Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

The opening seconds of Jaws are more indelible and menacing than many entire movies: with the lead actors’ names appearing on dense blackness and the sounds of marine animals’ sonic vibrations teeming in the dark, the iconic deep cello throbs of John Williams’ score gives instant, malefic portent to the roving, hungry point-of-view shots sliding through the deep. A jarring cut to a beach party, flavoured with perfect mid-‘70s faux-counterculture indolence, as the rich-kid refugees who make up Amity Island’s seasonal resource party the night away, and the exchange of long hard glances between Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) and Tom Cassidy (Jonathan Filley) presage familiar mating rituals, except that Chrissie, flush with youthful, randy energy, decides to go swimming and leaves the pie-eyed Cassidy on the beach. Chrissie’s swim, of course, becomes not a frolic but a close encounter with a primal force for which a human is just another food source. One touch here that sells the terror of this sad death just as much as the screams and struggling of Chrissie as she’s torn to bits by a monster and cries for the aid of a god who doesn’t answer, is the cutaway to Cassidy lying snoozing on the beach under a Winslow Homer dawn, utterly ignorant of what’s transpiring. Thus commences a drama where complacency and obsession become opposed, destructive forces hemming the conscientious in on both sides.

Now thirty-six years old, Jaws has hardly aged a day. Certainly, aspects of it are very much irremovable from the mid-’70s zeitgeist it both recorded and captivated, and yet the film’s inexorable style and salty screenplay vibrate with a still-fearsome kind of perfection. Jaws is widely regarded as the movie that begat the contemporary blockbuster. That’s only partly true: the first film to follow the template of a studio’s expensive tent-pole production designed to pay for other ventures, based on popular pre-existing material, was actually The Godfather (1972). All Jaws did was tweak the marketing formula. But Jaws did, arguably, introduce a certain hard-charging, pulp narrative attitude, the idea of story as means to motion and special effects as a major creative tool, which had not quite crystallised with such perfection before in Hollywood’s awkward efforts to rebuild its commercial brands after the long interregnum of the ‘60s. And yet Jaws is as distant from the idiocy of the worst modern examples of the blockbuster mentality as The Godfather is from Dick Tracy.

Steven Spielberg’s first huge hit, and still one of his three or four best films, Jaws is flavoured with a perpetually beguiling mixture of old-school writing and cinematic virtues and more modern varieties, facilitated by Spielberg’s particular capacity to meld classical Hollywood and New Wave techniques fluently, from the almost neo-realist use of the small town of Amity, to film school gimmicks, like the famous zoom-in-pull-back shot, that are perfectly contoured into the storytelling, unlike, say, in his contemporary Brian De Palma’s work, where such effects become, in their way, the story. In terms of the genre it most properly belongs to, the horror film, Jaws is a rare hybrid: it’s a monster movie, with elements of action and adventure, political satire, and domestic comedy-drama. Jaws followed hard on the success of The Exorcist (1973) in delving into another, even more deeply phobic subject matter for the mass audience: fear of the deep, of animal terror, of a Jungian unknown, of nature as a raw and careless power. There’s also always been a not entirely accidental link between Jaws’ success and its socio-political moment: it came out as both the Vietnam War and Watergate had entered their final anticlimactic moments, and the film’s themes, of trying to effectively recapture faith in institutions and win a war against a nameless evil in spite of politicians, could hardly have summarised the period mood more acutely.

The ironies of Jaws’ immense popular and aesthetic success proliferate, considering the film’s arduous shoot. As the movie was rushed into production, the script, first penned by Peter Benchley, author of the source novel, had to then be quickly worked over by playwright Howard Sackler, co-star Carl Gottlieb, and Spielberg’s friend John Milius, with contributions from Shaw and Scheider making the cut too. Spielberg, not yet thirty, was already out to regain his footing after his first feature film The Sugarland Express (1974) opened to poor box office on the day cameras started rolling on the new film. It was also a revisit of territory he had staked out with his telemovie Duel (1972), and Jaws in many ways stands in relation to the earlier film like Deep Red (1975) does for Dario Argento and his debut film The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), or The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) does for a few of Hitchcock’s earlier films: a semi-remake with which the director comes firmly of age. Where The Sugarland Express saw the wunderkind filmmaker draw a curtain on the early decade’s beautiful loser mystique, Jaws looks forward to the reasserted centrism of the ‘80s, in following essentially Everyman protagonist Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) as he contends with the obstructive realities of his society, and then far more primeval and urgent dangers.

