#18 — Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
First, a consideration of the pleasure and reward of a perfectly chosen line of dialogue. One of the most famed elements of Steven Spielberg’s sophomore feature film, Jaws, is the way that the technical limitations of the robotic shark during production caused the director to keep the creature that drives all the action hidden from view for an extended stretch of time. When the shark is finally revealed, springing from the water while the small town police chief played by Roy Scheider is tossing chum into the waves in an attempt to lure it to the surface, it is massive and fearsome. Nearly four decades of being inured to the impact of special effects roaring into the frame haven’t dulled the impact of that moment, the harsh suddenness of the inhuman antagonist breaking the surface of the water with a gaping maw and dead eyes. When Scheider’s Brody backs rigidly, fearfully into the cabin of the Orca, the ship he’s on with two other de facto shark hunters, he mutters, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” Not “we’re” as it’s often misquoted, but “you’re,” as if he himself isn’t also residing on the inadequately sized vessel in question. Beyond being the ideal humorous cap on the moment, the line also signals the intensity of Brody’s reaction by how quickly he’s imagined himself back on the safety of land. If the boat goes down, he’s in as much trouble as anyone, but at that second, he’s decided it’s someone else’s problem.
Adapted from Peter Benchley’s 1973 best-selling novel with a screenplay credited to the author along with sitcom writer Carl Gottlieb, Jaws is a brilliant water-logged potboiler, setting up simple conflicts and exploiting them masterfully. Amity Island is a community so reliant on summer tourism that the ruling politicians try to explain away the danger of a series of shark attacks. Anything to avoid a panic on the Fourth of July. Brody, the police chief who naturally has an aversion to water, winds up relying on the assistance of a couple of mismatched new cohorts–a grizzled seaman named Quint (Robert Shaw) and a marine biologist named Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)–as he tries to hunt down this underwater beast who’s widdling down the population. A rousing entertainment, the film is a headlong thrill that still has the wisdom to occasionally slow down just long enough to let its central characters drunkenly bond over previous misadventures.
Spielberg was still a relative novice, making his incredible narrative assurance all the more remarkable. The director had an apparent inborn skill at expertly framing images and assembling footage in a manner that moved a story forward as assuredly as a shark through the water. Every technical aspect of the film is exemplary, but nothing is more vital than the music score by John Williams, using a handful of notes to convey astonishing menace at a level that eludes entire films. Williams had already worked on Spielberg’s previous film, The Sugarland Express, but its not hard to fathom how the composer’s work on Jaws marked him as an entirely necessary collaborator for the rest of Spielberg’s career. Jaws had a deeply troubled shoot–phrasing that can often be attached to films that spend a lot of time shooting on and around water–so it only makes sense that the exceptional quality and associated box office success of the finished product taught Spielberg to fully, properly appreciate the importance of guided all the pieces to fall snugly into place.
Jaws is typically named as the film that changed the Hollywood business model, creating a fervor for ready-made blockbusters that soils the production slate to this day. I think that other features that followed more properly bear that burden, but Jaws has a clearer, more valuable legacy. It taught a young director who was surely doubting himself as the production raced beyond its planned schedule, that his abilities could take raw material and turn it into true cinematic wonders.