Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (based on the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley)
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
Jaws is big. It made the biggest splash of any monster movie ever produced. It sent its director on his way to becoming arguably the biggest star behind the camera of all time. It took enormous amounts of money (more than any film had until that point), and its antagonist is 25 feet long and weighs three tonnes.
Steven Spielberg’s masterwork in excitement has endured in a way that very few films ever could. The hum of its score alone is enough to make anyone waist deep in water do an impromptu 360 degree pan of the area. It’s the seminal summer blockbuster, a Hitchcockian exercise in suspense that agonises us with its confident pacing and thrills us with its bold and dangerous battle of man and monster.
The story could hardly be simpler, a demonic great white shark terrorises the small community of Amity Island leading into the prolific 4th of July weekend. At first its existence is dismissed as it would derail the town’s economy during the busiest week of the year, however it soon becomes apparent that Amity Island is the shark’s new play pen, all too happy to pick off tourists as long as they keep offering themselves up. With little recourse, eventually a hunter, an oceanographer and the chief of police set out to free the beach by meeting the beast head on.
What gives the film its Hithcockian flair is its patience. It teases us, making every moment count as it steadily builds the threat of its antagonist. One need only look at a film like Jurassic World, a Spielberg affiliate, to notice how the principles of Jaws’s suspense have been lost. Jurassic World is fun in moments (in the way that kicking over sandcastles can be fun), but the trouble is that it can hardly wait to show off its wowing effects and start amassing a body count. It’s like a child on Christmas Eve, whining until their parents cave and let them open one present early. It can’t wait to get to the carnage, swiftly turning its monsters loose and patting itself on the back for every bit of bone crunching action. What makes Jaws so powerful are all the things it doesn’t show us. We question if Spielberg even has a shark to put on screen (and due to production trouble throughout he often didn’t). Instead the shark’s presence is noted through the scrambling frenzy of beach goers, expository dialogue and brutal aftermath like a disembowelled young woman and a destroyed pier. We get brief glimpses of the beast in an estuary, but Spielberg doesn’t truly unveil his villain until the third act. The director knows that it’s the not knowing what we’re up against which is truly exciting, and by the time we finally meet the great white, its reputation precedes it to such an extent that we could be shown a gummy shark and we’d swear it was the devil himself. That’s suspense, crafting one of cinema’s most imposing villains without the director ever having to reveal his cards.
The other channel of the film’s genius is in the understanding that a monster is only as good as the humans it terrorises. Spielberg gives his drama ample time to breathe between the attacks, ensuring his three central characters are drawn with clarity and personality. The central most character is the anxious police chief of the island, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Understated, reluctantly brave and completely in over his head as he takes to the water which he so oxymoronically dreads; “I’m not drunk enough to go out on a boat!” He’s the prototypical unlikely hero. Richard Dreyfuss plays the oceanographer, Matt Hooper, brining that same “college boy” smarts from American Graffiti to Amity Island and harmonising with Brody’s lone voice of reason. He’s feistier than you might expect and tougher than he looks, and he also has a cute comedic flair. The wild card is Robert Shaw’s Quint, a General Patton of the sea who’s seen it all twice over and has a deal to square with the sea’s sharks. He’s grizzled and unchained, as animalistic as his foe. When asked if he’s seen anything like what he’s up against with the 25 footer and he answers “no”, we know we’re in for a momentous struggle.
The key is we’re given the opportunity to know these men as they set out together on Quint’s woefully insufficient boat. They’re identity is never lost amongst the chaotic shuffle. We’re with them for every breath of their crazed fight and every word of their banter, tethered to the drama.
Jaws is a frenzy. It’s a wild film, but it’s made with intelligence and deftness. That’s the underlying magic of Spielberg’s classic. It’s a wonderful synthesis of anarchy and art, of suspense and character, and it snaffles us in the process; hook, line and sinker.