Whereas in Benchley’s novel, crammed with bestseller elements the film thankfully mostly divests, the political subplot has overt underworld links, the film rather portrays the clash of intent between Brody and the town’s mayor, and major real estate figure Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), on a more humdrum, if no less urgent, level, pitting concerns of safety against prosperity, reconfiguring Watergate-era political paranoia from outlandish conspiracies into something more realistic and recognisable, capturing a perpetual schism in modern American (and elsewhere) political life: to a certain extent, contemporary environmental debate is only this one writ large. Contributing to the early outlay of social dimensions is the swiftly sketched yet firm portrait of Brody and his family as refugees from New York, and their discomfort with negotiating the clannishness and rigged decks of Amity islanders. Casting Scheider, later invariably associated with this part, nonetheless plays on his casting in The French Connection (1971) and that film’s pop-culture cache as a portrait of urban rot, as Jaws points out that things aren’t necessarily easier out in the sticks, as the Brodys discover, in having traced the wagon routes of white flight, that the bucolic surf and sea can cover up dread dangers that make muggers look homey.

The first half-hour of Jaws is a little whirlwind of exposition and tension-building, introducing Brody, wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary), and sons Michael (Chris Rebello) and Sean (Jay Mello) in their domestic muddles, and Brody at work, where the usual business of his job is today exemplified by contending with the petty complaints of shopkeepers about rambunctious kids. Brody snaps into action when he and his deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) discover Chrissie’s remains on the beach, entangled with seaweeds and fed on by crabs. Social tension creeps in ineluctably, where the town’s parasitic relationship with the rich summer folk is threatened by the more immediate kind of predatory behaviour going on in the surf. Vaughn and his clique, catching him on the car ferry he commandeers to call in a bunch of boy scouts, corner Brody in a situation where he’s doubly unsure of himself, being as he is as uneasy on the water as he is in negotiating small-town politics. Previously certified fact is reconfigured to suit the requirements of a well-oiled machine, as Vaughn, in his slick and ingratiating fashion, gives a quick lesson in the power of words – “You shout ‘barracuda’, everybody goes, ‘Huh? What?’” – and the arts of spin.

Brody’s acquiescence to a minor cover-up is uneasy but understandable, as no-one really expects the lightning-strike moment to repeat, but Brody keeps his eyes peeled and becomes witness to a second attack, when Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is consumed before a busy beach. Here, the little gems that coalesce character and story continue with Spielberg’s editing and shooting particularly keen – Ellen being told that she’ll “never, never” be an islander by local matron Mrs Taft (Fritzi Jane Courtney), as the chief is made fun of by Harry Wiseman (Walter Hooper) for his refusal to go near the water, and vignettes so casual they seem snapped by a weekend cameraman, from Sean building sandcastles to a young man playing with his dog, and Alex’s mother (Lee Fierro) fretting over his pruning fingers. It’s only when the dog vanishes that the lurking presence is suggested, and by then it’s too late.

