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Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975)
June 24, 2012 - 7:00 pm
Carl Gottlieb.

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s thriller about deadly shark attacks in a sunny beach community sent shock waves through a moviegoing public largely unaccustomed to such cinematic events. But they would have to get used to it: Jaws ushered in the blockbuster era. Where previously, a Hollywood feature might open in a few markets and gradually “roll out” on the basis of reviews and word-of-mouth, Universal released Jaws nationwide in the same week, accompanied by a national advertising campaign. Post-Jaws, the industry oriented itself around sensational success achieved quickly in multiple markets, setting up the high stakes Hollywood of today.

Groomed in television at Universal and boasting one feature film (Sugarland Express, 1974), Spielberg sought the opportunity from producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to direct the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel. Jaws’ similarity to Spielberg’s hit TV movie Duel (1971) made the choice seem logical, but also aroused the director’s ambivalence, causing him at one point to try to get out of the assignment to avoid being typecast. The producers would not relent, and the rest is history.

For all its lasting influence, Jaws’ narrative setup of a community imperiled by an unseen terror is more or less conventional, albeit with a timely, post-Watergate view of cynical community “leaders” refusing to close profitable, though deadly, beaches. But Jaws is uncommonly affecting, with its oddly-matched heroes (Robert Shaw’s salty shark hunter; Richard Dreyfuss’ preppy biologist, and Roy Scheider’s embattled police chief ) and its unmistakable score by John Williams. Not to mention the puckish subtext of symbolically eviscerating the same middle-class American public being invited to purchase movie tickets. While acknowledging the film’s spectacular violence and unforgettable set pieces, it’s notable that Jaws is also Spielberg’s first in a line of nuanced, sympathetic valentines to the American family—here, focusing on the home life of the beleaguered officer. In many ways, Jaws inaugurated the mutual admiration between the director and a public facing its own daily perils (if not exactly sharks), and to whom the name “Spielberg” would personify “the movies” for decades to come.

—Shannon Kelley

Zanuck/Brown Company. Producer: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown. Based on the novel by Peter Benchley. Screenwriter: P. Benchley, Carl Gottlieb. Cinematographer: Bill Butler. Editor: Verna Fields. Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton. 

35mm, color, 124 min.