Now in its 41st year as a stubborn presence in the cinematic zeitgeist, “Jaws” is a movie that has earned its place among the trendsetters of a generation – surely the first of what we know as the summer blockbuster, and an archetype in the ambitious intentions of a new breed of filmmakers that saw the screen as rip in the fabric of procedure. And yet even as its nearest cousins wear the scars of age, here is a film that seems just as fresh with each new viewing as the first time you saw it: relentless and intense, with characters that are the accurate realizations of their behaviors and special effects that dwarf the limits of the time. Along with “Star Wars,” most now look at it as the dividing line between the modern eras of the industry, a watershed that brought audiences out in the sorts of droves normally reserved for sporting events and political rallies. Strange to imagine that a fictional shark picking off swimmers along the coast of a small New England town would be the premise to incite so much enthusiasm, let alone reinvent the filmgoeing wheel.
No miniscule part of that comes down to the nearly flawless technical execution. Assembled together by a team whose enthusiasm (novice or skilled) was pitched at a high intent, there is scarcely a scene contained in the 124-minute running time that is without some level of cautious methodology. Think, as a prime example, about the famous opening sequence. On a beach in Amity at night during the roar of a party, two teenagers wander away from the light of the campfire and engage in a flirtatious chase towards the shore. Clothes are flung on the sand, and she wanders into the water; his heavy intoxication, unfortunately, means that he will never make it as far as his pursuit. As she swims alone enthusiastically among the waves, occasionally shooting back seductive stares towards the man still on the beach, an ominous chord (courtesy of John Williams) escalates in the soundtrack. Beneath the surface, the camera lingers like a voyeur, taking unshaking interest in her naked flesh. And just as it begins to approach from underneath, our concern is manifested in a rather sensational display of attack, in which the girl is flung left and right by unseen shark teeth holding onto her beneath the surface before it finally drags her below the water.
Such descriptions of this scene have been commonplace in the four decades that “Jaws” has been a subject of study, but they remain a necessary observation, perhaps, because of how distinct they were in the context of their time. By the mid-1970s, nearly all of the contemporaries of Alfred Hitchcock had abandoned his informative teachings and settled on violence as a driving factor for dread in horror movies; there was scarcely a need for subtlety anymore, especially in the mainstream, where audiences had graduated to the expectation of open wounds and severed limbs. Yet Spielberg’s panache – a slow and steady progression that only gave details away in sporadic increments – followed the master’s doctrine so specifically that it was almost mystical, like a piece of his consciousness had been downloaded within. If we were brought to fright in the way that audiences had been during the famous shower sequence in “Psycho,” it’s because there was a sense of temperament driving the momentum of the horror – a discussion of it rather than an outright display of it. The shark is only ever seen in full in the final act of a lengthy dialogue-driven consideration, after the characters have exhausted their individual hysteria and grown restless by the sight of a flailing victim begging for help while blood filled their vision. How many of today’s viewers expect that, or indeed have the patience?
The overreaching appeal of the picture is that it occupies us in between the attacks with rather stimulating episodes. The hero is Brody (Roy Scheider), the police chief of a small community known as Amity, whose mild-mannered temperament is tested by alarming gut feelings after the discovery of human remains on the beach outside of town. Fearing that a shark may be responsible, Brody appeals to mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) for the beaches to close, but to little success; there is no way to be sure that a shark was responsible for the death without an outside source of confirmation, and Amity is heading into the summer holidays when the beach is the town’s primary attraction; shutting it down would prove disastrous for tourism and the local economy. That perspective – as stubborn as the thirst of the shark itself – persists even as new attacks transpire, including a rather public one involving a little boy who is tossed around in the middle of a group of kids before being devoured in plain sight. The final shot of that sequence is sobering: as the dead boy’s mother calls out his name in terror, the boy’s deflated raft washes ashore, half-eaten and soaked in blood.
