger shark, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Everyone except for Hooper, that is. He can tell that the caught shark isn't big enough to have caused the bite marks on the girl. He persuades Brodie to cut open the shark's stomach, to see what it had eaten. If chunks of the Kintner boy fall out, they've got their shark. If not…well, then there's still a problem. The late-night drunken piscine autopsy reveals no boy chunks.
After an attack in a shallow estuary kills a sailing instructor—and almost kills Brodie's own son—the town turns to a salty local shark fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw, The Sting, A Man For All Seasons), for help. Quint guarantees he'll find and kill the shark for $10,000. The town begrudgingly agrees to his price. And so Quint, with Brodie and Hooper along as crew (or "bait," as Quint sees it), sets out on the good ship Orca to go mano a flipper with the great white whale…er, shark.
They're going to need a bigger boat.
For Peter Benchley, the Jaws experience must have been a dream come true. His very first novel is a runaway best-seller, and its movie adaptation (which he also co-wrote) becomes the most successful film ever. What could possibly be better? Of course Benchley was no ordinary first-time novelist. Benchley is the grandson of actor/writer/humorist/editor/bon vivant Richard Benchley, of Algonquin Round Table fame, and the son of Nat Benchley, who wrote The Off-Islanders, the source novel for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!. Before writing Jaws, Peter had written for the Washington Post, Newsweek, and Lyndon Johnson. With an intellectual pedigree like that, your book had better be a best-seller…
Although Benchley was an avid scuba diver, he knew very little about sharks and their behavior when he wrote Jaws. His main inspiration, he says, was a newspaper article about a Long Island shark fisherman who caught a two-ton great white shark off of Montauk. He thought, "Hey, what if that thing starting attacking people?"—and a phenomenon was born. Benchley combined his killer great white with some of the factual details surrounding a series of shark attacks in 1916 off Jersey Beach in New Jersey, stirred in some adultery, organized crime, Moby Dick, and a bit of potboiler intrigue, and had his novel. It wound up being an instant success; the summer read of 1974. Bantam bought the rights to the book for $300,000 or so; Universal bought the film rights for $150,000. Benchley was thrilled by the income—he claims he had all of $300 in his bank account when Jaws was sold.
It was up to producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to turn this hot literary property into a motion picture. The process began immediately; well before the book was even published, in fact. Their first choice for director—someone they refuse to name—was rejected when he started to go on and on about how he always wanted to make a film about a "whale." Their second choice was a 27-year-old wunderkind who had just made a reasonably successful film for them, The Sugarland Express—Steven Spielberg. Today, all three say that if they, at that point, had taken the time to sit and think about it, they never would have made the film—they would have realized how insanely difficult it was going to be to make. But Spielberg was young and enthusiastic, and Brown and Zanuck wanted to capitalize on the immediate success of the novel, so the film went into production.
Of the primary cast, only one—Lorraine Gary, as Mrs. Brodie—was Spielberg's first choice for the role. He had a couple of unknown actors in mind for the lead role of Chief Brodie, but Universal wanted a "name" actor as lead. Everyone unanimously agreed on Roy Scheider, who had burst on the scene in 1971 with his twin standout supporting roles in Klute and The French Connection (the latter earning him an Oscar nomination). Scheider's ability to play "calm" proved to be the glue that held the film together—both on-screen and off-screen.
Spielberg wanted Lee Marvin to play Quint, the hard, Ahab-like shark hunter, but Marvin wasn't interested. He then approached Sterling Hayden, whom he felt could bring a strong, Gregory Peck-as-Ahab feel to the character—but he wasn't interested, either. Brown and Zanuck suggested an actor who had impressed them in another film they had recently produced (The Sting), an intense Englishman named Robert Shaw. After reviewing some of Shaw's work, Spielberg enthusiastically agreed, and Shaw was in. Shaw was a character unto himself; straight out of the Laurence Olivier/Oliver Reed intense, competitive, and hard-to-work-with school of acting, he was quite a handful. But he was also a brilliant actor, and a gifted writer to boot (who helped write the famous "Indianapolis speech" in the film).
