Steven Spielberg's Jaws, easily the best "revenge of nature" thriller ever made, is a rare film that grabs your attention before it shows you a single image on screen. The film opens in pitch blackness punctuated by barely distinct, alien-like underwater sounds, and then it comes-the ominous, instantly memorable first bars of composer John Williams' now infamous score. Dah-dum. From there, Spielberg wastes no time, taking us into the water on a late-night swim that turns horrifically deadly, thus reminding us from the outset of just how vulnerable we are floating in the ocean. It's a terrifying, unforgettable opening, aptly setting the stage for an utterly relentless film.
Decades after its history-shaking, industry-rattling theatrical release, Jaws continues to work over audiences in a way that can only be described as primal; Spielberg digs into the deepest, most primitive recesses of our fears and presses unremittingly for two hours. The screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (taken from Benchley's best-selling 1974 novel) is structured into two acts, and Spielberg uses that structure to his advantage. Unlike so many modern filmmakers, he displays enormous restraint, refusing to give us a clear shot of the shark until the middle of the second act. Until then, he merely suggests its presence with subjective underwater photography, shots of a knife-like dorsal fin cutting through the water, and Williams' music (it is key that Spielberg never cheats with the music; when you hear the shark theme, the shark is really there). Spielberg builds the tension bit by bit, so that when the shark finally rears its ugly head, it is truly momentous and truly terrifying. He doesn't let us get bored with the imagery.
The first act opens with Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a New Yorker who has recently taken an easy, peaceful job running the police station on Amity Island, a fictitious New England resort town where there hasn't been a murder or a gun fired in 25 years. When the island is shaken by several great white shark attacks right before the Fourth of July, Brody tries (quite reasonably) to close the beaches, a move that meets with fierce resistance from the island's business community and Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), both of whom recognize that the island relies on summer tourist money. Thus, part of the film's underlying tension is the question of risk and reward and what American enterprise is willing to sacrifice in order to feed the maw of profit.
Brody is joined by Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a young, ambitious shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute. Hooper is as fascinated by the shark as he is determined to help Brody stop it; his knowledge about the exact workings of sharks ("It's a perfect engine, an eating machine") makes the shark that much more terrifying. When Vaughn finally relents after the shark claims a third victim despite policing the beach and using shark spotters, Hooper and Brody join a crusty old fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) on his decrepit boat, the Orca, to search for the shark and destroy it. The entire second act takes place on the Orca as the three men hunt the shark, and inevitably, are hunted by it.
At only 26 years of age and with only two feature films under his belt (1971's made-for-TV thriller Duel and 1974's The Sugarland Express), Spielberg had a great deal to prove with Jaws. His nascent talent had already caught the attention of numerous critics (Pauline Kael recognized him as the heir apparent to Howard Hawks), and his natural instincts proved to be perfectly suited to Jaws' mixture of horror, humor, and humanity. It was Spielberg, for instance, who insisted on shooting the film on the open ocean, a decision that proved extremely costly and exasperating from a production standpoint, but turned out to be crucial to the film's effectiveness. Yet, for all of its production value, some of Spielberg's craftiest work takes place in the simplest of settings. Take, for example, the scene in which Brody, fearful that the shark is still out there, sits on a crowded beach watching the water intently. Spielberg makes what could have been a straightforward scene amazingly dynamic by mixing a number of techniques, including horizontal wipes hidden by passing people that bring us closer and closer to Brody and also serve as transitions between shots of his face and shots from his point of view; the use of a split-diopter lens to create the illusion of perfect deep focus; and, of course, the vertiginous dolly-in-zoom-out technique when Brody suddenly realizes that another shark attack is happening. None of these techniques were new, but the manner in which Spielberg stitches them together without ever drawing attention to them is nothing short of marvelous.
Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw were all known actors at the time Jaws was made, although none of them had the draw of marquee stars like Robert Redford or Paul Newman. Nevertheless, each proved to be perfectly cast. Scheider hits just the right notes as a sympathetic "everyman" husband and father caught in the political quagmire of doing what's right and going against the entire town. "It's your first summer here, you know," Mayor Vaughn reminds him early in the film, effectively collapsing both his professional and social newness on Amity Island, an insular community that looks at outsiders with suspicion (there are "Islanders" and everyone else). Dreyfuss, who had previously been seen in American Graffiti (1973) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), gives a surprisingly mature, complex performance for someone who had literally played only kids and teenagers.
The most memorable performance is arguably Robert Shaw's take on Quint, the movie's deranged Ahab figure. Bordering on parody but never sliding over into it, Shaw plays the fisherman as a grizzled old loner whose machismo is almost indistinguishable from his masochism. However, Quint is not a one-note caricature, a point that is driven home by a scene late in the film in which he and Brody and Hooper are below deck on the Orca drunkenly comparing scars. Quint is drawn into telling the story of his experiences aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a Navy ship in World War II that was sunk by the Japanese after delivering the atomic bomb. His tale of floating in the water for a week with more than 1,000 other men while swarms of sharks slowly devoured them is more hair-raising than anything Spielberg put on screen (not surprisingly, Spielberg cites it as his favorite scene in the film). In his unforgettable recitation of the Indianapolis tragedy (which at the time was not particularly well known), Shaw conveys Quint's fractured, tragic humanity and makes the character's unrelieved hatred of sharks deeply personal.
Which brings us to the shark itself. With its soulless black eyes, endless rows of teeth, and insatiable urge to eat, it is the epitome of all of humankind's worst fears about what is unknown and threatening in nature. The shark is a movie monster par excellence, yet it haunts us after the final credits because it not a complete fabrication, but rather an elaboration of reality. Every one of Spielberg's subjective underwater shots makes us feel queasy because it lets us see with no uncertainty how we look to the shark: a bunch of writhing, dangling, completely unprotected legs just ready to be chomped into.
As a thriller with a keen sense of humor and an incredible sense of pacing, tension, and horror, Jaws is like ten movies rolled into one, and it's no wonder it took America by storm in the summer of 1975, earning enough money to crown it the box office champ of all time (until it was unceremoniously dethroned in 1977 by Star Wars). Its soggy production is the stuff of legend, with massive cost overruns, extended schedules, and constantly malfunctioning mechanical sharks that had Universal bracing itself for a bomb, rather than a hit (credit must be given the studio's marketing department, which cleverly spun the film's production woes into audience-baiting ballyhoo). Even today, fascination with Jaws is on par with Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), and it never seems to age.
In fact, its technological limitations-the one thing that typically ages the worst-comprise one of the film's greatest strengths. Today's digital technology makes the film's special effects, including the use of several mechanical sharks (all of whom were nicknamed "Bruce" after Spielberg's lawyer) obsolete; yet, all the CGI in the world could not improve the film because it only would lead to overkill. The technical limitations faced by Spielberg in 1974 actually produced a better film because it forced him to rely on traditional cinematic elements like pacing, characterization, editing, and photography, instead of simply dousing the audience with digital shark effects. Despite all the advances in special effects technologies and digital wizardry, that big, clunky mechanical contraption at the center of Jaws still works as powerfully as it did decades ago, perhaps because it so perfectly breaches the divide between the reality of great white sharks and the film's mythical presentation of its insatiable killer fish. Overcoming all obstacles, Spielberg delivered one of the finest primal scare-thrillers ever to come out of Hollywood, and it still stands as one of his greatest cinematic achievements.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (4)
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