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Jaws

Come on into the water.


DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG

We sometimes forget, but before he was America’s go-to chronicler of important historical moments — finally adding the Civil War to his C.V. with Lincoln — Steven Spielberg was a genre craftsman of the first order, and a relatively unsentimental one at that. Though he’s admirably tried to strike a balance between genre excursions like Jurassic Park and ostensibly headier fare like Amistad (often in the same year), nothing in his fascinating career has delivered the unadulterated goods quite like Jaws.

Seen again more than 35 years after it opened, one is struck by how nimble the thing is. Early on, Richard Dreyfuss’s hipster bearded oceanographer tells the mayor of shark town Amity that what they’re dealing with is a “perfect engine” and a “miracle of evolution”—nothing to treat lightly. No kidding: Jaws is some elegant machine, transforming without a hitch from a flyby tour through an incompetently managed resort town in its taut opening to a suspenseful three-dudes-in-a-boat thriller in the last act.

Deservedly lauded for its intricate scare scenes—is there a better cut set piece than poor Alex Kintner’s fate on the beach?—Jaws is also one of Spielberg’s smartest looks at outsiders on the edge of a tightly knit community, a pet theme. Notice how the Great White glides under the radar after its first kill, a tourist, and only registers as a serious threat when it claims one of Amity’s own. There’s a running gag where water-phobic police chief and all-around nice guy Brody (Roy Scheider) is reminded by anyone who’ll talk to him that however long he’s been away from New York, he’s still not an islander. Nebbish Dreyfuss, too, gets roundly mocked for his city hands. That makes the finale, an elemental standoff between the transplanted cityfolk and the even more alien shark, as pointed a commentary on territoriality as Munich. More fun, too.

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