Sunday, October 28, 2012
174. JAWS (1975)
To the best of my knowledge, I was the first critic to review JAWS for publication. I had the good fortune to attend a preview screening here in Cincinnati in the spring before it opened, which I look back upon as one of the most thrilling screenings of my life. Afterwards, I immediately phoned Fred Clarke of CINEFANTASTIQUE and spent at least half an hour persuading him that this perceived adventure film, based on a fairly crummy bestseller, was actually a great horror film worthy of substantial coverage. Though only half persuaded, he held the issue for me and my review appeared in CFQ Vol 4 No 2 (Summer 1975), which I received in the mail a week or so before the film opened. It was buried between reviews of THE LITTLE PRINCE and STEPPENWOLF, two films now largely forgotten. In my effusive review, I noted that Universal's JAWS was "one of the best horror films ever" and played like a proper descendant of Universal-International films of the 1950s, like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. And so it does -- not only for their shared menaces of the deep, but because Steven Spielberg shared with director Jack Arnold a command of manipulative framing and presentation of information in depth. (Arnold did this because he was working in 3D; Spielberg wisely knew the same principles could be adapted to flat visual storytelling.) Both films take advantage of hands that suddenly reach in from the periphery, or that pop out from a black or blank background. Somehow -- I frankly think it had a lot to do with John Williams' score and even more to do with Verna Fields' editing -- Spielberg used his film to define a new slap-and-tickle way of addressing films to audiences. The underpinnings of the amusement park ride are here in full force.
Almost 40 years later, JAWS continues to look remarkably contemporary and masterful as a piece of suspenseful entertainment. It's undoubtedly best seen with a full house, but it is no less captivating when watched alone in a room; if anything, solitary viewing lends itself to a clearer appreciation of the film's construction, which is cold-bloodedly manipulative but, hey, why argue with a winning recipe?
When I saw the film that first time, it had me deconstructing it on the first pass. I remember noticing that a lot of it utilized sleight of hand techniques, that it would draw the eye here so that something could jump out from there, etc. When the three remarkably well-cast, complementary leads (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss) were shown comparing their scars and singing shanties at full throttle, I expected from the film's past history of misdirection that the shark was probably going to ram the hull at any moment and send the audience once again up into the rafters... but it didn't. Instead, Spielberg cut outside the Orca to a distance from the ship as the floats attached to the shark resurfaced and began moving purposefully in its direction. It showed the ram coming. What I loved then, and still love now about that moment, is that Spielberg was using it to say in effect, "Okay, wise guys, I know a few of you may be expecting this, so tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going to show you what you're expecting, and you'll know that the only reason I can afford to do this is because I have something even better up my sleeve, which you can't guess. So stop trying to anticipate me; just sit back and enjoy this." I did then, and I do now.
Universal's new Blu-ray remastering of this title takes me right back to that spring evening when JAWS changed everything.
Viewed on Universal Blu-ray.
at 3:27 PM