Jaws is a happy accident. For what must have been a hellish production, Spielberg’s first box office megahit came together in spite of itself. Here was a movie that by all accounts should have been a disaster. It was based on a clunky, overwritten pulp novel; the plot was thin; it was being directed by a young film director best known for a TV movie; It starred a broken mechanical shark that had so much downtime that it only appears on the screen for ten minutes. Everyone was prepped for a failure, but it not only succeeded, it turned the entire movie industry upside down and created the summer movie season.
Jaws did best by what it did least. Spielberg became a master in allowing our emotions and our imaginations to meet the movie halfway, and that inspiration was born out of the fact that for much of the movie we never see the shark. If we did, we’d grow tired of seeing it and the urgency of the story wouldn’t be so strong. Much of what we see of the shark comes from other points of view. The opening scene, featuring a shark attack of a young woman, never shows the shark but it exists in our brains. And yet, we aren’t on the shore, we’re in the water with this girl as if we’re swimming a few feet away. That’s the power of this movie. Later, when Alex Kintner is killed, we see blood, we see the raft, and we see the attack out on the horizon behind the other swimmers. Was that a tail? Was that the shark? Was it the kid? What’s happening? This movie works best on our expectations.
One of my favorite shots takes place in the middle of the film, during the fourth of July holiday when the local sheriff has tried to warn the county officials that opening the beaches for the holiday is likely to be a disaster. It is. A man in a boat is killed while the sheriff’s son is injured. The boy is unconscious and is dragged ashore by some other swimmers. The way the moment is shot, the camera follows and for just a split second we aren’t sure if the kid still has feet or if they’ve been bitten off.Those kinds of visual tricks create moments that intrigue us. If we saw the attacks, if we were present, the movie would lose us. Those are the tricks that kept the audience coming back over and over.
There is a lot of downtime in Jaws away from the shark. How many shark attacks can we handle in two hours? That time is filled with the human characters that fit the situation like a glove. We meet Brody (Roy Scheider) a city boy, a new sheriff in Martha’s Vinyard whose come up from New York and hates the water. We meet an Ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a wealthy know-it-all who knows sharks inside and out both from his passion and from books. We meet the town’s mayor whose understandable denial of the situation is born on the fact that the town needs revenue from the tourists. There’s Brody’s wife, every bit her husband’s equal, a woman who cares about her husband and children but is more than just a token wife. I treasure the moment when they’re alone and she casually flirts with her husband: “Wanna get drunk and fool around?”
Even the smaller roles seem to have meat on them. This is one of those great movies, like The Godfather, in which the supporting players and the extras seem to have been cast because of their memorable faces. They don’t seem like actors, they seem like real people who just wandered in front of the camera. I remember Ben Gardner, Mrs. Kitner, Chrissie Watkins, Bad Hat Harry, Deputy Hendricks. These are not fleshed-out characters but they fill the frame in a way that a more conventional movie might not.
And then there’s Quint, played in a magnificent performance by the late Robert Shaw as a latter-day Captain Ahab, whose beef with the shark is decades old and laid out in an intricate story so mesmerizing that we hang on his every word. He escaped a shark attack years ago, but many of his Navy buddies did not. Now, he wants a shark this shark and he’s ready to wreck his own boat to get it. We see him with fire in his eyes, running his boat to the extreme and even smashing the radio to keep Brody from called in “a bigger boat.” He’s really what drives the movie’s third act, running on a pulverizing blind obsession that eventually consumes him.
Without human interaction Jaws would fall on its face. This could have been just a monster movie whose only destination might have been late night television. Shark attack stories are hard to tell. How many shark movies have been a success before or after Jaws? Even the sequels decline sharply in quality after this (none involved Spielberg). Jaws 2 was entertaining but basically unnecessary. Jaws 3D was a silly excuse for 3D, and Jaws: The Revenge? . . . . ick!
To experience the film now, four decades later, is to understand how movies have changed, and what changes Jaws created. Along with Star Wars two years later, it would forever turn the industry on its head. After the new breed of young directors took over Hollywood in the late 60s, the movies were a times of dark subject matter and filmmaking on a personal level. This was the era of personal filmmaking from which emerged talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and of course, Spielberg himself. Jaws and Star Wars put that era to bed. Realizing the enormous amounts of money that were to be made, Hollywood’s eyes were turned toward the blockbuster, and the prime summer season as the golden fissure for Hollywood action movies. Personal films went on the decline, briefly making a comeback in the early 90s but being suppressed by the broader Hollywood machine.
Many have taken to blaming Spielberg and George Lucas for creating this trend. I don’t blame them, it’s silly to think that this was their intent. They loved movies and they had a talent for making them. But while Lucas retreated from his creative instincts, turning toward the technical craft, Spielberg moved ahead. His filmography is a tapestry of some of the greatest works of popular American culture from the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. The enduring legacy of Jaws was created, as I said, as the result of a very happy accident that came in the shape of a killer shark.