Nearing 50 years old, ‘Jaws’ retains its bite

Movie Review

Roy Scheider in “Jaws”

Especially appropriate viewing during the summer, a certain movie still generates immediate fear of going in the water.

It’s not hard to guess the film in question is “Jaws,” whose monstrous success put director Steven Spielberg on the map. AMC shows the 1975 classic Friday, July 29, and Saturday, July 30 (with the first two sequels also running there this month). The picture’s legendary production problems, which included a malfunctioning mechanical “shark,” provide a lesson in how the result still can succeed.

In the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestseller, the gruesome death of a moonlight swimmer causes concern among residents and officials of tourist-supported Amity Island. Eventually, the sheriff, a shark expert and a local shark hunter (played by the ideal trio of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw) join forces to go to sea to find and eliminate the recurring threat.

The pursuit is thrilling and involving, backed by a brilliant John Williams score that incorporates one of the most famous musical themes in screen history. However, what really sells “Jaws” is the creative approach by Spielberg, who has admitted that he thought he’d be fired by producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown (or the studio, Universal, which scored one of the biggest hits in screen history by sticking with him) at any of numerous points during the location filming in New England.

One of Spielberg’s smartest decisions was to not play his hand too early in showing the shark, letting the audience’s imagination do much of the work for him. When the ever-hungry villain finally does appear, it’s a surprise of the sort that prompted many moviegoers to scream, all the more loudly because Spielberg knowingly had lulled them into a comfort zone by that moment.

Other cast notables include Lorraine Gary as the sheriff’s wife and Murray Hamilton as Amity Island’s mayor, who would prefer to keep the site open for profit rather than acknowledge that there might be a potentially deadly problem swimming nearby. The casting of Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss is ideal, though; Shaw’s Quint is particularly colorful, and it elevated the actor’s stardom to new heights internationally in what sadly ended up being one of his final projects (he died in 1978).

For nearly 50 years, “Jaws” has held up superbly, raising the hair on the heads of newcomers as well as returning viewers. And you can pretty much bank on that continuing to be the case for the next 50 years … and beyond.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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