The first half of Jaws–before the boat, when it becomes a different film–might be the most perfectly made film ever. The second half isn’t less perfectly made, but it’s its own thing, not easily comparable to any other film; that first half deals in traditional filmic standards and does so with singular success. Verna Fields’s editing, Bill Butler’s photography, Joe Alves’s production design… it’s utterly perfect. Spielberg’s use of frame depth, so startling wonderful (and now long gone). From the first moment after the credits, with Fields’s cuts during the beach party, it’s stunning. Too often the main emphasis, when discussing Jaws‘s writing, is on the Indianapolis monologue, but really, throughout, it’s great. The family scenes, the ones between Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary, carry the first half of the film. Richard Dreyfuss’s appearance gives Scheider a friend, but it doesn’t really affect the situation very much. The whole first half of the movie builds towards Murray Hamilton (who’s so good) and his breakdown at the hospital, the one Scheider’s too busy to notice.
Then Jaws resets. Even though Robert Shaw had his moment twenty minutes in (I never look at the clock when watching Jaws, it’s an absurd idea), he’s somewhat foreign as the second half starts out. Then Dreyfuss becomes really foreign and the characters reveal themselves differently under pressure. The moments when Dreyfuss and Shaw start liking each other are great and some of my favorites, but this time I really noticed the scene after Shaw starts losing it and then he has to ask Dreyfuss for help. Scheider finds himself abandoned on the boat in stretches, since he doesn’t know what do–Scheider’s disappointment in Dreyfuss mirrors the viewer’s. It’s a constantly shifting environment, but one totally dependent on the looming disaster. The discreet moves Jaws makes, positioning its characters and their reaction to fear, is something wonderful. So wonderful, I never realized until this time watching it, both Shaw and Dreyfuss revisit their first experiences with sharks.
While this post reminds me of why I don’t like writing about great films I’ve seen before, Jaws is something even more than the usual. I could sit and talk about Jaws, listing all of the great things it does, for three times through. It’s a constantly rewarding experience.
Maybe a last little something about John Williams’s music. Even though Jaws has its famous theme, the score isn’t one concerned so much with it. Williams’s sensitivity to the changes during scenes, even to the cuts, is noteworthy. Jaws is the ideal example of something being the sum of its parts and his contribution is magnificent.
Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, from the novel by Benchley; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Verna Fields; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Roy Scheider (Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Larry Vaughn), Carl Gottlieb (Meadows), Jeffrey Kramer (Hendricks) and Susan Backlinie (Chrissie Watkins).