Some people like to narrify Steven Spielberg’s “JAWS” as a horror movie, centering around a man’s fear of swimming and him confronting that fear by force. Thinking that since it involves a monster, but not an unrealistically sized, great white shark, that the film is meant to scare you. In some ways they're right, “JAWS” does display a great deal of Spielberg’s love for Alfred Hitchcock, as someone who was a master in manifesting suspense, Spielberg learned from him and made the movie’s monstrous antagonist remain hidden for nearly half of the runtime.
In 1975, this was a risky maneuver, one that could have sent audiences into a frenzy. Today, there would be twitter rants and youtube videos titled “Everything Wrong with Jaws” or “Why Jaws is a Bad Movie.” Those people would confuse expectation for fear with quality, assuming “JAWS” to be a film meant to terrify you, and on the one hand, that is what Spielberg is doing here, on another, he’s providing a fantastical journey led by three amazing characters.
The story centers around the July Fourth holiday on Amity Island, a tourist spot for those who wish to celebrate the summer with beach water fun and a sunshine spirit. More than a week before this famous day swoops into town, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a former New York cop who got tired of fighting an unwinnable war, discovers whatever's left of a girl who encountered this monster. There’s an arm, a severed torso, and a few other things left of this poor girl. The cause of death? Shark attack, at least that’s what we see typed into Brody’s (Roy Scheider) report. It’s not until his doofus of a deputy, Deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), starts blabbing about the beach being shut down that we begin to see our Chief faces the consequences of his decisions.
With the town’s number one source of income under attack, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) steps up to Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), thinking he’s doing the right thing and this former hot shot detective has just gone into panic mode. The medical examiner redacts his cause of death, and the local newspaper owner agrees to make no fuss about the incident, sweeping all of this under the rug, so that out of town visitors have nothing to worry about. Even Brody (Roy Scheider) attempts to calm himself down, but he can’t help that instinctive gut feeling, as he and his family go out to the beach. His wife, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Grey), spends her time attempting to calm down her husband whose staring at the water, peeking over whoever decides to sit in front of him. Making sure to never look away for too long, maintaining a constant vision of this sea of people.
We hear his wife talk about how he’s afraid of the water, a drowning incident as a child. All the while, Spielberg keeps our camera pointed at Brody (Roy Scheider), cutting back to the people in the ocean every other shot, building this tension, producing this amount of expectation that our police chief is about to witness a tragedy up-close. We hear the bombastic rhythmic tones of Williams’ score droop into the frame, our camera’s perspective switches to the eyes of something lurking beneath the blue painted shadows. It’s swimming right under these kids’ feet, choosing and deciding which one will be easiest to pick off.
One of these boys is relaxing on a yellow floaty, at least he was until this great white beast wrestled him out of it, spewing blood into the ocean, manifesting a horrific scene. Spielberg then uses the infamous forward tracking, zoom out shot as he captures Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) panicked reaction, realizing that he was both right for dubbing it as a shark attack, and wrong for not closing the beaches. He frenzies out of his seat, screaming for everyone to get out of the water, sprinting down the shoreline with fear and dismay in his voice. It’s a horrific scene, the scariest one in the film for me because it's us watching a tragedy take place, and a man’s failure to act to be the root cause of it, a terrifying picture to have painted by a genius like Spielberg, and John Williams of course.
I say of course because Spielberg gets most of the credit for this gem of a film, and he’s deserving, being the director and all. He was quite essential in crafting this film’s scenery and tone, but he’s gone on to say that “without Williams's score, the movie would only have been half as successful and according to Williams, it jump-started his career.” It’s hard to disagree when you’ve seen this score become just as infamous as the movie, not to mention the countless other pieces of greatness that Williams has crafted in his career since, ranging from “Jurassic Park” to “Harry Potter,” Williams has become a certifiable legend in the realm of film composers. He’s one of the best, one that got his talents noticed with a young Jewish kid looking to show the world what he could do with a little money and a mechanical shark.
