If mechanical shark effects and John Williams’ relentless theme music were all it had going for it, Jaws still might have become the highest grossing movie in history at the time of its release. And it likely would still be lumped in with Star Wars as a progenitor of the modern summer blockbuster phenomenon. In truth, Jaws has always been much more than a mere creature feature or special effects extravaganza, and with the first time release of the film on DVD in a special 25th Anniversary Edition, its many virtues can now be experienced anew.
It isn’t complexity of narrative that sets Jaws above its illegitimate offspring. Indeed, the story has a primal simplicity. A young woman is found washed up and mangled beyond recognition on the shores of Amity Island, a New England beach community. Amity’s sheriff, Martin Brody – a recent transplant from New York City – attributes the death to a shark attack. But the mayor and the town selectmen, with their eye on the summer tourist dollars that keep the town afloat through the long winter, dissuade Brody from this conclusion. After a couple more attacks make it painfully clear that a man-eater is terrorizing the local waters, Brody sets out with oceanographer Matt Hooper and rough-and-rowdy fisherman Quint to hunt down and kill the beast.
From the moment the Universal Pictures logo appears onscreen, accompanied by otherworldly sonar pinging noises signaling unfathomable depths of mystery, to the mournful dinosaur roar that accompanies the shark’s final descent back to the murky deep, we are firmly in the grip of a master filmmaker. And while Steven Spielberg’s gifts would eventually sour, with sure-handed storytelling giving way to transparent manipulation, here his every instinct is sound and his attention to detail astonishing. His tonal control is absolute; the darkest of horrors coexist with lusty seafaring adventure and character-based comedy, and it is all of a piece. The biggest laughs lead into the most frightening shocks, and vice-versa. It’s a balancing act enhanced by the finest score of John Williams’ career. His dum-dum-dum-dum shark theme is instantly recognizable to anyone on the planet – hell, sharks probably swim around humming it – but it’s a remarkably resilient piece of music, speeding up into bursts of nautical derring-do, slowing down to an ominous, guttural portent of doom. The shark itself, when it is finally seen, remains an impressive movie monster. Even if its artificiality is more apparent to today’s effects-jaded movie audience, its appearances are still fleeting enough to startle and delight.
Set Jaws beside any of the contemporary summer cash leviathans and the hollowness of modern-day Hollywood’s vision of action-adventure entertainment is laid bare. The Perfect Storm is a good point of comparison – both movies take place in small coastal New England towns and on the open seas, both pit man against the forces of nature. Both pictures save their "monsters" for near the end (though in Jaws this was a case of necessity forcing the filmmakers’ hand, as the temperamental shark proved uncooperative through most of the shoot). Absent from The Perfect Storm is the crucial sense of place that grounds the more fantastic elements of Jaws in reality. Amity is a living, breathing community populated by stubborn old Yankees, karate-chopping juvenile delinquents, and slumming "summer dinks." You can smell the salt in the air, feel the sand in your shoes and hear the clashing static-riddled signals from dueling AM radios at the beach. By contrast, The Perfect Storm presents a freeze-dried Gloucester, Mass., bled of any local flavor beyond a handful of phony accents. Likewise, fleshed-out, believable characters are largely absent from today’s big-screen theme park rides. Storm gives us six men trapped on raging seas, and when their vessel finally sinks beneath the massive waves, we might as well be watching a boatload of mannequins go under.
For nearly half its running length, Jaws is a three-man show, with all the action taking place on and around Quint’s boat, the Orca. The actors are key, and each member of the shark-hunting triad is right on the money. Scheider tends to be underrated as Brody, but in fact this casting decision was a canny one on Spielberg’s part. Brody is a logical extension of Scheider’s roles in New York police thrillers like The French Connection and The Seven-Ups; his performance draws on the audience’s collective memory of his streetwise cops, making his unease with the water and Amity’s provincial politicking feel perfectly natural. With his wiseass college-boy attitude and egghead vulnerability, Richard Dreyfuss is a perfect foil for the salty Quint. And though Robert Shaw was never Spielberg’s first choice – the director wanted Lee Marvin or Sterling Hayden, both of whom turned him down – his Quint is an indelible folk hero. The finest moment in Jaws is also the quietest, and it’s all Shaw – Quint’s monologue recounting the events of June 29, 1945, when the U.S.S. Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes and much of its crew devoured by sharks. As Spielberg points out in the DVD’s making-of documentary, the speech was initially written by Howard Sackler, then re-written by John Milius, with the final version penned by Shaw himself. His performance of it is understated and riveting, a stark counterpoint to the manly-man bluster he exhibits throughout the rest of the picture.
Quint’s tale leads into a bonding moment, with the three men harmonizing on a rousing, drunken "Show Me the Way to Go Home" sing-along. At the peak of the trio’s high spirits, Spielberg cuts away to a distant shark’s-eye view of the Orca. The singing is swallowed up by the vast, dark void of the ocean and the audience is hit with the full realization that these men are truly on their own. This is the sort of touch sorely lacking in The Perfect Storm, which, for all its admittedly spectacular wave effects, never successfully evokes the timeless mystery of the sea.
The new DVD package of Jaws comes with a number of extras – trailers, outtakes, deleted scenes and a documentary on the making of the film. It’s a decent set of bonus materials, but there’s room to quibble; for one thing, the documentary was originally produced for an earlier laser disc edition, where it ran for over two hours. For the DVD, it has been chopped down to sixty minutes. The full-length version could easily have been included had Universal elected to release a double-disc set. With everything from Fight Club to Patton to Carnival of Souls getting the deluxe treatment, it seems a shame Jaws was not considered worthy of such a presentation…at least, not yet. No doubt the hungry sharks of Universal Studios are already circling, smelling money in the water. After all, it’s never to early to start planning the 30th Anniversary Edition.