When the seaside community of Amity finds itself under attack by a dangerous great white shark, the town's chief of police (Roy Scheider), a young marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a grizzled shark hunter (Robert Shaw) embark on a desperate quest to destroy the beast before it strikes again.
It’s a full 44 years since Steven Spielberg changed cinema forever with the incredible Jaws, a film with which I share a birthday. I’ve grown up with it and love it still. It’s striking how fresh the film still is; one of the best of the genre and likely to remain so for some time.
What kind of film is it? Obviously horror and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet also an event film. Along with Superman and Star Wars, Jaws ushered in the era of the original ‘blockbuster’. A bad thing? Maybe, but while these films did open up the ruthlessly commercial side of cinema, with a noisy focus on franchise and merchandise rather than art, these early films were made with the best of intentions and bucket loads of talent.
The first theatrical film for Spielberg (his debut Duel was made for TV), Jaws is arguably still his best film, full of invention in every frame and a superb, ambitious screenplay. It’s astonishing to watch the editing (with Verna Fields) and compositions, the way the simplest of exchanges are injected with energy akin to Akira Kurosawa’s (Seven Samurai) penchant for ensuring there was movement in every scene. Despite famous shots such as the three-step zoom on the beach, it never feels gratuitous. Although some of his later work can be over-engineered, the mise-en-scene of Jaws is perfectly measured. The camera roams when it needs to roam, and lingers when it should linger. Throughout, John Williams’ score provides the rhythm. Often imitated, it’s only when you see the film again you can really appreciate just how brilliant that theme is. It creeps into the back of your brain ratcheting up the tension.
It’s exhilarating stuff, but the screenplay is the solid base on which the film can be playful. While there is definitely a very large shark in the film and it does seem to have grabbed everyone’s attention, this might actually be a domestic drama about divorce. Well, there should be a reason for the creature.
The best movie monsters represent a character’s more mundane real-world demon (or a country’s, with Japan’s fear of nuclear Armageddon represented by Godzilla). In this case it’s Roy Schneider’s police chief and while there is nothing explicit about a difficult relationship with his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) - on the contrary, they seem happy - there is melancholy bubbling to the surface. Read between the lines and this is a marriage being worked at. Chief Brody’s family are new to the town and it is inferred they moved from New York to a more idyllic lifestyle, escaping a violent job. Ironic that Brody finds in Amity a more singular deadly risk, yet he is determined to deal with it despite his aversion to water and boats. That determination becomes all-consuming, almost as if he needs the distraction.
The film is neatly split into two halves: Not On The Boat and On The Boat. When Brody eventually steps aboard The Orca with Oceanologist and shark-expert Matt (Richard Dreyfuss, in fine form) and gnarly old shark-hunter Quint (the intimidating Robert Shaw), a brief emotional scene with Ellen suggests an amicable trial separation. If Brody fails to kill off his shark-shaped demon he won’t be coming home.
It is to Spielberg’s credit that he could translate the various and shifting tones in Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s screenplay (based on Benchley’s own novel) into a narrative at once affecting and thrilling. For all his enthusiasm to skilfully scare the crap out of us with horrific moments, including the opening attack on a skinny-dipper or a young boy taken in a shower of blood in front of a crowded beach, the composition of the quieter scenes have as strong an effect. Note the moment at dinner where Brody’s youngest son mimics his preoccupied dad; or on the boat, comparing scars, where Brody keeps potentially the best one quiet, before Quint tells the haunting story of the USS Indianapolis. This is already a thriller of the highest quality and that shark is still yet to be seen properly.
The magnificent beast was created by Bob Mattey and is a mile-stone achievement in animatronic effects, when it worked! Spielberg himself has admitted that he probably made a better film because of the problems with Bruce (the affectionate nickname for the shark, apparently inspired by Spielberg’s lawyer) limiting his plans and it makes you wonder how much higher standards could be now if filmmakers hadn’t a CGI safety net to rely on. As it is, the brief glimpses of the shark are deeply unsettling, especially when you see the size of him compared to The Orca. And when he finally makes his full entrance? Just keep trying to tell yourself, he’s 44 years old and made of fibre-glass.
The shark is all the more powerful an image for the false sense of security built up by Bill Butler’s gorgeous cinematography. From snappy hand-held work to the wonderful and serene skylines, the film looks gorgeous throughout. One of those rare movies where you could pause at any moment and you’ll probably get an image worth framing. Visually the film’s a masterpiece, with or without the shark. That’s where so many pretenders fall short (including the sequels); focusing too much on the monster, putting everything else in service to its appearance. Alien is another example of building the characters and sets so well that the creature has that much more power when it finally does strike because it is as real a place as possible that is being attacked.
Forty-four years on, Jaws still retains considerable power. It is as thrilling and at times as scary as anything else in the genre. The fear of sharks may be misappropriated, but it’s still a primal dread that will never dissipate, if only because audiences want to be scared that much.