Before 1975, there had never been a more well-made film than JAWS. That’s all you really need to know about the movie. Ironic, given how notoriously awful the production for the film was, with an animatronic shark that refused to work for much of the shoot and a crew that damn near staged a mutiny on fresh-faced director Steven Spielberg. But that is often the fascinating truth of filmmaking. Perfect conditions can breed mediocrity, while disaster sometimes produces excellence. The film is close to 50 years old, yet its visceral power hits as strongly as ever. That’s because JAWS is really two films – it advertises one but spends most of its time in the heart of another.
That duality is why the movie continues to entertain. For films to have this staying power, they must be more about the experience than the nuts and bolts of the plot. People know what happens in JAWS, just like they know of stories like Moby Dick. In fact, a higher percentage of the population probably knew what happened in Moby Dick back in 1975. But for a brief refresher for the movie, JAWS (based on the 1974 novel) depicts the tale of a great white shark terrorizing the shores of a New England community. Soon, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) is on the case but opts for the expertise of marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) to understand the shark and its tendencies before plotting a plan of action. However, their exploits are challenged by local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw), whose less scientific approach may signal a more masculine strategy for defeating this overgrown behemoth. But they must first contend with an avaricious mayor (Murray Hamilton) who is desperate to keep the beaches open.
When breaking down the structure of the movie, many critics have surmised that JAWS consists of two acts: 1) the shark has its reign of terror, and the humans on shore study it to figure out how to defeat it, and 2) our protagonists board a boat for an eventful confrontation. This analysis has a lot of merits, but I don’t agree with it entirely. No, JAWS does have a 3-act structure, but an unconventional one that in many ways showcases the evolution of the first half of Spielberg’s career. For JAWS is sold as an intense horror thriller, and Spielberg opts to fulfill that promise early and often in the opening 20-30 minutes. That’s where a lot of the terror lives. Still, immediately after that opening act, we discover this is really a drama about human beings and personal struggle, thus beginning Act II. It’s in Act II that we begin to understand the three lead characters, the Muscle (Quint), the Brain (Hooper), and the Emotional Spirit (Brody). It’s Brody whose most tortured and most affected by the shark’s rampage – or so we initially think. The low point is when he’s confronted by a mother who had to bury her kid that day – the hardest-hitting reminder of the gut punches this movie delivers.
Later, we see his family attempt to cheer Brody up in a showcase of Spielberg’s ability to conceal the emotions of the characters in the scene until the appropriate reveal. Yet, this already A+ scene leads directly into a visit by Hooper, who is quick to unleash a waterfall of info to Mr. Brody and a fascinated Mrs. Brody. However, Martin is barely listening and would rather drink his sorrows away with an absurdly large glass. Which leads directly into one of the most astoundingly effective moments of subtlety I can think of, as Hooper’s passive inquiry, “You wanna let that breathe?” hits like someone shattering glass to silence a room, abruptly ending his own word salad, and bringing the focus of the scene back around to Brody’s emotional state. It is a showcase of keeping the audience guessing where a scene is heading, and Spielberg uses dialogue and his trademark framing to accomplish these goals.
The screenplay was written by the book’s author, Peter Benchley, before being touched up by actor Carl Gottlieb. The film is exceptionally written and shows a humanistic side of Spielberg. Such poignancy even won over notorious Spielberg detractor Pauline Kael, as the late film critic adored the movie’s comedy as much as its thrills, even likening it to the works of Woody Allen. The film is known for a couple of lengthy speeches, but I’m just as fascinated by the screenplay’s tiny moments. When Brody wanders into a shop, the owner can be heard browbeating some poor schmuck, “You haven’t got one thing on here I ordered!” A cop ends up describing the escapades of some beachgoers as a “mild swim” for some reason. Finally, a drunk Brody stumbles upon the punny double entendre that the crime rate in New York will kill you.
It’s amusing that the inciting incident of the movie is dependent on a horny guy not being able to get his shoes off in time to get lucky—his shoes. I don’t think anyone is as bad at anything as this guy is at taking shoes off. In a previously mentioned scene, Hooper tells Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) that he would like to speak with her husband, to which she replies, “So would I.” There’s the obligatory “Solitair/Masturbation” joke you get with a story set at sea. The film also has the most believable moment of a character not realizing someone is right next to them. No, not that “I didn’t realize this person was behind me” mess. I’m talking about when someone is technically in your peripheral, but you’re sent into shock once you realize they’re there. This movie cares about all the details, and it’s why it still feels real.