Finally, Spielberg, in his own words, went through "every cast member of The Last Picture Show" in seeking out his Matt Hooper. Jon Voight was actually his first choice, but passed. He then went the Last Picture Show route, but Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges also passed. It was George Lucas who first suggested Dreyfuss, whom he had directed in American Graffiti. Spielberg had him read for the part, liked him, and offered him the role. Dreyfuss passed—he said that Jaws was a film he'd love to watch, but would hate to have to make. But (as he recounts in the included documentary) after he saw himself on-screen in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, he was convinced that nobody would ever hire him again, so he'd better grab whatever job he could find ASAP. Hence, he called Spielberg back and asked if the Hooper role was still open. It was, and he was cast.
Amity Island itself was supposed to be in New England, or possibly off Long Island, but Benchley never really specified where. (Odds are it was based on Nantucket Island, which Benchley had often visited.) Spielberg looked at several potential filming locations (including, believe it or not, Jamaica) before finally settling on the island of Martha's Vineyard, an extremely sleepy playground for the rich a few miles to the south of Cape Cod. Although the Vineyard was the perfect, picturesque equivalent of the quiet seaside town of Amity, Spielberg actually chose it because of the sea floor there. It was the only place on the East Coast where there was a soft, sandy, and relatively shallow bottom far enough offshore that it was out of sight of land. For his on-the-water scenes, Spielberg didn't want any land to be visible, lest the audience think, "why don't they just head for that land over there and get away from the shark?" By filming on Martha's Vineyard, Spielberg could get far away from terra firma, but still have the water be shallow enough for the massive barge-like contraption that held the mechanical shark.
Speaking of the mechanical shark—that shark (or, more accurately, sharks—there were several sharks built for Jaws, each of which filled a very specific role), and the myriad of problems with it, became the key factor in the film's production. The main shark, dubbed "Bruce" or "The Great White Turd" by Spielberg (depending on his mood), was mounted, along with all the pneumatic equipment necessary to make it move, on the aforementioned large, barge-like framework. The framework had tanks that could be flooded, allowing the structure to sit on the sea floor for support. The whole thing was built in California, then shipped to Martha's Vineyard for reassembly and use. It promptly sank. And that was just the beginning. The shark almost never worked properly; Spielberg was only able to get a handful of the planned shark shots filmed over the course of the excruciating five-month shoot. Therefore, he was forced to substantively change the film on the fly. He replaced many of the planned shots of the mechanical shark with "shark's eye view" shots, or shots of, say, only a fin (e.g. the attack on the Kintner boy). In the film's third act, the yellow barrels that Quint harpoons to the shark (to keep it at the surface and exhaust it) substitute for the shark itself.
In the end, all these filmmaking travails actually enhanced the drama and suspense in the final product. Spielberg learned what Hitchcock knew cold: sometimes, it's much scarier to not see the monster. Bruce the Shark doesn't reveal himself until nearly two-thirds of the way into the film. And when he does, the scene has far more dramatic impact than it would have had if we had seen bits and pieces of him over the first hour. Spielberg was never happy with how the shark looked on film, either. He is correct in that assessment: the shark doesn't look all that real. But it looks real enough, which is all the film needs. By keeping Bruce out of sight for most of the film, Spielberg lets us use our own imaginations to create an image of him. By the time he shows up, we're more than ready to be scared by him, no matter what he looks like. As long as he's big and toothy, we're hooked.
Jaws is also enhanced by Spielberg's decision to jettison much of the character backstory and side plots from Benchley's novel. Instead, the film's sole focus from frame one is on the threat posed by the shark, from which it never deviates. That singularity of purpose makes the film flow smoothly and effortlessly through its two-hour runtime; it's never derailed by side elements that aren't as important to us as Bruce is. Even when he's just lurking offshore, the menace of the unseen shark is always the engine driving this freight train.
