By Richard Winters
My Rating: 10 out of 10
4-Word Review: Shark in the water.
A young woman (Susan Backlinie) goes out for a swim late one night only to have her severed hand wash up on shore the next day, which causes the Amity Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to fear that her death may have been caused by a shark. Amity mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t want his town to risk losing business, so he has his coroner deny that a shark was responsible and hence the beach remains open, but then more attacks occur. Eventually an eccentric shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw), Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from the Oceanographic Institute and Brody head out on a small fishing vessel called Orca to locate the shark and then kill it, but they find the underwater beast to be far bigger and more cunning than they had ever imagined.
With its exceptional ability to slowly build tension and keep the viewer riveted from the first frame to the last easily makes this the quintessential thriller. John Williams’s legendary score adds to the murky ambience and in many ways is more memorable than the shark itself. Director Steven Spielberg wisely adds a secondary layer to the narrative by creating colorful and distinctive characters, most notably Quint, who gives the proceedings a flavorful nuance and makes the conversations and interactions that occur between the three inside the boat more interesting than what happens in the water.
The most amazing thing though is how little the shark is actually seen and in fact you don’t even get a glimpse of him until about an hour in. Part of this was due to the difficulty of getting the mechanical creation to perform properly in salt water, but in the end this became a blessing in disguise as it’s the mystery and allusion to its large size that makes it so riveting. The viewer feels as helpless and confused as the men on the boat, which makes the climactic sequence when the shark suddenly does jump onto the boat all that more impactful.
The film though does deviate heavily from the Peter Benchley source novel and a legitimate argument can be made as to which one presents the story better. In the book the tone is darker and the characters less likable. For me this makes it more intriguing from a psychological bent as it conveys the idea that humans are like the shark that they hunt as they both selfishly devour everything around them. Spielberg though didn’t care for this interpretation so the novel’s darker subtext gets erased, but it still made me intrigued, as much of a classic as this movie is, to see a reboot where the narrative stayed more faithful.
Some of the book’s subplots got too involved particularly the one dealing with the mayor’s connections to the criminal underworld, so I’m glad that one got toned down. However I felt the one though dealing with Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) should’ve been left in as it would’ve added extra tensions between the two while on the boat while also seeing how people can learn to work together even when they hate each other.
In the book Hooper dies when the shark attacks the cage that he is in while in the movie he is able to escape and somehow hide from the shark. This though seemed unrealistic as sharks have special sensing organs known as electroreceptors that allow them to detect the electromagnetic field emitted from a moving animal or at close range even the heartbeat of an immobile one, which means the shark most likely would’ve figured out where Hooper was hiding and gotten him.
In the book the shark dies from its many wounds just as it gets a few feet from Brody while in the movie it’s killed when the scuba tank that it has in its mouth explodes when hit by a bullet, but a 2003 episode of Mythbusters proves that in reality this wouldn’t have happened. My main beef though is that by having the shark literally blow-up into little pieces it denies the viewer the chance at seeing what the beast looked like as a whole. Supposedly this was one giant of a shark, so viewing it strung up at the end would’ve been a cool thing to have seen.
End of Spoiler Alert!
Despite these many differences the film still works splendidly and I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t, but I would still suggest reading the book afterwards as it gives the story and characters an added dimension.
My Rating: 10 out of 10
Released: June 20, 1975
Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube
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Still one of the greats.
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