Jaws movie poster

ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE–On the Fourth of July weekend, you must include a summer blockbuster in your planning, and there’s not much better you could ask for than a Fourth of July screening of Jaws, which features a small coastal town in the days leading up to the holiday back in 1975.  Thirty-nine years later and the entire film still stands strong, dated only by some clothing of the locals, which–let’s face it–could still be the fashion in beach communities up and down both coasts.  This weekend the Alamo Drafthouse offered up the opportunity to see Jaws on the big screen again or for the first time.  Unlike screenings of some other classic films at other theaters, this screening had what looked like an original reel of Jaws with flickers and pops.  In an age of widely available, digitally-re-mastered cuts of classic movies like Jaws, it was surprisingly fun to see the film just as audiences would have seen it in 1975.

I first saw Jaws at the S.E. 14th Street Drive-in theater in its initial summer run.  I was about the age of Scheider’s youngest son in the movie.  Knowing I would fall asleep in the back seat likely before the film started, my folks hadn’t figured I would actually manage to see the entire introduction.  Luckily the film was darkly lit and I didn’t know what I was watching.  I took away no memory of the film beyond dark images of a girl swimming.  My sister didn’t fare as well, and what made the film the blockbuster it was sunk in with her–that great white shark keeping us all out of the water–a summer when beaches across the country must have had lower attendances–and it certainly kept her away for a while.  Not having seen Jaws straight through in several years, but instead viewing it probably hundreds of times in bits and pieces over those intervening years, I couldn’t have been happier that it was as good as I remembered and even more engaging on the big screen.

Jaws crew

Take star Roy Scheider, for instance.  Today you might cast Eddie McClintock or Colin Ferguson for his role as everyman on his first gig as new chief of police in a new town.  Scheider has many funny lines to break the tension, beyond the many quotable lines.  His wife played by Lorraine Gary carries on as the supporter of her husband perfectly.  Richard Dreyfuss is, of course, Richard Dreyfuss, always holding back a laugh even in the most desperate of circumstances.  Jaws is without a doubt Dreyfuss’s best role–a great feat considering his many big roles over the decades (American Graffiti, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goodbye Girl, Always, The American President, R.E.D.).

But what is no surprise is the powerhouse performance by character actor Robert Shaw as Quint.  I think this was the first time I ever intended to order a drink or snack from the dine-in seating theater but was so transfixed, mostly due to Shaw, that I walked out having never ordered anything.  It’s not just the Indianapolis speech he is known so well for.  There’s also his introduction at the city council meeting.  His mouthiness when his boat is being loaded to go after the shark.  His taking the time to teach the chief how to tie knots on the boat.  Shaw, who died young resulting from problems with alcoholism, created the quintessential (pun intended) old salty sea captain in Jaws.  His performance is full of nuance.  Sure, he is part Captain Ahab, but he is so much more.

Durieux-jaws

Jaws is also worth seeing again for young John Williams’ first big mainstream musical score.  Jaws is scary primarily because of Williams’ contribution to the film.  Yet his choices for other thematic cues throughout the movie are entirely original and against the norm for an action-packed, suspense thriller, either then or now.

Finally, you may forget about the all-out horror of the film–the brilliantly re-created human leg that falls to the ocean floor, the stump of a girl’s arm that washes ashore, the head floating in the old man’s boat as Dreyfuss snorkels down below.  These well-rendered props, and the choices by director Steven Spielberg on how to reveal and not reveal the shark, drive the gravity of the story right at the viewer.  Thankfully, Spielberg counters that terror with breaks for humor and an otherwise peaceful beach community you wouldn’t mind taking a vacation to even today.  (Just steer clear of the water.)

Think back to a world before blockbusters, and America before Jaws.  The influence of Jaws on filmmaking, on suspense movies, on musical scores, on horror films, on movie marketing–it can’t be overstated.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

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