Although Jaws's performances, story, effects, and editing are all good, none of them are, on their own, very noteworthy. Jaws the movie, though, is much greater than the sum of its parts. It is, in many ways, the perfect blockbuster: fast-paced, scary and funny in turns, simple (but not simplistic), and larger-than-life. The fact that much of it doesn't make any logical sense—for example, the ending actually defies the laws of physics—is easy to overlook, because it's such a great ride. Much of the credit has to go to Spielberg, who apparently has an innate knack for turning inherently ridiculous action thrillers like this into great movie experiences. Jaws launched Spielberg into the Hollywood director stratosphere, and marked the beginning of a near-unbroken 10-year series of monstrous successes for him—Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—all of which were also, like Jaws, mostly-illogical stories that were executed with precision, gusto, and a lot of fun. Some directors just flat-out get it—Spielberg clearly gets the mid- to lowbrow blockbuster genre; love him or hate him, the man has a true gift. After Temple of Doom, he turned a bit more serious and introspective in his filmmaking, but he can still crank out the occasional Jaws-like blockbuster (Jurassic Park, Minority Report) when he wants to.
For the most part, this 30th Anniversary DVD edition of Jaws is the same as the previously-released Anniversary Edition: it has the same solid 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the film, the same deleted scenes and outtakes, and the same set of photo galleries, which cover not only the production of the film, but also the cultural phenomenon it became after release. I was happy to see the pictures of "Jaws: The Game"; I still have mine in the basement. (Amazon reports that this edition's galleries and deleted/outtake collections include a few extra items when compared to the previous edition's; not having a copy of the old version in hand, I can't confirm or refute this.) It also has the same controversial remixed and re-Foleyed 5.1 Dolby Surround audio track—now also provided in Spanish and French dubs. A DTS 5.1 surround mix of the "new" audio track is provided as well. I wasn't particularly impressed with the surround mix in 2000, and I'm not impressed with it now. It does make John Williams's Oscar-winning score sound very rich, but for the most part it doesn't take advantage of the full 5-speaker soundstage at all. Personally, I didn't find that the reconstruction of the film's sound effects for the 5.1 mix detracted from my experience. However, Universal apparently listened to the complaints of purists, and gives us the film's original, unaltered mono mix (mixed into a 2.0 format) as an audio option.
A big plus for this set is its inclusion of the full feature-length documentary The Making of Jaws, which was made for the original laserdisc release of the film. The documentary was included on the Anniversary Edition, but in order to fit the full package on one disc, it was edited down to an hour. Now, finally, this exemplary documentary is available in its complete form. Jaws was a train wreck of a production; a film that came close to complete collapse on almost a daily basis. The stories that came out of its production are numerous and fascinating, even if you're not that interested in the technical aspects of how films are made, and are almost as entertaining as the film itself. Another great feature of this piece is that, unlike many of these types of documentaries, all of the major players on the film participated in it (except for Shaw, who died in 1978). Producer David Brown (you're probably more familiar with his wife, the former Helen Gurley) proves to be surprisingly witty about the whole thing, and Dreyfuss is his usual jocular, entertaining self. The Making of Jaws, a full two hours in length, really plays out almost like a drama. It isn't quite up to the level of Hearts of Darkness, but it's pretty close.
