Jaws was very nearly a movie destroyed by self-doubt. Adrift on his first big production following the taut thriller Duel, then fledgling director Steven Spielberg was up to his neck in it. In adapting Peter Benchley’s novel about a giant Great White Shark which terrorizes the American community of Amity, Spielberg was beginning to understand the challenges that came with filming a blockbuster in and around the water.
The prop sharks used during filming may have affectionately been named Bruce, but they proved a nightmare during the production itself, refusing to operate, corroding due to salt water and even at one point sinking to the bottom of the sea.
On top of that, lead actor Robert Shaw was battling the bottle, the weather on location in Martha’s Vineyard was unseasonably awful and the script was being refined during filming. Eventually the budget ballooned to $9 million. Spielberg was even terrified that an errant shot of dry land during the final battle with the creature would make its way into the film and snap the viewer out of the mood.
Spielberg’s doubt didn’t end there. Realising he didn’t have a shark to work with, he turned to composer John Williams, who played him two notes on a piano. The director’s immediate reaction was: ‘You’re kidding, right?’ Yet on hearing the power of those two ominous notes harnessed through the might of a full orchestra, the film suddenly began to click into shape. The movie did have a shark after all, and became testimony to the importance of music in cinema.
But although Spielberg credits 50% of Jaws’ success to Williams Oscar-winning score, the film continues to demonstrate Spielberg’s own dramatic intuition as a filmmaker, even at such a young age. For a film which is blithely credited with giving birth to the blockbuster boom, in which spectacle takes precedence over substance, it is remarkable to be reminded of how well constructed Jaws really is.
There is none of the hectoring, close-up action that we associate with today’s money spinners. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jaws owes more to the velvety, sedate pacing of the first two Godfather movies and other 70s brethren, in which the performers are often shot at a medium distance so we get a sense of how they operate in their surroundings. Look at how Roy Scheider’s police chief Martin Brody is shown anxiously patrolling the beaches: instead of focusing straight on the face, Spielberg often shoots these scenes from a distance, giving a greater sense of verisimilitude, better placing Brody in his environment.
When Spielberg does go in close (the famous zoom-in/dolly out as Alex Kintner is devoured), it carries tons more impact. During the film’s conversational scenes, the dialogue frequently overlaps in the manner of Robert Altman, adding more realism to the characters and their relationships. Compare that to recent blockbuster garbage like Transformers, in which the dreadful dialogue is eked out piecemeal fashion in painful clichés between the explosions (not that you can hear it anyway).
Combined with the deliberately paced yet razor-sharp editing of Verna Fields (another Oscar-winner), Jaws bears little relation to the empty-headed spectacles it would later engender. Spielberg instead takes his time to sketch the three main characters who will eventually fight the beast; although they are very much archetypes, they add emotional heft to what would otherwise be pure fluff.
Scheider is immensely likeable as the cop who has yet to find his sea legs despite living on an island (‘It’s only an island if you look at it from the water’); Richard Dreyfuss is convincing as the rich kid oceanographer Matt Hooper; and Shaw’s crusty off-screen persona clearly helped transform salty sea-dog Quint into something more compelling than a mere Ahab clone.
And yet it was surely Spielberg’s ability to blend 70s character drama with the populist suspense tendencies of Alfred Hitchcock that secured Jaws’ extraordinary success. Beginning with the shrieking death of swimmer Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) during the movie’s chilling opening, the drama proceeds in merciless ebbs and flows before building to a crescendo of nail-biting terror on the high seas. It was a movie both of its time and ahead of its time, resplendent in the cinematic language of the era and yet upping the ante in terms of shocks for the ever-demanding audience.
Additionally, it was probably one of the first movies to address the concept of summer in economic terms on film. In the 70s, the world was becoming ever smaller with greater opportunities for travel, and Jaws, with its many shots of luxuriant, touristy beaches (not to mention the tourist montage sequence), captures the feel of how wonderful it is to be on holiday. As a result, the encroaching shark is no mere villain but a threat to the equilibrium, one which can bring down the industry like a house of cards once it starts devouring people. These many factors, alongside an aggressive marketing campaign, resonated with audiences, catapulting Jaws to an astonishing $430 million gross worldwide.
Simply referring to Jaws as the movie ‘that started it all’ and ‘changed Hollywood’ distracts attention from the fact that it’s a brilliantly made film. It may have influenced everything from Joe Dante’s parody Piranha to the thinly veiled copycat antics of Dante’s Peak (or Jaws-cano as it’s referred to), but one shouldn’t be derisory or dismissive of Jaws. Simply taken on its own terms, the film is less sensationalist than many claim, and the amount of rubbish that’s sprang up in its wake has probably tainted its reputation, leading people to underestimate the film’s intelligence and the craft with which it’s made.
As a perfect example of this, let’s return to John Williams’ classic score. Many of the secondary ideas in the score are surprisingly overlooked, the frenzy of the shark theme giving way to the secondary adventurous motif as Brody faces down the shark in the climax, but the deployment of the music is surprisingly discreet, only used where necessary for maximum impact. Compare that to the wall of noise that assaults viewers in a lot of modern blockbusters. Jaws is credited as the one which gave birth to such movies but in reality it resembles none of them. It is its own beast.