The singularly grim fate of Alex, and the image of his mother darting along the sands in panicked realisation that her son is the one missing from the pack, provides even more voluble emotional heft to what follows, and it also provides a cold-blooded twist to genre niceties, following up the familiar death of the sexually available young woman with the taboo annihilation of youthful innocence. The point, that the lurking death and terror respects no human laws, offsets the continuing, desperate attempt by the community to keep business operating as usual, shark-like itself in that it has to keep moving or die. Whilst many films of the era made political or business malfeasance a background enemy (eg The Towering Inferno, 1974), the question gains almost Ibsen-esque ramifications in Jaws through this coherent twinning, and because of Brody’s sense of culpability, which comes to a head when Mrs Kintner gives him a slap in the face for failing in his responsibility, a guilt Vaughn tries to relieve him of but one which he still holds close to his heart. Brody’s overwhelming sense of responsibility then becomes the core human value that holds the drama together. One of the strongest and yet least analysed Spielberg motifs, first embodied by Brody, is that of the burden of a duty of care, and the corruption and cleansing of the institutions that take up that duty, as individuals are forced to question their fortitude and values in relation to protecting others. There’s also classic movie myth working here: Brody invokes not only the “enemy of the people” in Ibsen’s play but also Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane in High Noon (1952), destined to head off to his own death-duel with a deadly foe, except that Brody does actually get some help, in the form of ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled WW2 vet and professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). As well as the seriousness with which he takes his job, Brody’s fear of the water ironically makes him the most sensitive barometer of the shark’s presence, and its most genuine nemesis, as he senses the menace that lurks underneath the pristine seas everyone else has turned into a playground.

Of course, the social conflict of Jaws is an adjunct to the real drama of first trying to save people from the beast and then going out to fight it in its own turf, as Brody browbeats Vaughn in letting him hire Quint, and they and Hooper head out to sea in Quint’s boat, the Orca, turning from Ibsen to Melville. Thanks to the notorious difficulties in getting Bob Mattey’s mechanical shark to work properly, Spielberg was forced to sustain the opening scene’s tactic of not showing the monster much longer than originally intended, an idea that fortunately deepened the tension and mystery immeasurably. Proofs and hints of the beast’s incredible strength and savagery are employed, from Hendricks, upon finding Chrissie’s remains, first whistling urgently for Brody and Cassidy to come running before collapsing in a sickly heap, to the two idiots who try catch it with a bait chained to a dock which it then pulls apart, and the huge tooth Hooper finds in the hull of the boat of local fisherman Ben Gardner, whose severed head then bobs out to give Hooper the fright of his life so far. Hooper’s own horror of seeing Chrissie’s remains inspires a memorable harangue, after he enters the film radiating good-humour but also a rock-steady professionalism, providing an immediate counterpoint to not only the obfuscation of the Amity locals, but also the bullying of the fishermen who haul a Tiger shark out of the sea after a chaotic fishing jamboree. Vaughn and coterie are happy to pass this off as the killer, but Hooper almost immediately proves that it isn’t, commencing another build-up to tragedy.

A large part of what makes Jaws work, and indeed almost unique in this sort of film, is the sheer overflowing sense of life it gives off. As in The Sugarland Express and again in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and 1941 (1979), the younger Spielberg’s view of American life as a kind of carnival of eccentricity and magnanimity blended with aggression and corruption is in constant evidence. Such attentiveness, offsetting Spielberg’s overt gamesmanship and Movie Brat intuitiveness, extends from the gabbling, arguing businesspeople and selectmen at the town hall meeting, to the flurry of yahoos out to catch the shark and receive Mrs Kintner’s $3000 bounty. The montage of the arrival of the July 4th crowds, scored by Williams with a semi-ironic baroque elegance, sees the processional of tourists of all stripes disgorged by ferries to cram hot dogs and ice cream in their faces and lounge on the beach, whilst Brody and Hooper work frantically to put together a force to protect them. Another aspect of the film is its rich sense of humour, which in many ways operates not dissimilarly to An American Werewolf in London, as comedy is carefully employed to not only offset tension but contribute, and to deepen character and milieu. Co-screenwriter Gottlieb was rightly proud of one of the film’s most effective moments, that of the shark’s first appearance, coming right on the tail of a funny line. Before I traded in old VHS recordings for DVDs, for a very long time the copy I had of this film on tape was actually an American network TV cut, with several sequences that I can never not consider part of the movie proper (on DVD as deleted scenes), including the hilarious moment of Quint bugging a clarinet-playing kid in the music store where he buys piano wire for fishing, and Hooper raving about his nympho former girlfriend’s phone bill. Both moments give more substance to these characters in giving a glimpse of them beyond the parameters of the immediate drama. But even without these, there’s a tangible sense of actuality to the characters without which the film would be just another shaggy dog yarn.

