Jaws ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I've seen Jaws before - twice, I think - on DVD but those viewings were before I began tracking my at-home viewing in late 2008, which is why I'd not previously reviewed the film in my Letterboxd diary. I've had chances to see it on the big screen before, but missed them all for various reasons. It played tonight as part of the Cinemark Classic Series, kicking off a four-week set of films directed by Steven Spielberg. (How timely that the last film I watched was The Sugarland Express, his directorial debut which came out the year before Jaws!)

The most iconic thing about Jaws is John Williams's two-note motif. It's interesting to me that the typical riff on it in pop culture is played by brass instruments, when it's predominantly performed in the film score on strings. It's actually more sinister sounding the way Williams did it for the film, though maybe that's just because the brass version sounds more "parody" to my ears now.

I've not read Peter Benchley's original novel but I'm given to understand that Spielberg essentially threw out most everything before the shark hunt at the end of the story and replaced it with material written directly for the screen. I can easily see those Spielberg touches even without knowing what they replaced.

Tonight, it felt to me that the film is quite obviously structured as Attack #1 through the Third of July and then the Fourth of July as the second act, followed by the shark hunt. I was conscious tonight of Spielberg's impatience to get on to the hunt. Everything before it felt more perfunctory than I think he would have shot it later in his career, but there's a certain enthusiasm in the film - primarily reflected by Richard Dreyfuss's performance - that carries it through nicely enough.

Confession: The only time I jumped in my seat tonight was when Gardner's corpse pops through the hole in his boat's hull and startles Hooper. How I didn't yell "Oh, shit!" I don't know because that's what I would have done at home. I then had to stifle a wave of self-conscious laughter for the next few minutes.

It's the shark hunt - the portion of Benchley's novel that excited Spielberg to film - that plays the best. I think what really makes it work so well is that the actors are all doing practical things throughout that passage. All three of them are very clearly operating the boat and the equipment on it.

Sure, it's all a controlled Hollywood environment and there isn't actually a shark pulling on the barrels, etc. But the actors are clearly having to scramble from one part of the boat to the next, to tie this rope or even to drive the boat itself. It shows in their faces and body language that they're doing these things as close to "for real" as acting gets and that imbues the shark hunt portion of the film with a sense of authenticity.

The chemistry between Scheider, Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw is perfect, each of them bringing a different dynamic and presence. Shaw steals the show as Quint, of course; there can be no debate about that. He's in two of my all-time favorite movies: From Russia with Love and The Sting. His work here bests those other two performances. Man, what a trio of things to have in one filmography!

One last thing. The general talk about the shark itself is that the film benefited from the on-set malfunctions with the artificial shark and I agree that not seeing it is much creepier than seeing it would have been. That said, the second most striking moment for me of the entire film (next to Gardner's corpse) is the first shot of the shark passing the Orca. That sense of scale was dramatic, especially on the big screen.

One of my friends maintains that he thinks Spielberg peaked with Jaws. I can appreciate the arguments for that position, and I intend to make my way back through his filmography in the coming month or so, but for me any discussion about where he "peaked" either ends with Schindler's List or is about his work outside that film.

Jaws Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#74/1515)

Jaws > Alice in Wonderland (2010) --> #74
I would rank Lewis Carroll's original Alice in Wonderland literary tales above Jaws, but the 2010 film? Not a chance.

Jaws > The Good Girl --> #74
The Good Girl really worked for me on a lot of levels and I wish it was seen by more people (Aniston was great in it), but Robert Shaw's Quint handily wins this one for Jaws.

Jaws < The Odd Couple --> #191
In previous times, I would have picked Jaws, but going through a divorce and having fought suicidal depression, I found recently that I have a strong personal connection to The Odd Couple that tips the scales here for me.

Jaws > The Horse's Mouth --> #191
The Horse's Mouth is my favorite Alec Guinness movie so far, and it cracked me up as much the second time as the first. Still, I have to go with Jaws here. Scheider/Shaw/Dreyfuss are nearly unbeatable.

Jaws > The Perks of Being a Wallflower --> #191
I did connect with, and enjoy, The Perks of Being a Wallflower...but Jaws is nearly flawless entertainment. This one goes handily to Spielberg's sophomore film.

Jaws > Robin Hood (1973) --> #191
Robin Hood is as close to a "guilty pleasure" as I think Disney has made. That movie is goofy as hell, and I adore it! Still, when the competition is Jaws, there's no shame in losing.

Jaws > Office Space --> #191
Office Space does a nice job putting a fresh take on the familiar (and finding some retroactive value to Superman III!), but c'mon. Jaws! No contest.

Jaws > Mrs. Henderson Presents --> #191
Judi Dench is ridiculously charming when she's mischievous, as in Mrs. Henderson Presents. Unfortunately, that charm isn't strong enough to best Jaws and Robert Shaw's "U.S.S. Indianapolis" monologue.

Jaws < The Diary of Anne Frank --> #193
This for me comes down to Robert Shaw as Quint and Millie Perkins as Anne Frank...and the dramatization of Anne Frank is simply too moving for even Shaw's Quint to beat.

Jaws was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #193/1515