A second documentary is new to this release. It's a relatively brief (about 10 minutes long) interview with Spielberg done by British television early in the shoot (probably sometime in May 1974). For the average fan, this will be an amusing curiosity, mainly because Spielberg looks so young. (Heck, he was young.) For cineastes and film students, though, it will be far more interesting. Spielberg is, and always has been, extremely articulate when called upon to discuss the "whys" of his directorial choices. Often, a director will explain a camera angle, or a framing choice, by saying that "it felt right." (Or, more rarely, "I was so wasted on coke that I didn't know what the hell I was doing.") Spielberg, on the other hand, almost always has a detailed explanation for every choice he makes, e.g. "I thought that using the wipes of out-of-focus bathing suits to join the Brodie isolation shots and the footage of the people in the water would emphasize that this was all Brodie's point of view, and make it seem more like a single shot." You'd be surprised how rare that kind of candor and specificity is…Anyhow, in this little interview we have Spielberg talking about what he wants to do in the film before he went out and shot it. Combining this interview with Spielberg's comments in the main feature documentary, one gets a rare opportunity to evaluate how well a director accomplished his stated pre-production goals, and understand (to a certain extent) why some of those goals were modified or abandoned during filming. From a "learning about practical filmmaking" standpoint, it's fascinating.
A very nice 60-page commemorative booklet is included as well. I really don't see the point of these little booklets, to be honest—but this one is well done, and certainly doesn't detract from the package.
Jaws exploited our fear of the unseen to the tune of over $400 million in global box office when all was said and done. It single-handedly tripled tourism on Martha's Vineyard, and almost crippled the 1975 summer beach season everywhere else. (Some people are still afraid of the ocean because of Jaws, even to this day.) It did for sharks what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs. It was more than a film; it was a multifaceted cultural event, foreshadowing the Star Wars experience two years later. Thirty years on, it's still a heck of a fun film, too—something this DVD package amply illustrates.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Jaws really begs for a director's commentary from Spielberg; I don't know why one doesn't exist for this anniversary edition. Sure, he's a busy guy…but did they even ask?
It would be nice to have had some sort of documentary on sharks included as part of the package. It's a two-disc set; there should have been enough room to squeeze one in somewhere. In the best of all possible worlds, this package would have included Blue Water, White Death, director Peter Gimbel's fantastic 1971 documentary on great whites, which was photographed in part by legendary Australian camerapeople Ron and Valerie Taylor, who also filmed all of the "real" shark footage used in Jaws. Since Blue Water, White Death is unavailable on DVD or video, its inclusion would have been a huge bonus for Jaws fans and shark documentary fans alike. Alas, no shark documentaries were included here.
But the lingering question raised by this release is: why couldn't this have been done in 2000? Why did it take two tries to provide a solid, near-comprehensive Jaws package? Is Universal really that dim—or do they think we are? The fact that this 30th Anniversary edition is more complete than the 2000 release is enough to recommend it despite the double-dip—but just barely enough.
Jaws is an important film in the history of cinema. After Jaws, the summer movie season would forever be a time for big-budget, gargantuan action pictures, many of which are idiot's tales, full of sound and fury but, in the end, signifying nothing. It's easy—and not necessarily inaccurate—to point to June 20, 1975, as the exact point when big-budget Hollywood cinema began its precipitous decline in its overall quality. Today, summer movie houses are filled with inane dreck from talentless hacks like Brett Ratner and Joel Schumacher, and it's really all because of that stupid shark film.
Once upon a time, though, "big budget" wasn't always a euphemism for "bad." Jaws may have marked a sea change in the economics and practices of Hollywood; a change that most would view as negative. But it really was a good film—crisp and fun, with just the right amount of PG-rated terror. Jaws, like other great blockbusters, was memorable—something few films in its genre achieve. Don't let the fact that its reputation was tarnished by several lackluster sequels blind you to the original's charms. Jaws, in its own way, is a classic.
It's just a shame that it took a double dip to get a relatively complete DVD version of Jaws. I wonder, with cynicism, what Universal will "discover" in 2010 for the 35th Anniversary Edition…
The film is clearly not guilty; it's not the film's fault that boatloads of crappy "summer blockbuster" films (including its own sequels) followed it. Universal's case, however, is remanded for further fact-finding as to their true motivations. Sadly, this disc, for all its positives, still smells a bit like a greedy cash grab.
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