The hard part of writing about “Jaws” is that so much has already been written about it.
What does one focus on? The beleaguered production–it spawned several books and documentaries. The unseen shark–anyone who writes about “Jaws” raves about Spielberg’s prowess in building tension through what we don’t see. The belief that, in creating the summer blockbuster, “Jaws” (along with “Star Wars” two years later) destroyed motion pictures–that debate has raged ever since the rogue shark attacked Amity.
In the 35+ years since Spielberg’s monster hit, “Jaws” has taken its place as a bona fide Great Movie. Just mentioning its title conjures up any number of associations. The POV of the great white stalking its prey. John Williams’ simple, unrelenting and unsettling score. Quint and Hooper comparing scars aboard the Orca.
All of those elements add up to “Jaws'” great success. Yet, watching it again, I’m aware that its power comes not solely from clever camera work, a manipulative score or some pithy one-liners. “Jaws” works for the reason all Great Movies work–it’s a perfect story.
Peter Benchley’s novel was a runaway success, tapping into many people’s primal fear of the water. And while the shark attacks delivered the requisite tension and terror, the novel was weighed down by a useless subplot involving the mafia and a tawdry love affair.
Spielberg’s screenplay (its first few drafts written by Benchley) wisely chucks out the superfluous material. The focus is on Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a New York cop transferred to the East Coast resort town of Amity. When pieces of a young swimmer wash up on shore, with all signs pointing to a shark attack, Brody follows his instincts and attempts to close the beaches. But Amity’s a summer town, with summer dollars at stake, and the town’s mayor (Murray Hamilton) is having none of it. When a young boy becomes fish food on the 4th of July, the town’s fishermen scramble to catch the shark and a young marine biologist named Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) is brought in to assist. The film’s final hour is spent at sea with Hooper, Martin and crusty fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) hunting down the great white on the open water.
As I stated earlier, “Jaws” is often decried as being the first of the Hollywood summer blockbusters. At the time of its opening it was insanely popular, quickly becoming the highest grossing film of all time, a position it held until “Star Wars” opened two years later. It pioneered the concept of opening a film in hundreds of theaters on the same day instead of slowly rolling the film out over a long period of time, and it was one of the first films to be advertised on television. Because of its success, some have lamented that “Jaws” ushered in the wave of summer spectacles, in which marketing plays a bigger role than quality and audiences cram the theater looking for thrills instead of drama.
Yet watching “Jaws” in the middle of the current summer movie season, just a few weeks after the brain-dead assault of “Transformers 3,” I find that the film is so much more substantial, rich and satisfying than the brainless, loud messes that audiences are subjected to each week.
While the Michael Bays of the world are content to throw everything at the screen and see what sticks, bludgeoning audiences with spectacle, in “Jaws” Spielberg takes a more measured approach. Aside from a few quick glimpses, we don’t see the shark until well over an hour into the movie. The unpredictable nature of the fake sharks famously forced Spielberg to rethink the way he shot the attack sequences, resulting in a movie with a great deal more tension and terror than likely would have accompanied a big special effects release.
Although Spielberg’s method of keeping the shark off-screen was a practical response to his equipment’s limitations, it never feels half-hazard. Spielberg uses exposition to build tension (“is it true most shark attacks occur in less than three feet of water?”), cleverly building suspense through a book about sharks that Brody peruses on land. The opening sequence, when young Chrissie is pulled to her doom, is staged with meticulous precision and perfect timing. Same with the death of young Alex Kitner. Spielberg sticks to many of the same techniques he employed earlier, using POV shots underwater of legs thrashing and waves splashing–and then, when the suspense reaches its pitch, Spielberg cuts loose in a fast, violent attack that is still shocking all these years later. Spielberg proves his haunted house skills in the search under Ben Gardner’s boat–which features a grisly punch line that still makes me jump after numerous viewings. The final hour, as the three heroes hunt for the shark, moves with the pacing of the best action-adventures, building to a taut and thrilling sequence aboard the sinking vessel.
Spielberg’s long been known as a master at set pieces and, as I said, his timing and craft are impeccable here. But what’s refreshing about this movie, in an age where every blockbuster is a collection of climaxes and big effects, is that “Jaws” doesn’t feel like a movie made up of moments. It’s organic and flows, like a well-told story ought to. The plot very logically weaves the shark attacks through a story of political greed, personal responsibility and Quint’s obsession. It’s the mayor’s stubbornness that keeps the beaches open, which leads to the death of a little boy. It’s that boy’s death which prompts Brody and Hooper to cut open the shark that was caught by the zealous fishermen, determining that it wasn’t the one that they were looking for. It’s Brody’s refusal to stand up to the mayor that keeps the beaches open again, putting the chief’s son in danger–which is what, ultimately, finds Brody and Hooper tagging along with Quint on his Ahab-esque quest to kill the great white.
