Review: Jaws

Terrifyingly good
By JANET MASLIN  |  July 20, 2012

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 1975 issue of the Miami Phoenix.

It's interesting that the two most exciting films of the summer are so directly at odds with each other: while Nashville works against all our usual notions of linear plot, traditional character development and precise cinematic meaning, Jaws is triumphantly conventional, a Hollywood action thriller that revels in either copping or one-upping the best techniques of the genre. Its intentions are as narrow as its effectiveness is immense. Nashville may elicit oohs and ahs of admiration, but Jaws provokes a far noisier and more visceral reaction. It's a rare scare movie that can actually make me scream.

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Jaws differs greatly, thank goodness, from Peter Bechley's potent but clumsy novel. The plot has been considerably streamlined, in accordance with director Steven Spielberg's avowed disinterest in too much moralizing or exposition; all that remains are the man-eating Great White Shark, its three principal antagonists (a cop, an old crackpot sea captain, a young wise-guy scientist)and the various locals and tourists in Amity (now an island, not a sea-coast town) who keep the shark from going hungry. Gone are the scientist's affair with the cop's wife, the uncomfortable correspondence between the Great White Shark and a whale of a similar hue (Quint the crackpot, as originally written, was an insult to Melville), and the neo-Blattyesque willfulness of the monster's devilty. The shark's uncanny appetite for adulterers, fools and other rapscallions has been similarly curtailed. Here, his tastes don't run to sinners so much as to anything that moves.

The picture starts fast, as the first victim takes her ghastly moonlight swim au naturel. And it progresses even faster, driven by John Williams's riveting score. (The shark is afforded his own theme, which lets us know when he's in the neighborhood, with numerous shots from his singularly bloodcurdling point of view.) The premise is problematic: one never fully believes that local officials would try to cover up the presence of a man-eater in their waters so as not to scare away the tourists, even if Speilberg does put them and their Cadillac on the Cappaquiddick ferry as they explain their wicked intentions to the honest but hamstrung cop (and even if Newsweek reports that similar shennanigans are taking place in Florida right now). Nor does one altogether care whether the cop will heed his wife's urgings and move the family back to New York, from which they have recently fled. And Quint, who makes his conspicuous entry into the proceedings by scraping his fingernail on a blackboard at a frantic town meeting, never escapes the grizzled-old-coot stereotype of Benchley's book. But these are the sorts of shortcomings one notices after the film is over, not while it is mounting its assault. While Jaws is under way, one does not notice; one quakes.

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    It's interesting that the two most exciting films of the summer are so directly at odds with each other.
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