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In the Terrifying Grip of a Sensational 'Jaws'

By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 1975; Page K1

Brilliant young director Steven Spielberg has taken the premise of Peter Benchley's best-selling but rather pedestrian novel "Jaws" -- a summer resort community terrorized by the presence of a rogue Great White Shark -- and streamlined it into a new classic of cinematic horror and high adventure. The movie version of "Jaws" is one of the most exciting and satisfying thrillers ever made, and several things are likely to happen when it opens Friday at 500 American theaters, including the Aspen Hill 1, Jenifer 1, Riverdale Plaza, Springfield Mall 1 and Tyson's Cinema in the Washington area.

First, "Jaws" seems almost certain to do that revered Hollywood money-making act known as Going Through the Roof. The production began with a budget of $3.5 million and ended up costing more than $7 million, but given the nature of the film's appeal and the vast number of bookings, it's likely to be in the black by July 4.

A number of factors seem to be converging to make "Jaws" an instant box-office phenomenon, one of those pictures that create lines around the block before the first show on opening day. There's the enormous popularity of the book, which first appeared in February 1974 and has sold an estimated 3.5 million copies. The paperback edition was published in January, in a first printing of over 1.5 million copies, and Benchley helped launch the paperback with a two-week national publicity tour.

Spielberg and Benchley, an extremely personable team, are touring 11 cities in advance of the movie's opening. The stars -- Roy Scheider, who plays the stricken town's police chief, Brody; Robert Shaw, who plays the obsessed sharkhunter, Quint; and Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the young ichthyologist, Hooper -- are also being enlisted to do their bit. If America isn't "Jaws"-conscious this summer, it won't be because of a lack of effort or ingenuity on the part of Doubleday, Bantam or Universal Pictures.

Scare movies seldom fail at the box office. If "Jaws" in book form succeeded in scaring a few million readers, the movie version, which intensifies and heightens the original horror elements and improves the characterizations immensely, is calculated to scare tens of millions. (Given the somewhat surprising PG rating, a few million of them may be children of unsuspecting parents.) In addition, the movie is opening at exactly the right time: it hits the theaters when people are heading for the beaches.

One can imagine suspicious oceanfront entrepreneurs thinking of "Jaws" as a deliberate way to divert the public from beaches to movie houses. "Jaws" is not going to empty the beaches, of course, but it's bound to become part of the culture of life on the American beach in Summer 1975.

As if it needed additional commercial boosters, the movie may also profit from the sort of morbid "luck" that accompanied "The Godfather," which was shooting in New York when gangsters began shooting at each other -- and hitting members of the general public, too. A couple of weeks ago, the wire services carried a story about shark attacks off the Florida coast. A young man who'd had a close call accused the authorities of hushing up earlier sightings and attacks in order not to scare off the summer trade.

This very situation provides the initial dramatic conflict in "Jaws." The mayor of the town Amity persuades the police chief to keep the beaches open after a young woman has been killed by the shark. Everyone hopes in a foolish but understandably self-interested way, that this is an isolated death, that the trouble will simply go away. When it doesn't and the shark kills two more people on the crowded July 4 weekend, the appalled and contrite mayor approves the chief's plan to hunt down the shark. Scheider and Dreyfuss put to sea with Shaw, a bounty-hunting fisherman with a long grudge against sharks, and the movie builds toward its sensational, heart-stopping struggles between men and sea monster.

The imaginary shark of "Jaws" is no pussycat. A few more items like the ones from Florida could send "Jaws" not only through the roof but into commercial outer space.

In the Washington area and most other parts of the country (New York seems to be the principal exception), "Jaws" is also the first major release of the summer film season. Starting the season with a virtually guaranteed blockbuster has enormous advantages for the business as a whole. "Jaws" is exceptionally stimulating entertainment, and one of the things it's bound to help stimulate is movie attendance in general. The summer slate already includes a first-rate new comedy from Woody Allen, "Love and Death," and a new musical comedy-drama from Robert Altman, "Nashville," as much a masterpiece of pathos as "Jaws" is of adventure.