I love Spielberg’s depiction of Amity. Few people have made small town American life seem as real as Spielberg, and there are so many great details that make Amity feel real, not a typical movie town. It’s the small details–like a customer arguing with a hardware store owner when Brody comes to buy paint for his signs; it’s the way the kids horse around on the beach; the way the townsfolk all come up to Brody to have him solve their petty problems. Amity feels real and grounded, which in turn makes the attacks and the danger feel real. I’ve seen “Jaws” close to 20 times in my life, but this was the first time where I ever noticed how much of a character Amity plays in this story–its politics and economy all play a part in what happens and why. The final hour gains much of its edge from leaving the safe confines of the shore and setting out away from the comforts of land, where we know no danger is to be found far from the water.
“Jaws” also works because of how skillfully its main actors are. Brody, Hooper and Quint are not deep, nuanced characters. They’re types–the integrable police chief; the cocky expert; the crazy old man. And yet, Scheider, Dreyfus and Shaw give these types enough personality that they become characters we root for, like and care about. In a film designed to scare audiences out of the ocean, Brody’s fear of water is sympathetic. The brief glimpses of his home life help us understand his motivations–the scene where Brody’s son mimics his father’s movements at the dinner table is one of my favorite Spielbergian sequences. Dreyfus allows Hooper to coast on intelligence and wit, but there’s a passion about the character that makes him more than comic relief; when Hooper goes underwater in his steel cage at the end, he shows a courage we didn’t anticipate.Shaw is simply perfect as a grizzled old seaman and his famous speech about Quint’s experiences about the USS Indianapolis keep the character from turning into a one-note joke.
The film’s final act hangs on the chemistry between these three characters. I doubt today’s Transformers fans would accept an hour that largely consists of three men fishing, with the shark making momentary appearances. And yet, the interplay between the three–Brody the unseasoned rookie; Hooper, the cocky know-it-all and Quint, the stubborn old man–gives the scenes a wonderful charge. In a film so full of great shocks and scares, the most memorable moment is when the three, drunk and exhausted, engage in an impromptu sing-a-long late at night aboard the Orca. It’s at that moment when these three men, with so little in common, see each other as equals.
In an interview given during the movie’s production, Spielberg commented that he wasn’t trying to be as visually inventive as he was on The Sugarland Express. Rather, he noted that his job was to point the camera at the actors and capture the moment. But his visual mastery is still on display here. As I commented earlier, the POV shots are effective and suspenseful, and Spielberg knows how to wring tension from something as simple as a photo book that Brody leafs through. While he keeps the shark off the screen for much of the film, he varies the way he shoots the sequences–a POV shot here, barrels to keep track of the shark there–so that it never feels repetitive. He chooses the moments to reveal the shark carefully–there’s still a jolt when it makes its first appearance to Brody as he dumps chum from the Orca, and while the special effects work has aged a bit, Quint’s demise is still one of the more terrifying film deaths I’ve seen.
Two shots in particular also stand out for me. One is the aforementioned dinner table sequence, where Brody’s son studies his father and mimics his movements. It’s a quiet, beautiful shot that says more about the character and his relationships than an “I love you” ever could. “Give us a kiss” “Why?” “Because I need it.” That sequence tells us everything we need to know about Brody’s home life and the toll these events are taking on him; it’s my favorite moment in the film. I also love the very simple shot where Brody watches the beach and Spielberg zooms in on him slowly, using passerby to wipe the shots. A standard zoom would have been too on the nose and forced the drama; doing it this way allows Spielberg to keep up the tension without calling too much attention to the shot.
I could go on. John Williams’ score is a classic. I love the way that the script by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb weaves in so much information about Amity’s social and economic politics and social structure without bogging down in exposition. I love Quint’s famous, nails-on-the-chalkboard introduction and his drunken revelry as they prepare to set out on the Orca. I love Hooper’s snide remarks and Quint breaking into “Spanish Ladies.” “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” “I got no spit.” “Smile you son of a bitch.”
It’s an interesting progression for Spielberg–the primal intensity of “Duel” can be seen here, and he improves on the story-telling of “Sugarland Express,” even as he dials back the visuals. His themes of broken families aren’t in the mix, but there’s a bit of a return to “Duel’s” take on masculinity when Brody, meek and terrified of the water, climbs aboard the Orca with the raucous, crass Quint. “Sugarland’s” critique on America’s love affair with tragedy can be seen throughout Amity, as the town folk find ways to make themselves a part of the media st0ry–posing with a captured shark for the local paper, vandalizing the town’s billboard with a shark fin or selling shark souvenirs on the beach. Spielberg’s trademark visual flourishes–such as illuminated light beams in fog–also make appearances.
“Jaws” was Spielberg’s first masterpiece–a primal, terrifying and perfectly-told tale that still thrills today. And as his next film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” would show, the Beard was just getting warmed up.
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