Spielberg’s prodigious, metamorphic sense of cinematic form is in constant evidence throughout Jaws, but it’s also one of the few films where his specific influences seem close to the surface: from shots that quote ‘50s monster movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and The Monster that Challenged the World (1957), and more serious works, with a sense of detail and Yankee maritime flavour redolent of John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick (1956), whilst the film’s general aesthetic owes a tremendous amount to Hitchcock in general and The Birds (1963) in particular, through utilising an overwhelming sense of sea and space for claustrophobic ends. For all the moments of overt fright-mongering like, truth be told, the slightly cheesy scare of Gardner’s head, there are few moments as chilling in movie history as that in which Quint’s fishing line first begins to tick, something having taken the bait, but just what still a mystery as Quint silently begins to prepare himself for the fight. Likewise the spirit of Val Lewton and his team hovers approvingly over much of the early action, sustaining as it does a similar aesthetic to much of Lewton’s work before the shark becomes a more overt menace in the film’s final phases. Chrissie’s death has a frisson intuitively similar to the anecdote Jacques Tourneur cited as the inspiration of Cat People’s (1942) pool scene, when he almost drowned when swimming alone at night. Spielberg was given a technical crew of tremendous experience, including cinematographer Bill Butler and editor Verna Fields, and he shied away from working with them again as word was spread around Hollywood that they had been responsible for saving the film. Nonetheless, their work is impeccable. The style is rarely showy, and yet there’s tremendous kinetic force in it, through such barely noticeable yet powerful gimmicks like the edits that sustain Brody’s point of view in the first beach attack scene, and the panning zoom shots of Brody moving through the beach crowd when responding to a shark sighting, repeated with Ellen when she leaves him at the Orca’s dock, entwining the couple with a visually manifested anxiety.

The domestic, sentimental side of Spielberg emerges in the naturalistic yet concise scenes of Brody and his family. The dinner table scene that follows Brody’s humiliation by Mrs Kintner is in many ways the heart of the film, where Sean imitates Brody in a fashion immediately familiar to parents the world over, and Brody’s sense of guilt and regret over Alex’s death, and the way his son encapsulates everything he stands for, informs his semi-drunk sentimentalism. It’s a scene that radiates outward through almost everything Spielberg has made. The arrival of Hooper shifts gears as a friendship begins to bloom, and Brody gets specifically liquored up to go out and take a look in the Tiger shark’s gut. It’s as finely crafted a piece of writing, acting, and directing as anything in American cinema. Just as good is the lengthy scene of male bonding aboard the Orca, where Hooper and Quint display bodily scars from their rugged lifestyles whilst Brody, in a casual moment that never fails to crack me up, can only consider his appendix scar, in spite of the fact that he’s the one who has perhaps most often put body and soul on the line in his working life. The mood and dramatic tension here shifts as lightly as a butterfly, from a virtual holiday booze-up to a sense of eerie isolation as Quint recounts the horrors of his experience of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and whale song echoes sonorously up from the deep, before the shark returns to visit and bashes at the hull as if to remind the humans that they’re still on his playing field. Quint’s disquieting monologue in this scene demanded the labour of all those writers, indicating its crucial import for the story’s depth. What’s really sad is that today neither these wonderful scenes would be included as a matter of course in a modern Hollywood film of this type.

