With the exception of Psycho, few films have shocked audiences as much as Jaws, the most talked about movie of 1975. With this single film, Steven Spielberg rose to the top of the pool of young filmmakers finding their way in the New Hollywood of the 70s. It not only invented the concept of a summer blockbuster, but laid out its ground rules (involving the presentation of monstrous creatures). Best of all, it sparked conversation, which is something that all the great movies do to some extent. Alien, Cloverfield, and the Jurassic Park trilogy are testaments that show that the legacy of Jaws cannot be overstated.
This legacy can be seen even in the small details, especially John Williams’s iconic score. The classic opening scene with the ill-fated skinny-dipper still scares people off beaches because of the primal fear of the deep water and unseen terrors that can grab you from the depths. But the reason Jaws transcends the mechanics of scare tricks (and the reason that so many of the films it inspired, including the three sequels, do not) is because of the human context.
Although the opening would work perfectly simply because it is scary as hell, Spielberg exceeds expectations by insightfully capturing the 70s-era malaise in American youth. Notice how the victim’s boyfriend doesn’t even seem concerned about what happened to her.
When the young girl’s remains wash up on shore, there is little doubt that she fell victim to a shark and Police Chief Brody is called on the case. The late Roy Scheider is great in the role. He makes it a point to keep Brody ordinary. He simply wants the carnage to end and resume with his routine.
But he soon draws parallels with High Noon’s Will Kane when he finds himself alone on a quest to shut the beach down. It’s almost comical the way the townspeople bother Brody with their silly concerns. Soon, however, Brody’s predicament turns as far away from humorous as it can get.
Opposition to Brody’s suggestion comes from the town mayor (Murray Hamilton) who, eighteen years later, would be reincarnated into John Hammond of Jurassic Park. He wants Amity Island to be the perfect summer getaway and doesn’t recognize the danger lurking nearby.
If Brody is the well-meaning klutz then the mayor is the clueless egomaniac. Spielberg’s classism is based on character rather than economic standing. Brody’s bona fide intentions make him a hero, but good PR skills and hefty sums of dough can’t salvage the mayor. Indeed, the film has more similarities with Jurassic Park than has often been acknowledged, especially in the theme of greed trumping the voice of science.
Spielberg made a clever narrative choice in establishing such characterizations before the central conflict got underway. His main problem with Peter Benchley’s novel was the lack of sympathetic characters and judging from the end result (even though Benchley collaborated on the screenplay) it is clear that the director took to heart his mission to supply the movie with people we care about. Even here, though, he subverts our assumptions. Indeed, it was a pretty gutsy decision to make the shark’s next victim a child. Killing off children was something Spielberg shied away from almost immediately after. Here, however, it allowed him one effectively sad scene in which Brody confronts the distraught mother of the slain boy. Throughout, the psychology of Jaws is Melvillian, the sea becoming the backdrop to the characters’ states of mind. This becomes more obvious once the locale shifts to the boat.
When the mayor can no longer ignore the danger, he sends Brody out to sea with two companions, Quint the mysterious shark hunter and a cocky young ichthyologist named Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Quint is one of Spielberg’s greatest characters thanks to Robert Shaw’s mesmerizing performance. How he captures the essence of a New England fisherman is in itself a triumph. In one of its least excusable oversights, the Academy failed to even nominate Shaw for the role, continuing Oscar’s long history of discrimination against horror films. Further proof of this is Hollywood’s reluctance to categorize Jaws as a horror film as if a horror film couldn’t be worthy of such a reputation. But Jaws is pure classic horror, with all of the genre’s classic elements present including the dividing line between safe and unsafe spots, the unknown imposed on normality, and people being picked off one by one.
Richard Dreyfuss in turn plays Hooper as a sarcastic grad student. He comes from a wealthy Cape Cod family and we can sense that he tried becoming a hippie while in college but couldn’t stray far from his preppy roots. Now he finds himself stuck in a shark hunt. As an additional character touch we learn that his family bought him the high-tech boat he initially brought along for the mission. Essentially, Hooper is the wealthier spiritual ancestor of Ian Malcolm.
Throwing them together on the boat, Spielberg has some fun with this mismatched trio. Hooper is clearly uncomfortable standing by the likes of the boozy Quint and Quint is annoyed by Hooper’s cockiness. Brody is the pensive middle-man. Of the three, he seems the least likely to kill the shark, but in the end he surprises us in many ways.
The best scene in the film comes when both the rich boy and the shark hunter get drunk and bond in scar-comparing camaraderie (Brody has no scars to brag of). Quint’s speech about his experience as a survivor of the U.S.S. Indianapolis remains one of cinema’s most effective monologues. In it, we can trace the roots of Quint’s descent into insanity and his determination to kill the shark by himself, much like Captain Ahab. Because of his experience, this hunt is a personal one for Quint. Like Ahab’s death in Moby-Dick, Quint’s demise feels oddly appropriate for someone who devoted his life to hunting sharks. His last quest, driven by obsession, was the accumulation of years of experience. He finally met a mind as great as his own and one of them had to go.
Oh yes, the shark has a mind and it too becomes obsessed with chasing the three men on the boat. In later years, Peter Benchley would regret the image he created of sharks with Jaws and became devoted to shark conservation and changing the public’s perception of the creatures. The movie, however, makes it clear that we are dealing with an exceptional shark, not only because of its size, but because of its intelligence. A popular theory kicked around online message boards is that the shark was a mutation resulting from the A-bomb, but this seems unlikely as Jaws makes no other allusions to war.
As luck would have it, the mechanical shark (named Bruce) used during production proved defective and had a tendency to sink in between shots. This resulted in Spielberg’s brilliant idea of limiting the monster’s exposure, deriving more fear from the unseen. When the audience first saw the shark’s head surface from the water, the screams were guaranteed and the scene earned a well deserved spot on the AFI’s list of greatest movie thrills. To many, it is a blessing that the shark looks artificial as they may welcome the reminder that this is only a movie. Still, Jaws has made people afraid of open water for over thirty years.
Among the many admirers of Jaws was the master of suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock, who began his own career inspired by F.W. Murnau. Upon his death five years later, Hitch could rest in peace knowing that the grand tradition that he helped to usher into the sound era had found a worthy successor.