By themselves, "Jaws" and "Nashville" would make this an historic year for American movies. One still looks forward to such promising summer attractions as "Rollerball," "Bite the Bullet," "The Drowning Pool" and the revival of Disney's "Bambi." It could be a rousing filmgoing summer, and in most places "Jaws" will be setting the pace.

Spielberg, 27, made a stunning feature film debut last year with the chase melodrama "The Sugarland Express." His new picture should make him the most sought-after American director since Francis Ford Coppola, who achieved his breakthrough with "The Godfather" at 32. I don't think there's a more exciting talent at work right now than Spielberg, an authentic moviemaking prodigy, and perhaps his worst problem from June 20, 1975, on will be preventing success from making a nervous or artistic wreck of him.

Back in the late '50s, shortly after the release of "Paths of Glory," many felt the same sense of exhileration about the directing style of Stanley Kubrick, and one would hate to see the electricity and humanity gradually go out of Spielberg's work, too.

It's fairly reassuring to meet Spielberg himself, a straightforward and enthusiastic young man who confirms the sense of a lively, good-humored social animal that emerges from both "Sugarland" and "Jaws." One of the most pleasing and distinctive elements of his style is a vivid illusion of the ongoingness of life, of constant social activity and conflict. Spielberg's movies have a perky, humorous atmosphere, with preoccupied, crotchety, talkative characters who produce funny little surprises and whose talk frequently overlaps.

Altman has also achieved a teeming, convivial social atmosphere on screen, but his view is rather more detached and dreamy. Spielberg's carburetor seems to be tuned higher than any other American director's, and that youthful zest and dynamism combined with a sense of humor give his work an exceptionally alive, amusing quality. In the case of "Jaws" it's even more amusing to see him working with the most live-wire young actor in the business, Dreyfuss, also 27, whose very presence seems to make every scene he's in play faster and funnier.

Several friends who didn't care for "Sugarland" have been overwhelmed by "Jaws." Since the films are obviously the work of the same director and not only technically but totally similar -- "Jaws" evolves into another odyssey for three voices, which now seems like a Spielberg specialty -- the difference must derive from the difference in the original stories. There is simply something more gripping and thrilling about the idea of coming face to face with several tons of primordial terror.

The filmmakers have made a number of changes in the novel, and all of them are changes for the better in terms of movie exposition and empathy. I knew in advance that the dismal romantic subplot between the ichthyologist and the chief's wife, a real drag on the middle sections of the book, had been abandoned. It came as a pleasant surprise to discover that the Mafia is no longer taking over Amity and that the wife herself had changed -- from a dissatisfied ex-society girl into an affectionate, supportive, stable wife and mother, played with considerable warmth by Lorraine Gary, who happens to be the wife of Universal executive Sidney Sheinberg.

The three major roles are essentially the same, but the characters have been filled out in ways that transform them from plot functions into reasonable facsimiles of humans. A small change in the history of the police chief -- he's now a refugee from the big city rather than an Amity native -- gives the horror an ironic new edge and deepens the role by linking it almost subliminally to Scheider's portrayals of New York cops in "The French Connection" and "The Seven-Ups."

Scheider embodies the common man in this high adventure fable. He's the sharkhunter without experience or special training -- us, in other words -- and the action is astutely calculated to put this character on the spot when all the chips are down. This is the most human, vulnerable character Scheider has ever played on the screen -- a responsible family man trying to function in a strange, perilous set of circumstances that threaten to paralyze him with fright -- and his performance is excellent.

Dreyfuss and Shaw are flamboyant actors, and their characters seem to expand through natural exuberance and wit, through the sheer force of their personalities. They make a delightful pair of seafaring antagonists -- bright, feisty young icythyologist with loads of facts and self-esteem matched against a sneering old salt with loads of lore and an equally high opinion of himself.

They establish emotional rapport in the course of a beautifully conceived and executed sequence in which they begin comparing old injuries. The initially comic byplay leads to an extended, spellbinding monologue in which Shaw accounts for the fisherman's obsession with killing sharks. Shaw wrote the speech himself and he gives it a smashing reading. This strange, touching interlude of camaraderie also turns out to be the calm before a succession of increasingly violent storms. Outside, the shark is preparing to attack the creatures who have been attacking it.

