It only made sense when doing a large extended-family vacation on Cape Cod, after spending an afternoon on the beach, to take another look at Jaws. The first time around, the film got lost in the phenomenon. It’s heralded as the first great summer blockbuster, and it caused too many people to stay away from the ocean, or even from swimming pools.
This time around, with full familiarity of the plot, on a (very) large screen, with no cuts for time or content, and—bliss!—no commercial interruptions, I’m reminded what a good film it is. Spielberg thought of it as a director’s film, and while it will always be much more than that, he was right. It’s the vision of a single person, from its opening shot through the attacks through the family drama to the men-against-shark standoff.
Of course you can find flaws. “Bruce” the mechanical shark isn’t always full of the flexibility and subtlety of movement that you might find in a CG creation. But it’s real, not digitized, and that adds to the authenticity of the film. The scenes of Quint’s fishing boat don’t always cut together well; it’s a tribute to Oscar-winning editor Verna Fields that you barely notice how different the skies are in the background, some days clear, some days cloudy, many days in-between. Continuity errors abound. Even John Williams’ famous score, two notes of which are forever part of our culture, occasionally errs on the side of joyfully exciting and rousing when it should be leaning toward the tense and fearful.
Those small quibbles aside, this is a well-constructed and well-directed film. The forced decision to show the effects and presence of the shark before actually seeing it is one of cinema’s happy accidents (though Spielberg was going to hold back on that from the beginning). Seeing what it can do before seeing it in the flesh builds suspense and activates the imagination. Having Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) look through a book of shark attacks, often reflected in his glasses, is a lesson in how to show instead of tell, especially when we are drawn into the book with him, only to be startled along with him by his wife.
Part of the strength of the film is the genuineness of the family scenes. This is a husband and wife who know each other well and love each other deeply; you can almost feel their connection and history. The dinner scene where a son imitates a deeply distracted father says more about the power of a father’s influence than a dozen documentaries.
Then there is the acting, rarely talked about when Jaws is mentioned. There isn’t a weak performance in the film. Scheider is the model of coiled intensity, and you can see him thinking in character. Robert Shaw as Quint has rightly been hailed for his performance, which probably should have been nominated in the supporting actor category. Of course his soliloquy on his time on the Indianapolis is classic, but his performance is much more than that one monologue. He’s rough and independent, until he doesn’t need to be anymore. He’s focused and humorless, until he lets his guard down and humor out. Lastly, Richard Dreyfuss is just about perfect in his role. His character is smart and is amused as much as Quint by those that don’t get what’s really going on and what it demands, including Quint. Together, these three are a joy to watch, individually and when they need to work together.
There are too many great “moments” to count. The series of cuts that bring us into Brody’s worried face is classic, as is the use of a dramatic zoom shot that perfectly captures the sickening dizziness of realizing that another attack has occurred. Then there is the public rebuke of Brody by a victim’s mother, neither milked for dramatic effect nor dismissed by the film. It’s allowed to stand and sink in, both to Brody and to us.
Seeing it in full with no edits reminded me of how violent Quint’s death was in the original uncut version; my guess is that this scene is heavily edited when shown on television. It doesn’t revel in the gore, but it doesn’t shy away from it either.
It’s no wonder Spielberg was disappointed when the film was nominated for Best Picture and he was overlooked in the director category. Yes, it’s the biggest of popcorn movies, and yes, it’s a thriller. But it’s also a supremely crafted, well-acted film. Take a second, uninterrupted look sometime, preferably when you’ve just gone swimming in the ocean.