Hooper and Quint form with Brody a triangle of divergent temperaments and life experiences, even as they dedicate themselves to the same quest of finding and killing the shark. Brody, Hooper, a rich kid (“How much?” “What, personally or the whole family?”), and Quint, an emotionally scarred WW2 vet (“You’ve got city hands, Mr Hooper. You’ve been counting money all your life.”) come to seem like the American national superego arguing with itself whilst trapped in a small boat, moving from quarrel to camaraderie and back again. Vietnam overtones resurge in considering the film’s final third, with Quint as the arbiter of old-school war-craft and dominant machismo, Hooper as the technological agent with a touch of the gentleman hippie to him, both of whom ultimately fail to bring the beast down, getting one of them killed and the other very nearly. For one passage, however, that in which Quint has the scent and the boys finally give chase to the shark that seems at last in their grasp, there’s a sense of high-flying joy in the battle, a joy that however soon curdles as the shark, responding to the Orca as a rival predator, begins to fight back.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Quint is several cans short of the proverbial, waging his private war against the species based in his Indianapolis experiences, an event tied to an earlier conflict and the commencement of American hegemony (“Anyway…we delivered the Bomb.”), and Quint grinds his boat to pieces in his refusal to swerve or change tactics in dealing with an enemy far cleverer than he expects, thus reproducing in many essentials the failure of the American war machine against the Viet Minh. In such a fashion, whilst Jaws is certainly based on Benchley’s book, it seems to channel more effectively the spirit of Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam?, which likewise portrays a crisis of American bullish spirit on a Melvillian hunt as a ticket to understanding the underlying obsessiveness of that war. Quint also evokes another classic Western character, Red River’s Thomas Dunson, as a deathless portrait of alpha male hysteria: Quint’s machismo and relentlessness finally prove self-destructive. Shaw’s performance, much like Daniel Day-Lewis’ in Gangs of New York (2002), sustains a note of actorly high-wire daring in trying to render a character who seems a remnant of a pre-modern age in terms that are both palpably grandiose yet also still emotionally bodied, a kind of realistic-grotesque. Hooper’s attempts to use a cage and poisoned spar against the monster likewise flop as the shark smashes the cage open and tries to pick out Hooper like the innards of a walnut. Unlike in the book, he survives, as the shark gets caught in the cage’s suspension and struggles to free itself, a showcase for the real-life footage taken by Ron and Valerie Taylor.

At last, as political, social, even personal concerns fall away, Jaws boils down to one of the most elemental dramatic situations imaginable, and therefore the most resonant, as Quint is finally consumed by his living animus, and Brody is left alone with the shark. Quint’s death, whilst the shark is showing its origins a bit too much at this point, is nonetheless a remarkably visceral moment, perhaps the most vicious in any Spielberg film, as the shark crushes the life out of Quint with screams that shake the world and his mouth spouts a fountain of blood, even as he hacks at his nemesis with a machete until the last breath. The fate which the young Quint was permanently fixated by at last catches up with him, and to a certain extent he brought it on himself. Brody, on the other hand, becomes Saint George with an M-1, forced to face the dragon and overcome it with smarts and raw skill and survival at stake. Brody’s final whoop of joy when he at last dispatches the animal right on the edge of his own death possesses a tinge of irony: Brody can’t believe his harebrained last-ditch plan has actually worked. When he and Hooper swim back to shore, seen struggling onto the beach as the end credits role, Brody does it not just as a man who won, but as virtual redeemer for his kind of man, the man in the middle, the man doing his job. Whilst no deity reached down to save Chrissie, Brody becomes the first of Spielberg’s many righteous avengers.

  • Lee Price spoke:
    30th/10/2011 to 9:24 am

    I watched Jaws six times the week it opened, obsessively returning. I was 15 and determined to understand why it was so powerful. My only comparable early movie obsession was with New York, New York two years later. I agree that Jaws is a horror movie in its first half, but once our three heroes hit the open seas, midway through, it reminds me most of Gunga Din and Beau Geste. Even John Williams’ score goes upbeat and buoyant when the boys embark on their mission. Thanks for the great write-up!

