Release Date: June 20th, 1975 (US); December 26th, 1975 (UK)
Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
It is probably fair to say Jaws cemented Steven Spielberg’s status as a prominent athlete in the movie-making race. Released in 1975, the film ushered in a fresh era of monster flicks. Those hallmarks that we deem familiar in the genre today made their mainstream debut in Spielberg’s classic: the inaugural attack and subsequent denial; the saviour who is the only one bearing initial clarity; the prevention plan executed atop a wave of mayhem.
It is a blueprint that studios and filmmakers have followed since — the pitch for Alien famously included the tagline “Jaws in space” — primarily because the structure indiscriminately appeals to audiences. You only have to glance back at the last two summers to see the formula play out in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World. Speaking of summer, Jaws is often also touted as the first seasonal blockbuster (it broke box office records upon release in the US). The catch? This blockbuster is one of those intelligently composed things.
Following the watery demise of a teenage girl via shark attack, the residents of Amity Island find themselves on high alert. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with developing a solution, but when the problem takes the form of a person-guzzling creature solutions are hard to come by. Bill Butler’s camera focuses directly on the words “shark attack” as Brody punches them into the death certificate of the aforementioned teen, the surrounding silence signifying both the solemnity at hand and the imminent danger. Everybody is a potential target because, on Amity Island, everybody is water-bound.
The locale is a “summer town [that] needs summer dollars,” according to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). Speaking to an agitated Brody, he continues, “You yell shark and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July.” Though his use of the word panic is probably a reference to any incoming tourists, chances are he is more concerned about panic on the business front. It’s commercialism versus well-being, a duel unethically buffeted by a mayor who slinks around in a bright suit looking like a candy floss vendor selling treats that appear appetising but are ultimately bad for your health. And it’s Brody who takes the brunt of his poor decision-making: after a grieving mother vents her fury to Brody’s face, the film evolves into a tale of redemption and vengeance.
A smart and often snarky screenplay accommodates various themes and elevates Jaws well beyond popcorn entertainment (though it can be just that if you want it to). Originally written by Peter Benchley, the screenplay was reshaped by Carl Gottlieb, adapting his own novel, as filming got under way. And to his credit Spielberg values the duo’s writing just as much as he does tension building and aquatic action. This means there is wit in abundance, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” being the obvious calling card. It is more than just a throwaway line though — the iconic scene quite brilliantly combines comedy, timing, and terror.
The shark seems to strike out of the blue. Though precautions are in place (shutting down beaches etc.) everything seems a bit rushed, a bit chaotic, as if the appearance of the creature is a wholly uncommon event. A rubbery meteor thrashing into an otherwise idyllic seaside lifestyle. Then there are the constant distractions — while Brody tries to keep an eye on swimmers, a plethora of unwary residents inundate him with random musings. And when the islanders catch a bogus shark, the local photographer is too busy taking photos for anyone to notice it’s the wrong fish.
Like an old Wild West villain, the shark has a $3,000 bounty placed on its fin. We don’t see it for a long time, but we do catch a glimpse of the consequences left in the monster’s wake: a crab-strewn arm; a volcanic bloodbath; various images of unevenly dissected limbs. You can do nothing but watch as its grey silhouette stalks the dangling legs of helpless victims whose idea of a beach vacation involves more relaxation and less chomping. Simmering in the background is this domestic strand about a father trying to introduce his sons to a dangerous world, juggling the virtues of the sea with the violence of its inhabitants.
There is a masculine theme at play too, and it particularly rears when boatman Quint (Robert Shaw) shows up, gruff and tough, parading a confidence and idly disrespecting those around him. But there is more to Quint, a clouded morality that swims beneath the surface. Robert Shaw delivers a revelatory monologue with a look on his face that denotes unsubtly disguised horror in one of the film’s more serene, excellent scenes. He joins Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on a voyage to oust the shark and as the three guys get grimier and drunker, you constantly wonder just how exactly they’re going to conquer the aqua beast.
Jaws’ score is often heralded for its tense beat that builds to a crescendo, but it also bears a swooping grandiosity that marks the film’s action-adventure element. Sharp high notes chirp along pleasantly, notes that composer John Williams would go on to recycle for the first few Harry Potter outings. The film isn’t an out-and-out horror flick but it does dabble in gruesome visuals and a playfully heart pounding atmosphere.
There is a bit of dip in stress levels just before the final act plays out, but you let it slide as Spielberg has spent so long admirably refraining from bluster, favouring human drama instead. Led by the quintessential everyman Chief Brody, his regular qualities superbly highlighted by Roy Scheider, Jaws manifests as a clever genre-chewer that still boasts significant bite 40 years on.
Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures