Jaws (United States, 1975)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In addition to scaring the living daylights out of millions of movie-goers and putting a cramp in the revenue stream of nearly every North American beach resort, two significant developments can be attributed to Jaws. With its more than $250 million domestic theatrical gross (against a $12 million budget), this film laid out a blueprint for the summer blockbuster that has been followed ever since. Jaws was the first summer mega-hit, but, because Hollywood learns from its success stories, it has not been the last one. The picture also catapulted a lesser director by the name of Steven Spielberg out of relative obscurity and onto the A-list. Spielberg would quickly follow the success of Jaws with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. (His only failure during that period was the World War II farce 1941.)

When he agreed to helm Jaws, Spielberg was perhaps blissfully unaware of the challenges facing him on the road to transforming Peter Benchley's best-selling novel into a major motion picture. He saw this as a water-based reworking of his made-for-TV movie, Duel. As he has stated in recent interviews, he was "young and fearless - or perhaps dumb." While the end result of Spielberg's labors was an engrossing, edge-of-the-seat thriller, the trials and tribulations to reach that point were nearly insurmountable. Today, with CGI technology in an advanced state, completing Jaws would be a far less imposing endeavor. But filming took place in 1974, when special effects meant animation, blue screen model work, and crude animatronics. Creating a convincing 26-foot great white shark was a behemoth task.

It is said that "necessity is the mother of invention," and never was this more true than in the case of Jaws. For the first hour, the only glimpses we catch of the shark are fleeting and indistinct. Even after the beast makes its first, harrowing appearance, the camera doesn't dwell upon it. Only in the final fifteen minutes, when it crashes onto the deck of a boat and snaps at the protagonists, are we treated to a lengthy look at the shark. From those concluding scenes, it's apparent why Jaws gets so little screen time - it looks fake. If Spielberg's film didn't have us so completely in its thrall by this point, we would be doubled over with laughter at the cheesiness of the animatronic creature.

Spielberg freely admits that, had the technology been better and had the mechanical shark worked more efficiently, he would have shown it earlier and more often. Ironically, it is this handicap that resulted in one of the film's great strengths - by keeping Jaws hidden from the audience, the movie builds suspense to a high level. Many directors after Spielberg have used this "less is more" approach to monster movies, but few have employed the technique in such a brilliantly successful manner.

In a general sense, Jaws follows the novel from which it derives its title, although Spielberg chooses to downplay certain aspects of the story in favor of suspense and action. Peter Benchley, who wrote the book, was the author of the original screenplay treatment (earning him co-credit for the final script), which was subsequently re-worked and tweaked by Carl Gottlieb and several uncredited helpers (including John Milius). Benchley also has a cameo playing a TV reporter.

Jaws introduces us to Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the police chief of the small island resort community of Amity. Martin has come to Amity to get away from the hassles of New York City, but is finding it difficult to adjust to a less hectic lifestyle. That all changes about a week before July 4, when the mutilated body of a young swimmer washes up on shore. The coroner's stated cause of death is a shark attack. When the mayor (Murray Hamilton) and members of the town council refuse to allow Martin to close down the beaches, he puts in a call to the mainland for a shark expert. He gets Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), who seems to know just about everything there is about sharks.

Following several additional deaths, the mayor is forced to admit that something has to be done about the shark. Martin hires a fisherman and shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw), who claims that, for $10,000, he'll eliminate Amity's nautical nightmare. Accompanied by Martin and Matt, he heads out to sea - and into a life-and-death struggle with a creature the likes of which he has never encountered. For Matt, it's the chance to study a great white up close. And for Martin, the experience demands that he overcomes his fear of water.

Because the "star" of Jaws is the shark, Spielberg wasn't under pressure to sign a "name" actor for the lead role. Instead, he was accorded the freedom to go with a lesser-known individual suited for the role. Roy Scheider, who was near the pinnacle of his career in the mid-to-late 1970s, brings a sense of humanity to his character - it's easy to identify with Martin because he seems real. Richard Dreyfuss, not a star at the time, infuses Matt with charm, energy, and a dry wit. Robert Shaw was not Spielberg's first choice for Quint (that was Lee Marvin, who turned down the part), but he imbues the character with a larger than life quality that results in a cross between Captain Ahab and Popeye the Sailor Man. Lorraine Gary plays Martin's supportive wife, and Murray Hamilton is the oily Larry Vaughn, Mayor of Amity.

Jaws has two villains. During the first half of the film, the enemy isn't the shark; it's the face of bureaucracy, as personified by the mayor. More concerned with the economic bottom line than with the possibility of someone being injured, Vaughn muzzles Martin, allowing further deaths to occur. While Martin battles Vaughn and his puppets on the town council, the shark lurks in the background, ready to take over the role of antagonist when the mayor gives way. The second half of the film is the classic man against beast, with Jaws representing the rarest of movie monsters - something that exists in the depths of the ocean (albeit typically in smaller dimensions). This, of course, is the clash for which people watch the movie, and it is handled with great skill.

Much of Jaws is an exercise in elevating tension. During the scene when the little boy is killed, we are given a myriad of potential targets. We get the "shark's eye" view of many of the swimmers as Martin looks on anxiously, convinced that something bad is going to happen. The scene is full of red herrings, and we, like Martin, are prepared for tragedy. Spielberg primes us for it. He uses similar tactics for each of the shark attacks, including the first one, in which a skinny dipper is bitten, jerked back and forth, then pulled under.

The movie's final forty-five minutes are spent aboard Quint's boat. The men bond over "war wounds," with Matt and Quint displaying various scars, then Quint tells a chilling tale about a World War II experience when he and the crew of a sunken ship were hunted and savaged by sharks until the rescuers arrived. After those low key moments, it's pretty much all suspense-based action, as Jaws and the crew of the Orca engage in a bloody cat-and-mouse games.

The most memorable scene in the movie occurs when Martin gets an unexpected first look at his nautical nemesis. After casually throwing a few dead fish into the water, he momentarily turns his back. When he looks again, it's into the maw of the shark. He shakily stumbles back into the cabin and utters Jaws' most oft-quoted line: "You're gonna need a bigger boat." This is one of numerous examples of Spielberg adding dark humor to the mix.

The music for Jaws is neither John Williams' best nor his most rousing score, but the shark theme, which has been used in countless spoofs, is one of the most recognizable cues in movie music history. The reason is simple - it is singularly effective. Combined with the "shark's perspective" camera shots, Williams' music is enough to evoke the approach of the creature, even when we don't see it.

Jaws' huge success led to three sub-par sequels, each of which was worse than its predecessor. There were numerous copycat features as well, from Dino De Laurentiis' awful Orca: The Killer Whale to the entertaining Deep Blue Sea (which featured incredibly real sharks, but not nearly as much suspense). Nevertheless, the first is the best. When it comes to this kind of thriller, no movie has been able to top Jaws, although many have tried. And, as the years go by, it seems increasingly unlikely that anything will come close.

Jaws (United States, 1975)

Ranked #57 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 1975-06-20
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Brief Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1