Movie Reviews

Movie Review – Jaws: Why Beach Attendance Went Down in the Summer of ’75

Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Once upon a time, a man named Peter Benchley wrote a little novel about a seaside town terrorized one summer by a 35-foot great-white shark. A little-known director by the name of Steven Spielberg picked up the script and begged the studio to let him film it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

For the record, Long Island has an Amityville (known for it’s “horror house”, but that’s another review) but there is no “Amity Island” where this story takes place. The closest thing would be Fire Island and it’s nothing like the community depicted in the movie. Actual filming took place on Martha’s Vineyard.

You’re going to need a bigger boat…

The shark is the center of the film. It is a mixture of live footage shot in Australia and a mechanical one used in the area off Martha’s Vineyard. It is what the actors are there for; it is what they are talking about; it is the catalyst for a series of events which lead to some great performances.

There is so much that is right about this movie, but most of all there is the cast. Roy Scheider is perfect as Amity’s Police Chief, Martin Brody. He is a transplanted New York City police officer, just looking to find a quiet life with his wife and kids. He is also afraid of the water. It probably wasn’t a brilliant idea to move to an island, but there you have it.

In any case, as the shark begins tallying up victims, the first part of the movie becomes Brody vs. the establishment. In this case, it is the mayor wearing a 70’s leisure suit with anchors on it (portrayed by Murray Hamilton) and the other townsfolk who depend on the summer tourist dollars for their livelihood.

Yes, the film’s look is somewhat dated. If you want to see how truly awful the leisure suit and some other 70’s fashions were, just check out the clothes in this film. It also seemed to me that the parents in this film – most of whom should be around the age I am now – looked a lot older. Whether that is some combination of hairstyles and fashion or just that we’re learning to take care of ourselves better, I don’t know.

The second part of the movie is Brody vs. shark and his fear of the water. In this battle he has oceanographer Matt Hooper (portrayed by Richard Dreyfus) at his side along with the crusty sea captain Quint (portrayed by Robert Shaw).

There is a pivotal moment in the middle involving the death of a young boy that changes Brody’s perspective. Before our eyes he changes from trying to fit in as a newcomer to this community to finding his footing as an authority figure in the town. Before these events, he didn’t seem to consider that the job might entail anything greater than locking up rowdy summer drunks and investigating vandalism done by teens with too much time on their hands.

Prior to Jaws, Dreyfus’ two most notable roles were in American Graffiti and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, so Matt Hooper was a real breakout role for him. He comes off perfectly as the nonchalant, educated, rich boy from the moment he walks onto the Amity Pier.

Robert Shaw becomes Quint in this role. He’s perfect in the roll – and wasn’t Spielberg’s first choice for the role. The scenes on the boat with just Brody, Hooper and Quint could have been just awful and dragged – it is a credit to these actors that it comes off so well and keeps the viewer’s interest.

The suspense builds throughout the film as you watch the shark intermittently gobble up victims while some escape. What adds to the tension is the wonderful score by John Williams. The da-dum… da-dum… da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum that has become infamous. The bonus material talks about how Speilberg and Williams used the score to build the tension and suspense in the film.

Watching the bonus material on this DVD was a pure joy. The Spotlight – On Location – The Making of Jaws is a great documentary on all of the problems faced making the movie. The most trouble came from the mechanical shark. Everything that could possibly go wrong with it, went wrong with it. The whole documentary is enjoyable and funny. It contains interviews with just about everyone in the cast and crew, including Spielberg and Benchley.

There is a big section of Deleted Scenes. I thought all of these were nothing spectacular. There was nothing I saw here that really added a lot to the movie.

There is also a Get Out of the Water Trivia Game with twelve trivia questions, as well as Shark World containing information about sharks as well as production notes.

On a bit of a side note, the book is somewhat different than the movie, so I would recommend reading it. Benchley managed to craft an intriguing book that led to this wonderful film and had his hands on the script here as well. The ending is a bit different, and we get to know the characters a bit more.

2 replies »

  1. I didn’t get to see this movie in 1975. I remember reading the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books edition of the novel; it’s okay in spots, but it had subplots that might have worked if Spielberg had (a) liked them or (b) cast different actors for the three roles. The Mafia subplot in the novel was there, I suspect, cos of the Long Island setting and it was also Godfather-mania time. The Hooper-Ellen Brody affair subplot in the book was rather soapish. Fine for print media but it would have dragged the film version unnecessarily. And the present cast simply doesn’t lend itself to that idea anyway. Benchley did make the scenes with the shark scary and realistic; later in life, when he studied sharks more he said he regretted writing Jaws because readers and viewers view sharks as monsters rather than animals.

    But I digress. I really wanted to see this movie in theaters, but Mom didn’t want to go. I was 12 so none of my friends could drive me to see it. Mom also feared (wrongly) that the movie would traumatize me, so she put out word to the neighbors, including those who MIGHT have taken me with their kids to see Jaws, that I was not allowed to see it. (Later, when Mom and I watched Jaws on VHS in the late 1990s, she apologized and confessed that it was she who was terrified of the film based on its reputation. She actually liked Spielberg’s movie.) So I didn’t see Jaws until 1979 or so, when one of my neighbors – a real estate broker – bought the first VCR on the block and invited me to watch it.

    Jaws is one of the few adaptations that is better than the novel it’s based on. Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb did a good job of stripping the tale of its unnecessary plot ballast and pared it down to a classic adventure story with a few elements of horror added in. And, of course, it has an Academy Award-winning score by John Williams.

  2. I was 9. I think my parents took me to the drive-in to see it but I fell asleep and didn’t see the whole movie until later on. I remember reading the book and wondering why some scenes weren’t in it. Richard Dreyfus did not seem to be the leading man who Brody’s wife would throw herself at. He seemed to be more the typical geek/nerd at the time.

Leave a Reply