Jaws 30th Anniversary Edition Review
"This is not the time or the place to conduct some kinda half-assed autopsy on a fish!”
Jaws has become synonymous with the ‘dumbing down’ of American cinema; its huge success at the box office symbolising the death of director’s cinema and the ascendancy of the blockbuster movie as the supposed pinnacle of Hollywood achievement. It’s certainly true that the popularity of Jaws on first release gave the studios a new audience to target during the holiday months. But take even a cursory look at Jaws and you see a film which is only superficially a family entertainment spectacular. Scratch beneath the surface and you find a quirky 1970s movie with genuine wit and style, as distinctive and personal a movie as more orthodox 70s classic such as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown. The film is much too well known to require much introduction so my own ‘half-assed autopsy’ will just ramble around some aspects of the film which I find interesting. If you’re looking for my thoughts on the 30th Anniversary DVD release then please skip down to my review of the disc itself.
If you have never seen the film then please note that there are spoilers present in the following review.
I may as well begin with the storyline, which may seem classically simple but is actually a conflation of three basic plots. Firstly we have The Creature from the Black Lagoon monster movie structure in which swimmers are threatened by an unexpected menace from the deep. Secondly, there is An Enemy of the People in which one good man (in this case Chief Brody played by Roy Scheider) tries to convince the townspeople that there is danger but cannot make them listen. Finally, we have Moby Dick and the obsessive hunter of a seemingly unstoppable force of nature – embodied here by Quint (Shaw), the maverick fisherman. Although the screenplay is indebted to Peter Benchley’s novel for all of these elements, what the various writers (including Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler) achieve is a streamlining of the original book, junking a number of extraneous elements such as a sexual relationship between Ellen Brody (Gary) and the shark expert Hooper (Dreyfuss). They also add some vitally important elements to the end of the film, notably Quint’s marvellous death scene where he stabs at the shark with a machete (in tribute to Captain Ahab one presumes) while being bitten in two.
The three plots mesh very well, largely because they are so skilfully interwoven and there’s a consistent effort made to establish a social context to hang the storyline upon. Amity Island is a completely convincing creation, largely thanks to the use of Martha’s Vineyard as a location, and its peopled with entirely believable characters. In particular, Murray Hamilton’s Mayor – who in the sequel became a strawman for the interests of the business community – is not unsympathetic in his concerns and it’s easy to understand the pressures that he’s under. There are scenes in which members of the community simply talk to each other in such a natural way that we become part of the town and realise what a shark in the waters could mean for their livelihoods. This isn’t something we would expect in a blockbuster nowadays, when the role of the supporting cast tends to be to react to the stars and act as ballast. Nor would we expect the teasingly slow build-up. Spielberg begins with a fantastic shock – after we’ve already had John Williams’ legendary score to get us in the mood – but then slows the pace down to introduce us to the setting and the characters. It’s over an hour before we get even a glimpse of the shark and 82 minutes before we see the eponymous teeth.
Some modern audiences – particularly younger ones – find this deliberate pacing ‘boring’ and can’t pay attention, but this first hour is the bit of the film which I care for most. It’s constantly gripping and makes good use of the Hitchcockian distinction between shock and suspense. The opening killing of Chrissie is a great shock sequence, a classic on the order of Hitch’s own shower scene in Psycho, and the discovery of what has happened to Ben Gardner is just as good. But it’s the suspense at which Spielberg excels and there is no better example than the first beach sequence just after Brody has reluctantly agreed to the beaches being opened. We see events from the Chief’s perspective, a sun-drenched cavalcade of splashing and screaming where everything – even an old man in a bathing cap – seems to harbour the shadow of death. Spielberg and his editor Verna Fields create a rhythm here which is excruciatingly tense, using hidden cuts to move us closer to Brody and the Hitchcock reverse-zoom at the crucial moment when Alex Kintner is killed. The genius is simple, of course – we know, like Brody, that something is amiss but are equally powerless to do anything about it.