Town hysteria, needless to say, escalates. Something is clearly out there threatening the safety of swimmers, but what exactly? A shark, or something else? The residents of Amity seem displaced from knowledge of the outside world. When Brody calls in a skilled oceanographer named Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to analyze the remains of the dead girl, his feeling is as conclusive as it is frenzied. There are calls to hunt the predator down for a handsome sum. A lone Irish drinker – and skilled seaman – named Quint (Robert Shaw) paints a bleak portrait for inexperienced ocean hunters, but volunteers his own services for a much steeper price than what is offered (“For ten thousand dollars, I’ll get you the head, the tail, the whole god damn thing.”) The locals catch and kill a tiger shark, and there are brief celebrations – Hooper argues that the bite radius on the fish doesn’t match the nature of the wounds of the found remains, leading him and Brody into a side adventure where they cut open the carcass to investigate. But as is the nature of greedy politicians to look the other way, Vaughn is not cooperative in supporting the continued concerns of either his police chief or the visiting expert, both of whom are convinced that the actual shark still roams nearby. And inevitably the beaches remain open just as the community moves into the 4th of July weekend, where fireworks are destined to go off again on the open waters.
There is some level of comical irony in the shark’s minimal presence in front of the camera. The screenplay by Carl Gottlieb (a newcomer to feature films) and Peter Benchley (the scribe who authored the book) does a glorious job of talking about the villainous beast as part of its devious strategy to generate underlying dread, but in truth there would have probably been no possibility of the studio giving the animal significantly more screen time. Legends arose that the shark itself – an ambitious mechanical creation – was almost never fully operational, and during several field tests it sank to the bottom of a lake at Martha’s Vineyard (Spielberg and his visual effects supervisor Robert A. Mattey have vouched for this story in several interviews, including a rather informative one that appeared on the 35th anniversary DVD edition). That forced an increased production timeline that conflicted with the demeanors of several of the film’s key participants – particularly Robert Shaw, who frequently drank on set and got into rather lively arguments with co-star Richard Dreyfuss (the two would later admit mutual respect).
If that reality adds perspective to what winds up on the screen, it’s the notion that under increased tension and constraints a movie artist – on screen or off – is capable of delivering some of the best work of their lives. Spielberg clearly knew this was happening as filming began on the legendary third act, where the three component characters are on the open seas hunting their nemesis; there are exchanges of ambitious conviction, scenes of startling twists, and a monologue by Shaw so perceptive that it’s a wonder so much of it was adlibbed on the spot (or, indeed, that much of it was in fact an actual document of the truth). If the shark itself is physically convincing as a force of reckoning, our fear of it is escalated by the synergy of the production crew and their focused actors, all of whom seem to be staring back as if they are waiting for their own moment to be pulled beneath the waves.
These are not exactly minor agreements. At the time of its highly anticipated release in the summer of 1975, “Jaws” became one of the first movies to open wide (in nearly 1000 screens simultaneously), and was the first to pass the coveted $100 million mark in domestic earnings during the first run. The term “blockbuster” originates from the endearments showered down by critics and audiences, both of whom walked away never in doubt that they were seeing one of the marvels of their time. John Williams, still young and relatively unknown, became the defining sound of modern motion pictures (he would go onto score virtually hundreds of important compositions, including Lucas’ “Star Wars” franchise). What usually remains key in the mind so long after a film has settled is the root cause of its filmmaker; in this case, it was the realization that Spielberg, still new and inexperienced, possessed a voice that was as pure and giving as the greats that preceded him. But while other films have become relics of those declarations, his have remained timeless wonders – really, epithets of the humanly fears and desires that are passed down with each new generation. Here was the first among many important endeavors to announce the creation of a cinematic mastermind, and it lingers in thought as one of the textbook prototypes of how meaningful a thrill can be when put into motion by the right hands.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Thriller (US); 1975; Rated PG; Running Time: 124 Minutes
Roy Scheider: Chief Brody
Robert Shaw: Quint
Richard Dreyfuss: Hooper
Lorraine Gary: Lorraine Gary
Murray Hamilton: Vaughn
Produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck; Directed by Steven Spielberg; Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb; based on the novel by Peter Benchley