The sound of waves crash against a small fishing boat floating on the waters of the ocean. The character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw, bites down on a biscuit. He is seated next to a giant fishing reel. The splashes of the ocean and the creaking of the boat are interrupted by slow, low notes from a string section of an orchestra. The reel begins slowly ticking, coming into focus and catching the attention of Quint. Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, sits at the edge of the boat, trying to tie a bowline knot. Quint slowly grabs the rod as the camera focuses on the large reel. Suddenly, Brody shouts “Hey, I’ve got it!” as he finishes the knot. This break in tension segues into a frenzy as the line begins rapidly pulling forward, propelling the film towards its next thrilling sequence. This brilliant moment is one of many that exemplify the brilliance of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Jaws. I’d never seen the movie until now, but a classic is a classic for a reason. Jaws is a tightly-wound masterpiece. Its narrative and characters feel as if they leaped off the page of an intricately-woven literary novel. If that isn’t enough, its cinematography, music, acting, and production cement the film as one of the greatest examples of cinema in history. It is also, in my opinion, one of the best-directed films ever made. Though this is only Spielberg’s second directing gig, he manages to rival Hitchcock in his ability to build suspense and keep the audience’s attention on what he wants. Jaws is also commonly accepted as one of the most influential films in history. The anticipation, release, and success of the film made it essentially the first major summer blockbuster. The sheer amount of accomplishments that this film was able to garner is astounding when considering its troubled production, filming drama, and costly budget for the time. Spielberg insisted on filming at sea, and the entire second half of the film was shot completely on a small boat. The amalgamation of production and budget restrictions that hindered Spielberg’s vision for the film ended up benefitting the film, as Spielberg was forced to think out of the box and employ new and revolutionary tactics in filmmaking and direction.
Jaws, as most people know, is the story of a giant killer shark that terrorizes a small beach town and is pursued by the chief of police, Martin Brody. Brody is an honest man with a wife and two kids. The brilliance of Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody is that despite having the outward appearance of a stern and hardened man, his demeanor is actually soft and reflective. It really feels like he’s just an ordinary guy trying to do his best to protect the people of the town. When casting for the film, Spielberg didn’t want to have big name actors appear in the movie since he wanted the events of the film to “believe this was happening to people like you and me”. In fact, Charlton Heston was originally interested in the role but Spielberg felt his grand image would detract from the ordinary every-day setting and the terror and connection that the audience would feel for Brody. As much of a thriller as Jaws is, the first half of the film is actually dedicated to building the character of Brody, and in analyzing the fear and paranoia of the townspeople in response to the shark attacks. A difference in ideologies takes place early in the film between Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn, one of the many colorful characters in the movie. The mayor has his eyes set on continuing the beach tourism that drives the town’s economy while Brody is more concerned with the safety of its citizens. Brody’s anxiety is depicted through close up shots of Roy Scheider’s concerned expressions. In a particularly memorable scene, Brody sits on the beach, and as other people cross the screen, the camera cuts in closer to Brody’s face. Even during the shark attack sequences, the camera focuses on the movements and reactions of the people as a brilliant depiction of fear and panic. It’s as if the conflict doesn’t come from the shark itself, but rather the people’s fear of it, and how it causes them to act.
But to cite the fear of the shark as the main conflict in the film would do an extreme disservice to the shark itself. Even without actually being on screen, the shark’s presence is always felt. Originally, Spielberg had designed several mechanical sharks, but they all constantly malfunctioned. To film around this issue, Spielberg showed only portions of the shark at a time. In some scenes, its tail or fin could be seen, and in others, it would be shown as a prop shark head. Aside from the practical effects, the shark’s terror came from its unseen presence more so than what was actually seen. Spielberg would have a large barrel, or a log slowly move towards the characters to represent the shark’s movement. The greatest fear comes from the imagination of the audience, and so by hiding the shark, it’s appearance could be hyped by the audience as more terrifying than what could be shown in a practical prop. Of course, none of the terror would be possible without John William’s excellent score. The simplicity of two alternating notes in a minor 2nd interval proves to be so impactful in its ability to indicate the presence of lurking dread. The increasing speed and volume of the notes as they crescendo into a symphony of cacophonous sound only further builds the suspense. Aside from the ominous main theme, Williams’s score is quite upbeat, with a sense of adventure created by animated and energetic violins.
As the film progresses, more and more interesting characters get featured, such as oceanographer Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Hooper adds some levity to the film with his slightly more buoyant personality. He provides just the right amount of quirk and humor to not distract from the film’s serious tone. Robert Shaw’s Quint, the shark hunter, is another character that is rich with personality. His pursuit of the shark comes off as very Melvillian, often harkening to the literary obsessiveness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. The second half of the film relies on the strength of the character interactions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Jaws can actually be considered two movies with two separate environments. The first hour introduces the shark and focuses on the town, whereas the second hour is a shark hunt on a fishing boat that takes place entirely out in the ocean. This is where the acting really shines. The scientifically inclined Hooper comes into conflict with the hardened Quint while Brody acts as a straight man to both. Eventually, they feel and function like a unit and bond as they try and hunt down the shark. Scenes between the three involving Quint and Hooper comparing injuries, followed by the three characters singing chanteys are some examples of the excellent character moments in the film. The action and adventure also heighten in the second half as more of the shark is seen and as the fishing boat becomes more and more damaged after each run-in with the creature (even some live footage of actual sharks was integrated into the filming). These scenes, with the combination of brilliant acting, character development, music, and directing are some of the greatest examples of movie magic that you will be hard-pressed to find replicated in most movies today.
When I finished watching Jaws, I had this great feeling, as if I had just come back from a big adventure. There are not one, but several scenes that can be considered some of the best scenes in film history. The camera and the music felt like characters just as much as the actors did. The selective views of the shark along with the initial point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective cement it as one of the most iconic creatures in horror. There’s no point in reiterating how impactful this film was to Hollywood, but what I can say is that it more than earns its status. It’s a carefully constructed and thoughtful yet wild adventure that builds to an epic encounter between a terrifying force of nature. It’s an inward look at human psychology and response to fear. It balances its narrative in just the right ways and rewards and punishes characters in a way that consistently aligns with their actions and choices. At the end of the day, Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.