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06.20.12

Jaws’s Anniversary: Newsweek’s 1975 Review

Time to get back into the water? In his 1975 review of Jaws, Arthur Cooper said the film is ‘destined to become a classic the way all terrifying movies, good or bad, become classics of any kind.’

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For the benefit of hermits. Jaws is the film version of Peter Benchley's runaway bestseller about a man-eating shark who came to dinner at a Long Island, N.Y., summer-resort community. Like the novel, the movie was launched with an almost unprecedented promotional campaign, complete with cross-country tours by stars and $700,000 worth of prime TV time, to trumpet its release this week in 450 theaters throughout the land. With that sort of media hype, it's no wonder Universal Studios expects that Jaws will eventually at least equal the $66 million in theater rentals grossed by last year's supershocker, The Exorcist. And Jaws will help other movies this summer. Breathes there a soul brave enough to go near the beach after seeing this film?

Directed by Hollywood's newest wunderkind, Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, Jaws is a grisly film, often ugly as sin, which achieves precisely what it set out to accomplish—scare the hell out of you.  As such, it's destined to become a classic the way all truly terrifying movies, good or bad, become classics of a kind.

In his novel, Benchley aspired to some sort of commentary on society's venality in the confrontation between an insecure police chief who wanted to close the beaches after a couple of shark attacks and the town fathers who insisted on keeping the news from summer vacationers on whom the community preyed with sharklike cunning. Spielberg has jettisoned most of the sociology and all of the novel's obligatory sex. A few tinny messages on the value of courage and the evils of greed remain, but the decision was wise. Ashore the movie bogs down, but when Spielberg gets his camera out to sea all goes swimmingly.

Viscera: Despite his youth (27 years old), Spielberg closely resembles those old-time directors who disregarded the cerebrum and went right for the viscera.  He is a virtuoso of action, as he demonstrated in his very first film, The Surgarland Express. And, as with The Exorcist, the technical contributions are crucial to the film's manipulation of your nervous system. Bill Butler's cinematography, John Williams’s music and most of all Verna Fields's suspenseful editing are classic examples of how these fundamental movie elements can sneak up on you and scare you to death against your better judgment. One moment, the camera provides a shark's-eye view of vulnerably naked limbs splashing about just offshore; the next moment it drops back to follow a fin, knifing through the water in a pounding, gruesome sequence of an attack on unsuspecting children.

There is no evidence, however, that Spielberg has learned how to inspire actors.  As the police chief, Roy Scheider is merely competent. Richard Dreyfuss, as a glib ichthyologist, and Robert Shaw as Quint, the briny, monomaniacal shark-hunter, fare much better, especially in the scenes they were allowed to improvise. Dreyfuss, as usual, performs with charged-up energy. And Shaw is an actor who can make any director look good. His Quint is a boozing, insufferable, suffering madman, a mini-Ahab whose obsession for destroying sharks was triggered by an actual incident in World War II. The story places Quint aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1945; of the approximately 1,000 men on the sinking ship, many hundreds were eaten by sharks before help arrived.

Of course, the movie’s real star is the Great White Shark—a 25-foot polyurethane mechanical marvel nicknamed Bruce.Designed by former Walt Disney special-effects chief Robert Mattey, the hydraulically powered Bruce is perhaps the most fearsome movie construct since King Kong.

Horrific: Of course, the movie's real star is the Great White Shark—a 25-foot polyurethane mechanical marvel nicknamed Bruce. Designed by former Walt Disney special-effects chief Robert Mattey, the hydraulically powered Bruce is perhaps the most fearsome movie construct since King Kong. With his massive conical head, flesh-wrenching rows of serrated teeth and hypnotically horrific grace, he strikes a primal fear in us all. This ersatz shark is support by some breath-taking footage of real sharks shot by Ron and Valerie Taylor.

Unlike horror movies about mad scientists, gigantic gorillas or satyric vampires, in Jaws, the natural world intrudes with the immediacy of the current spate of news stories about shark attacks. When the horror comes from Transylvania, there's always a comfortable giggle behind the shudders. Sharks cut closer to home. Spielberg believes that “everybody likes to dice with death. After Jaws, I think a lot of people will rush into the water, not out of it. It's gambling with the unknown.” Jaws may or may not inspire such fantasies among vacationing CPAs this summer. But movie ads warn that it may be “too intense for younger children.” Indeed. Anyone under 12 ought to avoid the grip of Jaws.