American Graffiti did some pretty respectable bank in 1974, but the modern-day Summer blockbuster wasn't born until a year later when Jaws-mania swept the globe. Along with Star Wars which followed two years later, Jaws inspired Hollywood's unflagging obsession with taking B-grade, high-concept ideas and inflating them with massive budgets, market saturation and an omnipresent theatrical release. Unfortunately, the "product" being spoon-fed to audiences now makes Jaws look like Citizen Kane.
That comparison might sound churlish, but it wasn't meant to be. If Jaws became the template for Hollywood's current business model, it did so inadvertently. I believe that Steven Spielberg's motivations for making the film were pure and sincere and the most convincing piece of evidence to support my claim is the film itself. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Jaws may very well be the best summer movie ever made, blockbuster or otherwise.
Right away the ominous tone is set during the opening credits via the haunting strains of John William's iconic score, You know you're watching an earlier film in Spielberg's oeuvre when it kicks off with a beach party rife with dope, booze and nudity. Oh Lord, how I miss "PG" movies from the Seventies!
The subsequent skinny-dipping nightmare segues into the introduction of Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider. Instantly our sympathies are with the guy when it's revealed that the hard-boiled New York cop moved his entire family to the sleepy little New England hamlet of Amity in order to safeguard them from crime and violence. When the remains of our nubile, young swimmer rolls in with the tide, a giant, glowing, neon "IRONY" sign just starts a-flashin'.
After the local coroner declares that the cause of death was a shark attack, Brody quickly shuts down the local beaches. But since the Fourth of July long weekend is approaching, he immediately runs afoul of the local chamber of commerce who believe that a swimming ban will kill tourism. When Amity's unscrupulous Mayor Vaughn (played by Murray Hamilton) strong-arms the coroner into reversing his declaration, Brody is forced to re-open the floating buffet.
Naturally, there's another attack, this time at a crowded beach. You know you're watching an earlier film in Spielberg's catalog when a kid dies horribly in a giant geyser of blood! This leads to a string of classic sequences that younger viewers might be tempted to write off as cliche. Welp, I'm here to tell ya, kiddies, Jaws did it first and nothing has come close to doing it better!
Brody does some INDEPENDENT RESEARCH and quickly realizes that he's WAY OVER HIS HEAD. He calls in a BRASH, YOUNG OCEANOGRAPHER named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who tries to warn the authorities of the LOOMING DANGER. The two of them are then forced to team up with a GRIZZLED, LACONIC FISHERMAN named Quint (Robert Shaw) which leads to a LIFE OR DEATH STRUGGLE with THE BEAST at sea. All of this comes wrapped up in an tense, impossibly-slick little package.
One of the main reasons why Jaws became a huge hit is because every scene is rife with tonal and emotional variety. An early set-piece involving an aborted dockside fishing attempt by a couple of chuckle-heads gives us a sneak preview of what's to come. A clandestine, late-night shark autopsy scene provides some gloriously icky gross-outs. And when Hooper takes a foggy, late-night dip in order to investigate a damaged boat, we're treated to one of the best jump scares in cinema history.
Nowadays, summer blockbusters include action beats, set pieces and false endings as if they're just cogs in a machine designed to appease popcorn-munching troglodytes. Jaws had all of these things but it wasn't because of some cynical recipe, it sprang organically out of good, old-fashioned story-telling. The movie would have been an adequate crowd-pleaser if it just ended with the shark hunt, but when you add in Hooper's cage dive, Quint's close encounter with Bruce and Brody's miracle shot, it transcends into something truly epic.
These moments are made even more impactful thanks to some masterful editing and camerawork. Prior to the first beach attack, Spielberg keeps his lens at the water line or below, giving us a sly P.O.V. shot of all of those flailing, chompable legs. He then uses foreground movement to usher in tighter and tighter shots of a fretful-looking Roy Scheider. Seconds later he clobbers us with a gut-wrenching hyper-zoom, ensuring that we experience the same stark terror and disorientation that Brody is feeling. It's interesting to compare and contrast this with the almost whimsical "tourist arrival" montage later in the film.
There are even more examples of Spielberg's keen aesthetic in the last third of the film. Savor the foreshadowing as the departing Orca, framed by a ring of shark teeth, dissolves into a haze of blood-red chum-water. Thanks to John William's borderline schizophrenic score, Spielberg's lively direction and the brilliant pacing provided by editor Verna Fields (who also worked on American Graffiti) the initial engagement with the shark slowly transitions from light-hearted fishing expedition to life-and-death struggle.
