Following the discovery of a shark-mangled corpse on the seafront of Amity, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) demands the town officials close the beaches but is met with a furrowed brow and retaliation from the scheming Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). In desperation, Brody enlists the help of marine scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and, along with disgruntled, local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw), the sea-bound three set out to hunt and kill the shark.
In the forty years since its release, Jaws has been endlessly revered, re-discovered and pondered on and is still, to this day, a cinematic wonder. Since it’s US release in the summer of 1975, Spielberg’s second feature has become one of the most universally celebrated films, and is widely considered to be the first summer blockbuster, after 67 million Americans visited the cinema to see it upon its initial release. The shark thriller finally arrived on UK shores on Christmas Day in the same year and eventually blossomed into the biggest film of all time, raking in a whopping $470, 653, 000 worldwide at the box office. Since then, and following a string of inferior sequels, Jaws has been incessantly discussed, dissected and lampooned yet revisiting it over and over remains a total joy.
After premiering on British TV in the early 1980s, Jaws became the family film to watch at Christmas, cementing itself as a national festive favourite. Its astonishing production feats and story facets unify perfectly for a masterpiece melding of art and entertainment. John Williams’ menacing theme tune (which Spielberg thought was a joke when he first heard it), endlessly quotable dialogue, numerous classic scenes characters and set pieces, have all contributed to its legendary status, along with the stories surrounding its production and the countless parodies, paler imitations and cultural references that surfaced in its wake. Bryan Singer famously named his production company Bad Hat Harry Productions after a line of dialogue while Brody’s classic “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” quote is now commonly used as a metaphorical solution for any situation that’s gotten out of hand.
Spielberg had only made one feature before Jaws (The Sugarland Express) and arose to film-making from a TV background, having previously directed episodes of Columbo, Night Gallery and Marcus Welby MD. He also helmed a couple of TV movies, the most of famous of which was Duel: a road-movie from a screenplay by Richard Matheson. This story of a family/ businessman being hunted by a psychotic truck driver shares parallels to Jaws in that it also features an unstoppable force attacking a vulnerable vessel. Duel is widely recognised as a part of Spielberg’s classic canon and was a major contributing factor to him landing the directing job on Jaws but while it is undoubtedly a far greater work than The Sugarland Express and the best of his pre-Jaws output, it was the killer shark picture that put him on the map.
But why does Jaws resonate with audiences so much and remain a timeless classic? It doesn’t feature too many cultural artefacts of the time, bar a couple of arcade machines and questionable hair-do’s. There aren’t any non-diegetic pop songs to tie it to the 70s and bar Harry’s bad hat, the fashions aren’t too deplorable. Meanwhile Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s screenplay (based on Benchley’s novel) is expertly crafted with a three act structure perfect for a big screen adaptation, but nothing like Jaws had ever been committed to film before. The production was both physically and technically overwhelming. At the time, not only was the construction of several life-size, animatronic sharks (created by Bob Mattley) demanding and ground-breaking but they also had to operate under water, along with the rest of the equipment and crew. This led to an infamously troubled production, now considered part of the Jaws legacy but it also gave Spielberg more time to focus more on the script during the production lull, in which he added further depth and complexities to the characters.
Brody’s flawed everyman father with a fear of the ocean could have been governed by his Thalassophobia and his trepidation amplified to the level of “defining purpose”. This would have accentuated the plight of the final act mission, in which Brody would have to overcome odds by conquering his own personal demons but Spielberg had grander ideas. Brody drinks and smokes too much and is a decent, hard working man but he is not the star of the show. That’ll be the shark. Meanwhile, disgruntled fisherman Quint is a classic snarling pirate and gruelling primate: bitter, haggard and borderline psychotic. He is fascinating to watch in action and to pontificate over but you wouldn’t introduce him to your grandma. Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper is a quirky, occasionally grating boffin from a wealthy background whose moral stance restrains his haughty nuances. Hooper bonds with Brody as the two appear to share views/ ethics and are both grounded by their professions.
Spielberg weaves potent yet plausible dialogue to drive the story without making it feel contrived. Drama unravels in the fore and backgrounds to augment the context and drown out the b-movie tropes, which could have easily sunk Jaws had a different director been at the helm. The script is tight: immediately following Brody’s introduction at his home/ to his family, we are propelled into the investigation of the shark mauled body on the beach. Family dramas fill the background but don’t take precedence over the investigation which is the driving force to the story yet the home set sequences are moving and enrich Brody. The scene featuring Brody’s youngest son mimicking his Dad at the dinner table reveals an essential love within the protagonist that helps the viewer empathise and fear for their protagonist, making them realise how much he has to lose and fight for when the crunch comes.
Jaws is overflowing with memorable moments that combine to make it a classic. The scar comparison scene on the Orca between Quint and Hooper, the dolly shot close up of Brody on the beach, Quint’s John Milius crafted monologue about his time on the Indianapolis followed by his blood-spluttering demise, all of which combine to make Jaws both an essential horror classic and an unconventional family feature. Jaws’ rating was raised from a PG to a 12 upon its DVD release in 2000, as the censors finally took the disturbing death scenes into account. The Kintner boy’s oceanic/ volcanic blood eruption is still shocking to this day. Meanwhile the numerous glimpses of severed limbs and the aforementioned attack on the Orca are far from the stuff of family viewing, despite its Christmas movie connotations (Elf can do one).
At a time in the mid-seventies, when Alfred Hitchcock was nearing the end of his career and the quality of his work was waning, Spielberg was considered as a possible worthy successor to the master of suspense, following his remarkable work on Jaws. Little did everyone know what further wonderful work the young director would go on to make within numerous other genres. According to Bruce Dern, the star of Family Plot, Spielberg had made Hitchcock feel like “such a whore”, and who can blame him. Hitchcock was paid $1 million to lend his voice to the Universal Studios Jaws tour ride around the time the young Spielberg’s “fish movie” was being declared “the greatest film Hitchcock never made” and for that reason alone he refused to meet Steven, despite many attempts by the director who frequently loitered around the set of Family Plot, Hitchcock’s last film before his death. But the master of suspense needn’t have worried, for Jaws was just the start of a vast, genre spanning career for Spielberg, a virtuoso, auteur with bigger fish to fry.
Words: Dan Goodwin