During this first hour, there’s a sense of a filmmaker having enormous fun and biding his time in the knowledge that he can keep us entertained. In some respects, the film is more like an Altman film than a traditional monster movie with deliberately quirky asides, fast and overlapping dialogue and splendidly colourful characters. There are scenes which don’t need to be in there but which add a great deal to the overall effect – the sequence in which two amateur fishermen try to catch a shark with the Sunday roast for example or the stream of complaints about picket fences and parking with which Brody is assailed every time he leaves his house. Sometimes, it’s the little things I love – the fact that the Mayor is constantly surrounded by flunkies to make him look like Ben Johnson’s gang boss in The Getaway or the dazzlingly weird vocal inflections of Brody’s aged secretary. Secondary characters such as Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) are filled out satisfyingly with one or two off-beat lines of dialogue and even the terminally dull Mrs Brody is allowed a moment or two of inarticulate understanding when she says goodbye to her husband. Then there’s the dialogue which is as endlessly quotable as Casablanca - which is saying something. I could list all lines which play in my head but it would take up the entire review, so I will make do with three of my favourites; Murray Hamilton’s eminently reasonable explanation of how representation is everything in politics – Martin, it's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, "Huh? What?" You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.; Brody’s explanation of his situation, living on an island when he hates water - It’s only an island if you look at it from the water; and Hooper’s eloquently simple explanation of what a shark does - What we are dealing with is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and makes little baby sharks, and that's all.
The second hour is largely taken up with the search for the shark undertaken by Brody, Hooper and Quint, and it’s fascinating for what it isn’t rather than what it is. Far from being a fast-moving procession of action set-pieces, it’s a faithful evocation of life at sea; languorous stretches of boredom followed by brief intervals of intense excitement. Not that the audience is bored, far from it. The scenes on the Orca are fascinating as a detailed study of masculinity in extremis. Each of the three men is an outsider; Brody because he’s from New York and hates the water; Hooper because he’s a rich academic; and Quint because he’s a misanthropic loner. Thrown together, they demonstrate different male behaviours and responses. Quint is a man’s man, so macho that he wants to prove that death means nothing to him. Hooper is a textbook ‘nerd’ whose ability to use his head – and keep it in times of stress - is what ultimately saves his life, along with his redeeming sense of the ridiculous. Brody is torn between the two behaviours, wanting to prove his manhood to Quint while being instinctively drawn to the intellectual life of Hooper. The three of them begin by squabbling with each other, Quint deliberately goading Hooper – the differences between them are perfectly summed up by Quint’s crushing of a beer can being mirrored by Hooper’s crumpling of a plastic cup.
It’s in these scenes aboard ship that the actors get a chance to refine their characterisations. Richard Dreyfuss is delightfully funny as Hooper, a character who was a cipher in the book and could have been unbearably know-it-all. He gets some great lines and the audience is delighted when he survives at the end. Roy Scheider, not one of the more interesting actors in 1970s cinema, is perfectly cast as the confused and frightened Brody and it’s very satisfying when he turns out to be the real hero of the film. Robert Shaw apparently plays himself, making Quint an intimidating and not entirely sympathetic ogre. It’s easy to see that the role would have suited Sterling Hayden – Spielberg’s original choice – and it’s intriguing to imagine John Huston or a middle-aged Orson Welles playing the character. Indeed, given John Milius’ contributions to the film, he seems to be present in the character too. But Shaw is ideal, the drinking and fucking legend of his life adding a lot to what was on the page.
But when the three men stop squabbling and begin to bond, we get a sequence so good that I don’t think Spielberg has ever topped it. It’s at night, in the cabin, and it begins quietly. Quint and Hooper begin to talk and compare stories, going on to compare scars. A delightful ‘top this’ scene ensues in which the two men gain respect for each other until Hooper undercuts the macho bullshit by pointing at his chest and saying – “Mary Ellen Moffat – she broke my heart.” But then Brody asks Quint about a scar on his arm and the seadog tells a story which is based on truth but owes everything to three great writers. Howard Sackler conceived a speech about Quint’s experiences when the USS Indianapolis was sunk by the Japanese. John Milius took this and wrote a very long version which was apparently brilliant but was much too verbose. Robert Shaw took this and cut it down to produce the speech in the film and it’s a masterpiece of dramatic monologue, delivered by Shaw in an intense monotone while he stares into the past. While the scene is open to criticisms of bad taste – it was perhaps a mistake to base it so closely on a real-life event – it’s extraordinary to see it in what is basically a piece of family entertainment. It brings in overtones of pain and tragedy which you don’t expect and it crucially deepens Quint’s character.