A few cautionary remarks are necessary. Anyone who gets enthusiastic about "Jaws" is going to be mightily tempted to describe the action too explicitly. If you find friends or reviewers telling you too much about "Jaws," tell them to shut up or put the review aside. It's extremely tricky attempting to convey the excitement of this movie without getting too specific about certain dynamite effects and possibly defusing the charge in advance.

Fortunately, I think it's impossible to disarm the major thrills or the quality of suspense in "Jaws." Friends may tend to overprepare you for the big jolts but not for the extraordinary humor that accompanies the jolting. Every frightening effect is intensified by the interjection of some unexpectedly witty line or bit of business. Having scared you, Spielberg makes you laugh a moment later, but the laughter release doesn't all the tension. On the contrary, it seems to lift the film to some giddy new level of suspense, to screw the tension up even higher.

For example, everyone in the theater is going to jump at the first sight of Jaws. It's a hell of a jolt, but the thing that makes it even more effective is the scene immediately after, in which Scheider, our stunned surrogate, walks backward into the ship's cabin and tells Shaw, "You're going to need a bigger boat." As it turns out, that line is not only funny but literally true: they do need a bigger boat. Much bigger.

Before those incredibly jaws rise up out of the ocean Spielberg has encouraged his viewers to build up a large reservoir of anxiety. In the first attack, the shark isn't visible at all, but the effects of his attack are terrifyingly evident on the violently churning surface of the water and on the face of the young woman who's been attacked. In the second attack the doral fin surfaces and there's mass panic on the beach, but those jaws and the full size of the creature are still hidden. By the time those too are revealed, we've been imagining something awful for over an hour, and we contribute to that apprehension to the images themselves.

The excitement is more than sufficiently intense and the violence sufficiently graphic to make "Jaws" a dubious entertainment for younger children. The film has been given one of those qualified PG ratings, in which there's a disclaimer meant to caution parents that the action may, indeed, be too intense. Since these disclaimers are easy to overlook and some parents let their kids attend PG movies routinely, it may be useful to sound a few warnings in advance of the openings.

Benchley himself feels that the film may be too strong for kids in the 7-11 age range, and he's probably right. At any rate, I'd exercise more caution with pre-adolescent children, and if you have any doubts, see the film or at least read the book first. Teen-age movie goers might ensure themselves a measure of emotional protection by attending in large groups. At any age, it's best not to go alone, because you are going to need someone to clutch during the scary scenes and then laugh nervously with a moment later.

There are a few creaky places in the show where Spielberg doesn't seem to keep the direction loose enough. The scene in which Shaw first appears -- a tumultuous city council meeting -- is a little too blunt, and the procession of bathers into the ocean on the fatal 4th looks decidedly over-directed and over-composed.

However, Spielberg's technique and ingenuity don't fail him at any crucial juncture of the story, and he achieves tacular and intimate sequences. For example, there's a lovely little scenes in which the child playing Scheider's youngest son imitates his worried, preoccupied father's mannerisms. It's a gem of a scene, placed at exactly the right spot to touch us the most.

Spielberg's dynamic sense of movement comes into play most impressively during the panic and chase sequences. The panic on the beach is reminiscent of that old reliable, Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence in "Potemkin," but in this case there are no steps, no vertical or diagonal lines of force. The lines are horizontal or directly into or out of the frame, but they transmit a compelling sense of flight, confusion and anxiety.

After his TV movie "Duel" and "The Sugarland Express" and "Jaws," Spielberg scarcely needs to prove himself as a master of action and suspense, but it is fun to imagine what he might do with one of the disaster spectacles like "Earthquake" or "The Towering Inferno." "Jaws" is a more intimate, concentrated thriller, and more intense because of that.

The photography in "Jaws" also conveys a feeling of being on the water or occasionally up to your chest in water that contributes to the general sense of apprehension. It's a sensational achievement in the realm of sensational filmmaking and a kind of esthetic experience that is unique to the movies.

There has never been an adventure thriller quite as terrifying yet enjoyable as "Jaws," and it should set the standard in its field for many years to come.


© 1975 The Washington Post Company