Monday, December 6, 2010

Jaws (1975) & Jaws 2 (1978)


          The movie that turned director Steven Spielberg into a superstar, Jaws deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the scariest horror flicks of all time, but it’s also a wonderful adventure story and, by sheer happenstance, a charming character piece. The travails experienced by producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck as they tried to film Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel about a man-eating shark are legend, and myriad books and documentaries tell the fascinating behind-the-scenes story. As for the onscreen narrative, it begins when a great white shark starts snacking on swimmers off the coast of tourist trap Amity Island. Landlubber police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), high-strung scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and crusty sea captain Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) form an unlikely posse to save the day, and the scenes of the three men chasing the big fish in their little boat—and in turn getting chased by the big fish—are among the most exciting ever filmed.
          The mechanical shark the producers commissioned rarely worked, forcing Spielberg and his team to shoot character scenes and action details during downtime, and then, in post-production, this extra material was spotlighted to downplay how fake the shark looked when left onscreen for too long. As a result, what could have been a shallow frightfest became an engrossing yarn filled with interesting people doing interesting things. Scheider’s slow-burn edginess and Dreyfuss’ motor-mouthed arrogance mesh wonderfully, and when they’re matched by Shaw’s wicked gravitas, the movie enters the realm of cinematic magic: The famous scene of the three men comparing scars is a marvel of thoughtful writing, lived-in acting, and precise editing. Similarly, Quint’s iconic monologue about the sinking of the World War II ship Indianapolis remains one of the most riveting sequences in ’70s cinema, even though it’s just one man talking for several transcendent minutes. That a pair of indoors scenes are high points of this quintessential outdoors movie hints at the depth of entertainment value: From the opening attack on a lone swimmer at night to the gruesome finale, Jaws delivers a pitch-perfect blend of illuminating character vignettes and rousing action sequences.
          Holding the movie together are Verna Fields’ Oscar-winning editing and John Williams’ Oscar-winning score; Fields’ wizardly cuts merge material from disparate sources to create a seamless illusion, and Williams’ thrilling music includes the haunting dum-dum-dum-dum main theme. Orchestrating all of these powerful elements is Spielberg, in full-on boy wonder mode; his imaginative camera angles and exuberant storytelling make each scene more vivid than the last.
          The movie’s first sequel, Jaws 2, is generally relegated to footnote status because neither Dreyfuss nor Spielberg participated, but for viewers who can accept that re-creating the original’s magic was impossible, the sequel is solid entertainment. Scheider returns to face off with another shark, so the plot is inherently repetitive, but the filmmakers mimic Spielberg’s style competently, and a few scenes—particularly a shark attack on a regatta—are ingenious. Better still, Scheider adds melancholy new colors to the still-captivating Brody character. The actor’s focus is especially impressive given the fact that fulfilling his contractual obligation to appear in Jaws 2 forced him to pass on the lead role in The Deer Hunter (1978).

Jaws: OUTTA SIGHT
Jaws 2: FUNKY

4 comments:

Tommy Ross said...

dum dum dum dum ...ok, so I couldn't resist!

Will Errickson said...

I believe Scheider's reason for appearing in JAWS 2 was the opposite of what you've stated. Apparently he found the motivation for the character, Michael, he would've played in DEER HUNTER to be unbelievable, so quit before filming, but then had to appear in JAWS 2 - which he was also reluctant to do - so as not to breach his Universal contract. Anyway, I agree JAWS 2 has some worthy moments; particularly haunting is that early shot of the shark's fin gliding towards Amity in the early dawn...

By Peter Hanson said...

Regarding Scheider, I had the good fortune of attending a Q&A with the actor at NYU while I was a film student there, so the backstory on his appearance in "Jaws 2" comes straight from the man himself. He added that his refusal to re-up for "Jaws 3" led Universal execs to blacklist him (thus creating an undeserved reputation as a "difficult" actor), and his post-"Jaws 2" filmography seems to bear that out because the size of his films dropped precipitously. Having said that, people tell tales differently at various times in their lives. Sad story in any event, because I would've loved to have seen where Scheider's career had gone after "Deer Hunter," even though I dislike that particular film....

Alan Beauvais said...

Can't say I blame him for passing on Jaws 3. While such a move may have diluted his career (though he still managed to land a couple of event pictures like Blue Thunder and 2010), it didn't send him into a tailspin the way it did poor Lou Gosset, who had just won an Oscar that very same year.