It was released on June 20th, 1975, but thanks to the thoughtless actions of one shortsighted fictional mayor, "Jaws" is and always will be the definitive July 4th movie (sorry, "Independence Day"). Amity Island's Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is so concerned with his hamlet's tourism revenue over the big July 4th holiday, that he keeps Amity's beaches open in spite of mounting evidence that he's got a serious shark problem on his hands. Just when the bathers think it's safe to go back in the water, the shark strikes again. And again. And again.
Everyone credits Steven Spielberg's masterful direction and his deft use of his barely functioning mechanical shark for "Jaws"' success — and there's no doubt that Jaws himself is one of the greatest movie monsters ever. But it's Mayor Vaughn and his cronies who make "Jaws" truly terrifying. Their actions enable Jaws' rampage, and turn the film into a cautionary tale about uncontrollable appetites of all shapes and sizes. A menacing shark is scary, but you can always stay away from the beach. But chillingly craven government stooges like Vaughn? They're inescapable. And their appetites are just as voracious as sharks'.
Nowadays, "Jaws" is a widely recognized masterpiece. But thirty-seven years ago, "Jaws" was just a troubled production of a popular best-seller directed by some 27-year-old kid who'd recently graduated from middling television work to features. In honor of the one day a year when I always try to watch "Jaws," I thought it could be interesting to dredge up some vintage "Jaws" reviews. As it turns out, the contemporary critical reactions to "Jaws" ran the gamut from enthusiastic raves to dismissive pans. I've tried to collect a decent sample of the variety of reactions in the excerpts below.
I don't post these reviews to shame those critics who didn't like "Jaws" in 1975 or to applaud the prophetic writers who grasped the sea change in filmmaking that was about to occur off the shores of Amity Island. Instead, I merely hope to point out that before something becomes a "classic," it's has to be a movie first. No critic can turn a film into a masterpiece. That takes time, mass appeal, and, sometimes, the machinations of Murray Hamilton. Hindsight, not foresight, is the one that's 20/20.
Vintage "Jaws" Reviews:
"If you are what you eat, then one of the sharks in 'Jaws' is a beer can, half a mackerel and a Louisiana license plate. Another is a pretty young woman, a cylinder of oxygen, a small boy, a scout master and still more. The other characters in the film are nowhere nearly so fully packed… In the best films, characters are revealed in terms of the action. In movies like "Jaws," characters are simply functions of the action. They're at its service. Characters are like stage hands who move props around and deliver information when it's necessary, which is pretty much what Roy Scheider (the police chief), Robert Shaw (the shark fisherman) and Richard Dreyfuss (the oceanographer) do."
"While I have no doubt that 'Jaws' will make a bloody fortune for Universal and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, it is a coarse-grained and exploitive work which depends on excess for its impact. Ashore it is a bore, awkwardly staged and lumpily written."
"Directed by Hollywood's newest wunderkind, Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, Jaws is a grisly film, often ugly as sin, which achieves precisely what it set out to accomplish—scare the hell out of you. As such, it's destined to become a classic the way all truly terrifying movies, good or bad, become classics of a kind."
"Faced with his first adaptation, Spielberg has struck to the heart of the art, leaving matters literary between the hard and soft covers and rendering unto cinema the things that are peculiarly its own. The result is a fast-paced, straight-line thriller that moves without pause toward the climactic contest at sea between three men and a 25-foot, 3-ton great while killer shark — and does so in such realistic and terrifying terms, to such horrifying effect, that you're bound to suspect that producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown were secretly financed by the Swimming Pool Manufacturers of America."
"There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meanings in such an archetypal story, but Spielberg wisely decides not to underline any of them. This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters has to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all. Spielberg is very good, though, at presenting those characters in a way that makes them individuals."
“'Jaws' is a thriller of surprise rather than suspense. You feel like a rat, being given shock treatment, who has not yet figured out the pattern.”
"Though 'Jaws' has more zest than an early Woody Allen picture, and a lot more electricity, it's funny in a Woody Allen way. When the three protagonists are in their tiny boat, trying to find the shark that has been devouring people, you feel that Robert Shaw, the malevolent old shark hunter, is so manly that he wants to get them all killed; he's so manly he's homicidal."
“The ads show a gaping shark's mouth. If sharks can yawn, that's presumably what this one was doing. It's certainly what I was doing all through this picture… The direction is by Steven Spielberg, who did the unbearable 'Sugarland Express.' At least here he has shucked most of his arty mannerisms and has progressed almost to the level of a stock director of the '30s — say, Roy del Ruth."
"Story considerations aside, Spielberg's directorial abilities on that one as well as 'Jaws' display a remarkable grasp of both logistics and drama. The assured success of 'Jaws' will minimize the 100% budget overrun, to the neighborhood of $8,000,000."
"The fact that the villain in 'Jaws' is a polyurethane, hydraulically-powered mechanical construction doesn't dampen the tension for a moment. The technical achievements are so skillful and the camerawork from the cramped view of the shark so persuasive, the film honors all of the cinematic traditions of realistic make-believe. All told, 'Jaws' is truly a movie you can sink your teeth in."
"The characters, for the most part, and the non-fish elements in the story, are comparatively weak and not believable. When the fear level drops off, for example, you'll begin questioning the realism of how this little town fights the fish that threatens to close its beaches and thereby destroy its summer tourist economy. You'll wonder why they don't ultimately call in the Coast Guard, and you'll wonder, when it comes to killing the fish, why three men have to risk their necks. Why doesn't somebody just get a big mother of a gun and blow the shark out of the water?"