A great deal of the film's realism stems from Spielberg's insane commitment to shoot on location. Although it very nearly killed him, he did produce a genuine cinematic experience that's rarely been rivaled. Regardless of how ludicrous the film's premise may be, when you get good actors doing a scene on the deck of a real ship with the ocean's horizon line swaying wildly in the background, you're gonna buy everything else hook, line and sinker. There's no controlled studio environment, giant indoor water tank or green screen effect, here, boyos. Even the film's more innocuous early scenes have an air of realism thanks to Martha's Vinyard standing in for the fictional Amity.
Every decent film starts with a good script and Jaws is no exception. Wisely, Spielberg retained the accomplished comedy scribe Carl Gottlieb to punch up the script Peter Benchley adapted from his own novel. The resulting zippy dialogue is often delivered in overlapping reams, which not only feels realistic but it also demands your attention. It's a clever technique that would become a staple in many of Spielberg's films. There are tons of memorable lines, delivered with eager zest by a flawless cast but here are just some of my favorites:
Hooper: (referring to Mayor Vaughn) I'm not going to waste my time arguing with a man who's lining up to be a hot lunch.
Ellen Brody: (to her exhausted husband) Wanna get drunk and fool around?
Hooper: I got the crème de la crème right here. Hold on. Yeah, you see that? (lifts his shirt, revealing his hairy chest)
Brody: You're wearing a sweater?
Brody: (after seeing the shark for the first time) You're gonna need a bigger boat.
Armed with this stockpile of witty dialogue, the entire cast is thoroughly on point. By all accounts, shooting Jaws was a pretty miserable experience, but it didn't negatively impact the performances in any discernible manner. Perhaps all of that real-life strife and hardship helped their efforts in some weird way.
Roy Scheider is terrific as Brodie, acting as the perfect everyman and the audience's sounding board. As an aquaphobic city cop, all of this shark and sea foolishness is just as foreign to him as it is to us. World-weary yet incredulous in the face of increasingly-alarming revelations, Scheider's take on Brody is instinctively sympathetic. Particularly relatable is the scene in which he bitches copiously about being stuck on chum-shoveling duty. By lulling us into a false sense of banality, Scheider sets us up for one of the most unexpected film frights ever.
In a more sensible world, Richard Dreyfuss would have won an Academy Award for his turn as Matt Hooper. Mercifully, Jaws was made back in the Paleozoic era when writers cared enough to give interesting back-stories to secondary characters as well. Hooper's learned testimony about the nature of sharks does more to ramp up tension then any pneumatic prop ever could. With his snarky line deliveries and impeccable comedic timing he would have made off with every scene if not for the fact that his co-stars are equally adept. Indeed, his camaraderie with Roy Scheider and rivalry with Robert Shaw are completely convincing.
But perhaps the film's greatest performance is Robert Shaw as the salty and acerbic Quint. Right from his unforgettable first appearance, Shaw depicts the veteran fisherman as a crude, slightly-creepy loner who only seems to be motivated by money. But when Quint's backstory is slowly revealed we begin to realize that there's an interesting Ahab-like quality to the guy. Infinitely seasoned and almost suicidally bold, he won't humor the possibility that the shark may best him until it's too late.
Together, these three characters represent one of the best on-screen troikas of all time. Their extended scene below deck on the Orca is some of the most compelling cinema ever filmed. It starts out light enough, with Quint and Hooper comparing battle scars, but then it turns really dark, really quick. In the hands of a brilliant actor like Robert Shaw, Quint's "ghost story" manages to raise hackles without a single visual effect, prosthetic limb or drop of blood. Rarely do you see such a perfect marriage between the scripted word and an actor's interpretation. Mercifully, the impromptu sing-along that caps the scene provides some welcome levity and relieves the unbearable tension.
The film's supporting characters are also equally proficient. As the prototypical bought-and-paid-for movie politician, Murray Hamilton is gloriously sneaky, underhanded and weasley. In a lesser film, Vaughn wouldn't have been given a motivation, much less an epiphany. Lorraine Gary is also fabulous as Ellen Brody, engendering the film with considerable emotional heft. Fueled by some note-perfect banter, it actually feels as if she's been married to Scheider for over a decade. The scene in which she sends him off to sea is actually pretty tough to watch. Lee Fierro also deserves a nod for her brief but powerful appearance as the slap-happy grieving mom Mrs. Kintner.
A lot of mega-budget "tentpole" Summer movies have been bombing recently and I can't say that I'm surprised. Myopic movie producers keep vainly trying to recreate the magical formula of Jaws, without any of that film's heart, brains or sincerity. How many pale imitations need to flop before they realize that Jaws became a phenomenon back in 1975 because it was fresh, exciting and wildly original?
Audiences don't need any more reboots. They just need the concept of "fresh", "exciting" and "wildly original" to be rebooted.
So, c'mon, get on it, Hollywood. This generation really deserves to have a movie like Jaws to call their very own.