Funny that JAWS was considered the first true blockbuster, utilizing the summer months as a means for an unprecedented wide release that drew in consumers as an escape from the heat and as escapism. But JAWS, if released as is today, would be closer to a drama than the fantasy spectacles we see on display at the movie theaters. There are Hulu originals that have more action and special effects. Yet make no mistake that JAWS is an exceptionally crafted spectacle, owed to Spielberg’s sense of direction. He almost always knows the right shot, and often the initial shot is setting up a framing that will come up later in a scene. For example, there’s a moment where a billboard comes into the background at the perfect opportunity, and the geometry needed to nail that shot would probably go over most people’s heads. But then it gets nutty when the camera documents a boat leaving the dock, but the camera is placed behind a window and times it at the exact moment the boat would be framed at the center of the window. How many takes did they need to get that right?
Spielberg’s penchant for symmetrical cohesion makes this such a visual feast, but his instincts for suspense make the movie legendary. If you knew nothing of the man behind the camera, your first thought might be that JAWS was either directed by Alfred Hitchcock or someone heavily influenced by him. Spielberg does fit into the latter camp, but JAWS is a reminder of the filmmaker he could have been. He had the tools to be the next Hitchcock or could have even surpassed the master with the benefit of time and historical hindsight. When false alarms around the beach haunt Brody’s psyche, it’s comedic but also foreboding, reminiscent of the teases in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), while now feeling eerily too similar to post-9/11 paranoia.
Further, the film’s ingenuity circumvented the need to reveal the shark too quickly. The tools were simple. Use the camera to put the audience in the shark’s POV. Lean on John Williams’ exciting/unnerving score. Have the shark wreak havoc on the movie’s sets, showcasing that his presence is felt even if he’s not seen. Part of the film’s brilliance is that, essentially, the danger is underneath the characters at all times, meaning any moment can easily turn into terror on a dime. Similar to how fear is used in Halloween (1978), as we know, the danger is outside at all times. Yet, once “Bruce” the shark makes its arrival, it is an important movie moment. Back in 1975, the shark itself was the draw. But now, the actual shark is the least impressive aspect of the entire product, trailing the directing, cinematography, music, acting, and script. However, Ron and Valerie Taylor’s animatronic monstrosity is still a frightening creation, and the havoc it unleashes in the final act remains horrific and fascinating. One particular moment is so violent that it almost feels ripped out of a snuff film.
But Bruce is not the star of this movie. Instead, it is our three Amigos and their quest for personal validation. Brody is so haunted because he feels responsible for these deaths and has a need to protect that one would hope most public servants would have. Quint is the fan favorite. His rough grumble is a gateway into a man that may have a personal vendetta against the shark. The hardened fisherman is the closest this movie comes to re-telling Moby Dick, and his arc stays with you long after the credits roll. He also delivers one of the most memorable rants of the 1970s, which may have had a shot for the best of the decade if not for Network (1976). But my favorite character is Hooper, endlessly mocked for his nebbishes, but whose wit and intellect instantly raise the stock of the movie’s screenplay as soon as he makes his appearance. He bumps heads with Quint, reminiscent of Westerns where the gunslinger and the more “sophisticated” deputy don’t see eye to eye.
But Hooper’s arrival ensures that it will take patience and collaboration to have a chance at victory. Here, arguments don’t lead to fist fights but resolution and compromise, as Spielberg expertly cuts in a way that plays on our expectation of a punch being thrown. Early on, it’s believable that the three men have never met a day in their lives, just as it’s believable (near the end) that they’ve known each other for years. There are a few moments in the film where the tone gets a kick of whimsy, and for a second, you forget that you’re watching a movie about a killer shark. That’s witchcraft – Spielberg draws you in with the promise of terror, but he really wants to show you a magic trick. For he was never destined to be the next Hitchcock – JAWS shows us in real time that his instincts drew him to be a director of spectacle and upliftment.
The movie isn’t a perfect time capsule, as the women are infamously nerfed to almost set decoration. This is hilariously foreshadowed early on, as a key female character only gets to say “Chrissie!” and “Swimming!” before her speaking work is done for the day. Moreover, the plot is dependent on the frailty of human beings: our greed, ego, and our need for luxury. The population of Amity doesn’t need to swim, it’s a comfort rather than a necessity, and a shark must be hunted to protect that comfort. Yet, where the movie struggles with myopia, it exceeds as a testament to how well Spielberg stacked superb scene on top of superb scene. You’re almost mad when they begin to get on the boat near the end because you know the movie is closer to being over. The pain of rewatching JAWS has the desire to go back to the first time you watched it – back to the opening minute, where you hear the first note of that score.