'Jaws': THR's 1975 Review

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'Jaws'

The film is "perhaps the most perfectly constructed horror story in our time."

A blockbuster arrived in U.S. theaters in June 1975. The PG-rated, 124-minute feature adaptation of the best-selling novel Jaws quickly captured the attention of summer moviegoing audiences, becoming an enduring classic. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

Like Warners' Exorcist of years ago, Universal's Jaws reeks of the sweet smell of success. Rarely has a picture generated quite so much advance want-to-see — and, significantly, for many of the same reasons that accounted for the previous box-office triumph. Its theme is already thoroughly familiar, even to those who have never read the book on which it is based. (Universal's shark's head logo should fill in the blanks for those few who have never even heard of the Peter Benchley novel.) And its multitudinous production problems, again well-publicized, could only generate further interest. 

At bottom, however, lies an even stronger similarity. Both present as their central characters wholly demonic creatures — the Devil himself in The Exorcist, a 25-foot long Great White Shark in Jaws. Both attack their victims at random; it could be you, it could be me. Our fundamental belief in a logic of right and wrong is suddenly toppled; virtue here is neither rewarded nor recognized. We are all prey to the evil that walks the earth, or lurks in the waters just off our shores. And both demand as the price of their ultimate exorcism the life of at least one brave, believing soul. 

Again, as in The Exorcist, there may be those too fainthearted to face the nightmarish terrors of this ordeal by water. Those who know going in that they will see bodies mangled, boats capsized, will be forced to peer down the throat and into the dead, bright eyes of the most fearsome creature of the deep, may well decide not to. Certainly, Jaws is not for the faint of heart.

What they will miss, those timid ones, is perhaps the most perfectly constructed horror story in our time. Even though the shark itself remains offscreen for at least the first half of the picture, its lurking presence is established within the first five minutes, when Susan Backlinie, out for a midnight swim, is dragged to her death in a sudden rush of flailing limbs. Will Amity Island, dependent for its livelihood on the dollars brought by its summer visitors, close down its beaches, or will it pretend that the girl's death was simply a ghastly accident?

The Peter Benchley/Carl Gottlieb screenplay, trimmed from the novel, sets up its characters well. Brody (Roy Scheider) is Amity's police chief, concerned, but at first willing to bow to the political pressure of Amity's mayor (Murray Hamilton). There is Quint (Robert Shaw), a crusty ex-Navy man with a hard-earned hatred of sharks, who knows from the outset of the nature of Amity's enemy and thirsts for the opportunity to dispose of the monster his way. And from the marine laboratory at Woods Hole comes Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), whose main commitment is to science, not to ridding the island of a scourge that could destroy its summer economy.

Ultimately, the three — the chief, the seaman and the scientist — set out in a 39-foot boat to kill the wily monster, and the last hour of Jaws becomes as gripping and terrifying an adventure story as has ever been put on the screen. But the screenwriters, while never permitting the underlying tension to slacken, find time to bring us closer to their protagonists, so that when the final onslaught begins, our fears and frustrations run as deep as theirs. And in the film's climactic moments, one forgets everything he or she may have read or heard about synthetic, mechanical sharks used on the production. That huge, hideous head snapping at the bows, forcing its way onto the deck of the Orca is too palpable not to be real.

So skillfully has the live shark footage filmed by Ron and Valerie Taylor been intercut, in Verna Fields' masterful editing, with that of the studio's creation, that it becomes literally impossible to say for sure which is which. More important, under Steven Spielberg's direction, any desire to do so completely disappears, so persuasive are his narration and his characters. No less helpful is Bill Butler's agile, often-handheld camerawork, whether on the cramped deck of the Orca, or from a shark's eye view looking up through murky depths at the Orca's dark hull, or from just below the waterline, where myriads of arms and legs on holiday are splashingly oblivious to their peril.

Above all, Jaws has been made in tremendous care and concern for the texture of life in a summer colony. Although not pursuing either the sexual or the economic entanglements of the islanders as fully as the novel (which, in retrospect, are made to seem a good deal more than absolutely necessary), it nevertheless quickly establishes the cross-motivations of humanism vs. mammonism that dominate its inhabitants and sets these against the increasingly selfless devotion of the Orca crew to their cause.

As the salty, cynical Quint, Robert Shaw easily dominates all of his scenes — flippant and profane but all pro when it comes to the business of hunting sharks. Roy Scheider is no less effective in a less colorful role; and Richard Dreyfuss, now bearded and scholarly in rimless glasses, demonstrates again how far he has come since American Graffiti. Nor should John Williams' totally supportive score be overlooked.

All in all, Jaws should make Universal nothing but money — and maybe pick up a few Oscars next year as well, particularly in the special-effects department. What it may do to the value of beach properties in the meantime, however, is another story. — Arthur Knight

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