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/10/2011 to 10:19 am

    I still remember precisely where and when I first saw this. I was five years old, and it was shown on a double bill with Raiders of the Lost Ark at the movie theatre of Macquarie University in north Sydney; my dad took me. I have very good, sadly non-aesthetic reasons to remember that occasion, because I got lice off some unkempt undergraduate, and the next couple of weeks were…uncomfortable. Anyway, when I first got it out on VHS about a year later, I watched it as many times as you, Lee, although I was far too young to have any analytic purpose in mind; to me it was just incredibly cool. You’re right in identifying the Gunga Din-ish edge of the second half, and Williams’ scoring which cuts loose beautifully in these scenes, although it’s definitely a horror movie: take for instance the moment I have a screencap of there, of the shark sneaking up behind Hooper in the cage. Pure genre fright. Thanks for commenting, Lee. Also, New York, New York is a very cool second obsession too.

  • Robert spoke:
    30th/10/2011 to 1:33 pm

    You did it again — you took a movie I have deep love for and elevated it even higher. Maybe because I’m utterly blinded by the enjoyment of the aesthetics (this is a movie you can watch with the sound off and still be enthralled by), I’ve seriously never thought of some of the thematic implications you cite — namely, Vietnam, the rough continuation of Scheider’s French Connection role, the mirroring of High Noon. You’re especially eloquent on the nuance of Quint’s character – one that could have been all cartoon. This is a movie that never once gets boring, no matter how many times I see it.

    Side note: a recent point of pride. Last week, I entered into the Writers Guild of America. The pride is not the membership (like WA, I have trouble feeling part of a group that would have me for a member), it’s that my official letter of acceptance was signed by secretary-treasurer… Carl Gottlieb. One degree of separation from Jaws! I think I’ve finally made it.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    30th/10/2011 to 7:21 pm

    This is indeed a real celebration of a screen classic that if not one of Spielberg’s three or four greatest as you contend, certainly very close to that categorization. I’d rate EMPIRE OF THE SUN, E.T., A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and SCHINDLER’S LIST ahead of it, but we are talking apples and oranges. As you rightly state the opening is one of the director’s most unforgettable, and there are a number of set pieces throughout that have allowed this film to hold the stage, and for people like yourself (and my own site’s Dennis Polifroni) to name it among a select few that hold fond memories.

    But this piece is truly a JAWS lover’s dream.

  • Jon spoke:
    30th/10/2011 to 8:02 pm

    Roderick,

    I’m convinced no one ever needs to write an essay on Jaws ever again after this astounding piece. You have written the definitive essay here and taken an all encompassing look at the film, the context, the director and influences. It has always been one of my favorite Spielberg movies and one the supreme examples of “Summer Blockbuster” if there ever was one. Bravo to you.

  • Rod spoke:
    31st/10/2011 to 11:17 am

    Robert: well done, mate. That’s very cool – the membership and the letter. Your comment on watching Jaws with the sound off is of course correct, although I’d never want to do that, as sound – not just the Williams score but the dense layers of effects and dialogue – is so vital to the movie. Indeed, I had usually chiefly thought of the film on the most essential level, that of the note of Jungian dread it sustains, and the deeply morbid sensibility it exploits, but in making myself take the rest of the film more seriously, it gained new substance.

    Sam: whilst I of course appreciate Spielberg the dramatist very much, I kind of feel he’s at his most unfettered and brilliant when letting his gifts at hard, fast suspense and action loose, and, far more ambitious as they are, AI and Schindler’s List are not as flawless movies as Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are. Jaws indeed represents something of a perfect median for him. Admittedly I think by the time he tried to return to this sort of thing with the very successful and flashy but actually pretty lazy and hollow Jurassic Park, he showed how he was losing his reflexes for such fare, although then he did Minority Report and back it came roaring. From his more serious works I have always admired Empire of the Sun and Amistad, and The Color Purple and Catch Me If You Can are constantly surging in my estimation. ET I haven’t seen in ages and do need to watch once more. Anyway, thanks for commenting on all of my Halloween pieces. It’s been a heady week.

    Jon: why, thank you sir. And yet there’s a lot I regret not touching on.

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