The story begins to divulge from horror into a thriller, building the tension in the town. People are begging for justice, but wanting to keep the beaches open because they know that their lives depend on the business they get from those waters. It’s a fuss of an argument with hooting and hollering all over until a long screeching noise stems from the back of the room. Nails screeching down this chalkboard, a chalkboard with a childlike drawing of a shark on it. A narrow-eyed, rugged, and rough-edged man sits in the back of the room, offering his services as a bounty hunter stating: “You all know me. Know how I make a living.” He goes on to talk about how this ain’t no normal fish, how this is not a common occurrence, and how he guarantees to catch this “bird.” The mom of the boy killed offered $3000 to anyone who would kill this monster, but he wants $10,000 for his services, promising he’ll deliver “the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”
It’s a remarkable character introduction of this sea captain known as Quint (Robert Shaw), one followed up by Oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) later on when he arrives at a frenzy of fisherman attempting to be heroes, but looking more like a bunch of pirates searching for gold. Trying to fit too many men into the same boat, using dynamite as a weapon of choice, and enough chum to bring in a shark from Mexico. In the meanwhile, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sees the first victim, almost vomiting up his lunch. He exclaims how this was no boating accident and how these men have a big problem on their hands.
A shark is caught and killed though, one that doesn’t match the bite radius of the original killer and one whose stomach is absent of human remains. Nonetheless, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is convinced that the shark found is the right one, at least it's good enough for him so that he can reopen the beaches for the Fourth of July madness, madness that Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sees as a man offering up free-lunch to a hungry shark, one that is territorial and ramping up his victim count. Things get even worse, and the Mayor is left with no choice but to feed into the bounty hunter’s demands, providing an endless bank of supplies for a town desperately looking for a savior, they get three of them though. All of whom share a great deal of interaction and motivation.
The screenplay written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with contributions by Howard Sackler and Spielberg himself, exhumes every detail it can in that way, providing small moments of naturalistic dialogue that allows us to feel resonance with these characters. Building the film’s tension around the characters, instead of the shark, this screenwriter becomes one worth studying and one worth quoting. With famous lines like “Your gonna need a bigger boat” or Shaw’s improvisational speech about his time on the U.S.S Indianapolis and the sea-songs about fair Spanish ladies, it all feels so naturalistic, almost driven by fate when you see the shooting stars streaking across in the night sky, a lucky break for Spielberg.
It feels as if it was supposed to happen as if the film gods smiled upon Spielberg, but putting aside the luck he found, Spielberg found himself responsible for manifesting something rare. Something that invented blockbusters, becoming the first film to break past $100 million at the box office. A movie that exemplified the importance of a third act, building his tension towards a crescendo of events that were both terrifying and exciting to watch, not to mention the film’s best scene in how we view these differing men bond over scars and the saddening past of Quint (Robert Shaw), it all feels so historic. It’s almost disconcerting to think about this being Spielberg’s first, while he did make a TV movie before this, “JAWS” was his original debut. One that took place in 1975, and one that shocked the world.
Oscar-nominated, phenomenally acted (despite some of the cast members being intoxicated onset), and masterfully fabricated by both Spielberg, his writers, and John Williams. It was the launching pad for both Spielberg and Williams, both who went on to become two of the most notable names of modern film. Becoming kings of their respective field of art, and “JAWS” went on to become something of historic magnitude, changing everything about movie making. The summer season may seem normal today, but in 1975 it wasn’t, that was until “JAWS” hit the silver screen.
Few films change the industry like that; fewer maintain that popularity over time and the special ones get better over time, “JAWS” is one of those unique movies. Seemingly becoming better each time you watch it, aging like whiskey. It has all of the Spielberg tropes of family dynamics, patience with a character, perfected tone, and spellbinding entertainment; it’s a Spielbergian classic, one that is sure to stand the tests of time, in fact, it already has.