To some extent, the shark represents elements of all three men but in the end, it becomes a symbol of Brody’s ability to find his own courage which is distinct from that of his companions. Scheider plays the final scenes to perfection and his shout of joy when the shark is killed is a genuinely cathartic moment. But the shark is also given a dignity which is surprising. Underwater, thanks to the second-unit filming of Rod and Valerie Taylor, he is elegant and lethal and, although the rubber shark used for most of the action shots is sadly lacking in some departments, John Williams’ score keeps this aspect going and when the shark is killed, there’s awestruck music, suggesting that something truly impressive has died. Despite some lapses in the special effects – which for all their faults are still preferable in my view to the CGI used in Deep Blue Sea - the shark is convincing enough for the film to get by. A lot depends on the direction and by the time we see the full beast, looking a bit daft if viewed with objective eyes, we’re involved enough with the story for his outside appearance not to matter.
In fact, all the way through the film, Steven Spielberg establishes himself as a major filmmaker. He did, of course, have a lot of experience in television and two of his three feature-length movies show a good deal of promise – the exception is the disappointingly bland TV horror movie Something Evil which is nothing special and mercifully little-seen. But Duel remains one of the best streamlined suspense movies ever made without an inch of fat on it, at least in its 72 minute TV form. As for his first ‘official’ cinema film, Sugarland Express, it’s a messed-up but very moving piece about outsiders which informs some of his work on Jaws and laid the foundations for Spielberg’s masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that glorious SF-comedy about how crazy dreamers are sometimes the only people sane enough to see the truth. Jaws, however, is all of a piece with everything working perfectly despite the nightmarish shoot which nearly led to Spielberg walking out and is documented in irresistible detail in the making-of documentary included on this DVD release. In the years since his 1970s peak, Spielberg has gained in reputation but, I think, declined in skill. His later films have often been well made and engaging but some of them - Amistad, Hook - are disastrously overblown. Even his acclaimed Oscar-winners Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan seem worthy and overly sincere when compared to his best work. In Jaws, Spielberg is ruthless with a broad streak of black comedy and cruelty, both things which help to make the film so distinctive. In 2005, there’s no way he would shoot the sequence in which Alex Kintner is killed and that’s representative of his decline into earnest tedium which his latest film War of the Worlds only partially arrests.
The Spielberg of 1975 also knew when to defer to his collaborators. He worked closely with his DP Bill Butler to give a distinctive look to the film and created summer in Amity out of very little. The decision to shoot some of the opening in silhouette is a masterstroke. Most important is his work with editor Verna Fields and composer John Williams. Fields cuts the film with incisive skill but there’s never a sense of unnatural hurry or forced ‘speed’. We’re never needlessly confused or feel exhausted as we do with so many recent films - The Island being a perfect example - where the cuts are constant and unnecessary, decreasing our involvement without inducing much excitement. The beach sequence I referred to earlier should be essential viewing for any budding editors who want to know how to build suspense. As for the score, John Williams won an Oscar for it and its still some of his best work. He knows when to keep things simple – the famous two note motif – and when to put on his best Korngold hat for the scenes on the open sea. His music is never intrusive and it complements the action without cueing us how to react. Williams has done some great work in the years since Jaws but it’s only on occasional films - The Fury, Dracula, Nixon - that he’s really been so integral to the effectiveness of the film as a whole. The soundtrack is part of a sound scheme that is sometimes suitably busy but often remarkably subtle – I treasure the scene in which the presence of the shark is first indicated by three clicks on Quint’s reel.
If this seems like more of a fan-boy rant than a review of the film then I have to plead guilty I’m afraid. I saw Jaws five times on its first release and loved it. Since then, I must have seen it seven or eight more times in the cinema and countless times on TV and video. It’s a hugely exciting monster movie but it’s so much more than that and I get really irritated when it’s lumped with Star Wars - an inferior movie on every level in my view – as the begetter of the ‘dumb’ blockbuster. It’s certainly a blockbuster in financial terms but it’s far from dumb. Very few ‘big’ movies either before or since have such an acute sense of character, such uproarious wit in the dialogue or such a delicate balance between shock and suspense. In terms of popular filmmaking, it’s up there with the best of Hitchcock and that’s not a comparison I make lightly. I know it's got plot holes - the willingness of the shark to wait while a diving cage is constructed for example - but they don't seem to matter. Everyone who loves 1970s cinema and the era of the director should love Jaws as a high watermark of both – a personal, intelligent film which had the good fortune to make millions at the box office. The lessons of this may not have been learned by directors who followed – notably those who foisted the Jaws sequels upon us – but you can hardly lay the blame at the feet of Jaws.
