There’s no denying the importance of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The 1975 motion picture has been credited with establishing the modern blockbuster template, with the focus on a succinct premise to draw big box office numbers. There is more to this beast than establishing Hollywood business models, though, and it remains a work of art worth examining.
Jaws is based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name, which told the tale of a great white shark taking a bite out of a resort town. Benchley and Carl Gottlieb developed the screenplay and Spielberg was tapped to direct. He wanted to leave the project out of fears of being typecast, but Universal held him to it.
The picture takes place on the fictional Amity Island. A young woman turns up dead and the initial examination suggests a shark attack, which leads new police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to consider closing up shop. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is against it, not wanting to undermine the town’s eventful tourist season.
Unfortunately, the shark attacks are the real deal. Oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) offers a scholarly perspective, while untamed local Quint (Robert Shaw) says he’ll slay the shark. There are some false alarms, like the capture of a tiger shark, and Brody, Hooper and Quint eventually take to the waters to hunt down the killer in their midst.
It’s interesting to note that Benchley had several working titles for his novel, including The Stillness in the Water. This may have been discarded by the book’s author as “pretentious,” but it does seem to typify Spielberg’s approach to the material.
Less is more in Jaws, at least initially. Spielberg opens with a murky sequence, showcasing a pretty girl as she gets towed underwater by an unseen force. Her prospective lover is numb on the shore, drunkenly missing his chance to play hero. When the dark subsides, what remains of the girl isn’t so pretty.
There is a shark, but seeing the shark takes time and effort. For a lot of the movie, the shark is talked about. Dreyfuss’ character discusses the eyes, the tooth like a shot glass. Quint shuns every ounce of Hooper’s systematic approach. His pursuit of the shark is mystical, like Ahab chasing the white whale.
Along with the dialogue, the shark is indicated through the famous John Williams score. The alternating pattern of two notes has gone on to become one of the most celebrated themes in movie history and the tension it embodies is dreamlike, especially as it seems to exemplify a pulse as the shark careens through the water beneath.
The shark’s part of the story is underscored by the way humans react to its presence. Mayor Vaughn is the characteristic capitalist, complete with a cheap suit. Nothing will stand in the way of his Fourth of July regatta and he makes a half-assed attempt to put extra security on the beach. Hooper is rational, but he’s ostensibly swept aside by what some describe as an elitist background.
Quint is nearly as natural as his prey, a man who functions as a batch of scar tissue and instinct. He runs the Orca ragged and is willing to risk life and limb to destroy the shark. Brody is by contrast a logical, ethical man. He is middle ground, a decent person who’s a little scared and more than a little out of his depth.
Because Spielberg graces Jaws with layered characters and delivers his shark in slighter doses, the picture is still an effective specimen of handling suspense the right way. It could be argued that he goes overboard for the last moments, but the visuals of the big mechanized fish are mostly earned. That’s to say nothing of the deadly detonation, which is raw purification on film.