Universal’s previous DVD release of Jaws in 2000 was a disappointment. The transfer was reasonable enough but the remixed sound and lack of the original mono track were an irritant and the Making-Of documentary lost an hour from its original two hour running time. This time, thankfully, Universal’s two-disc Region 1 release gets it right. Although the visual transfer leaves some room for complaint, being identical to the earlier disc, the mono soundtrack is present - and sounding wonderful – and the extras are considerably more satisfying.
The film is presented in its original Panavision ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It’s the same transfer which was created for the earlier release of the film. This means that the visual impression is identical. The good aspects are the strong colours and an abundance of satisfying detail. The downside is the dirt on the print which is occasionally very noticeable and the all too visible presence of artefacts. I think that DVD transfers have improved to a point where both these glitches are unnecessary and it’s a shame that Universal didn’t put some effort into improving the visual transfer on such an important release.
The remixed DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround soundtracks are just as annoying as they were five years ago. The DTS track is an improvement on the DD 5.1 mix, being richer and presenting a more subtle overall range. The DD 5.1 just sounds a mess to my ears with everything weirdly out of kilter. Both tracks contain newly recorded foley effects which are obtrusive if you’re remotely familiar with the film and a stronger recording of the music which tends to dominate everything else. Thankfully, the restored mono soundtrack is exceptional. Everything on the mono track is in perfect balance; the sound effects sound right and the music complements the film rather than overpowering it. Turn this up loud and it’s just as immersive as the remixed surround tracks while being far more reflective of the film as originally made.
The first disc contains the film along with two extra features. There’s a 1974 ‘From the Set’ featurette from the BBC’s Film Night, presented by Iain Johnstone, which was made on the second day of location shooting at Martha’s Vineyard. This only runs 9 minutes but is good fun for fans and reveals the impossible shooting conditions which were soon to render the production a nightmare. It’s not in great condition but it’s probably a miracle that it still exists at all. We also get the deleted scenes and outtakes which were on the previous release of the film. None of these is essential but they’re all worth watching once and one of them – Quint in a music store – is a delight. There’s also one new scene included which has presumably been disinterred since 2000.
The second disc has the real meat. Pride of place goes to the fantastic ‘Making of Jaws’ which is now present in its full two hour version. This is a highly impressive documentary which contains interviews with virtually everyone of significance who is still alive. Although it conforms to the now-familiar Laurent Bouzereau making-of formula, its got enough indiscreet comments and insights to make it his best work. The two hours fly by and, like me, you may well find yourself watching it more than once. Also present is a very extensive gallery which contains storyboards, production photographs, posters, stills and pictures of merchandise connected to the film. This is slightly easier to navigate than it was on the original DVD release as it’s broken up into four different sections. However, the standard of many of the photographs is still pretty mediocre and slogging through over 100 storyboard sketches can be a little exhausting. A nice addition is the 60 page booklet which accompanies the disc. Nothing unusual here but it’s well presented with great pictures.
There are some items missing which were on the 2000 disc. We no longer get the Shark World feature, the Trivia Game, Production Notes, Filmographies, Screen Saver or Recommendations. None of these are any loss. However, we also lose the trailers and this is a more serious omission. I’ve always adored trailers, especially ones for older films, and those which were made for Jaws are sheer delight. I know that a number of acquaintances are keeping the previous DVD release simply in order to have the trailers and I think I will too.
The film and documentary have optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish available.
If you have the old DVD release of Jaws then you should upgrade to this new Region 1 disc for two very good reasons. The first, which not everyone will appreciate, is the original mono soundtrack. The second, which everyone should acknowledge, is the inclusion of the full two hour documentary. If you don’t have this marvellous film on DVD then what are you waiting for?
Be warned that the Region 2 30th Anniversary release omits the original mono soundtrack and appears to have a slightly shorter version of the documentary. Nor does it include the commemorative booklet.