Dir. Steven Spielberg; Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
Now, decades into his reign as one of the most recognizable names in filmmaking, it is difficult to remember that Steven Spielberg has not always commanded such audience adoration. So far removed from the beginning of his career, it is also easy to forget why he has earned industry regard. There was a time when the man who would give the world Schindler’s List (1993) and Minority Report (2002) was nothing more than a film school “brat.” Enter Jaws (1975). Coming on the heels of moderately successful Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws saw a young Spielberg looking for a film with which he could secure a spot in the cultural conversation. Little did he know that an enormous malfunctioning mechanical shark and a blood-soaked beach were all he needed.
This film succeeds in being terrifying not because of the grotesque aftermath from creature on display, though there is plenty of that, but because it makes you fill in the gaps yourself. This is nowhere more pertinent than when marine expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is called upon to examine the first victim.
He conducts his work in a starkly lit, sanitized room which seems constructed to make both him and the viewer uneasy with its lack of any comfort. Spielberg’s camera follows him around the examination table as he speaks into his recorder, describing what he sees. The camera stays, in ways both infuriating and relieving, mostly at a medium shot of Hooper, never revealing the full corpse. Our only visual confirmation comes when Hooper raises one the body’s mauled arms into the frame. Instead of shock value, Spielberg opts for the churning queasiness of imagination. Dreyfuss cringes and gesticulates his way through the scene, making us feel in every moment that he is being confronted with the smells and sights of a mauled corpse. The scene is both a testament to Spielberg’s unrelenting quest for tension in the film, and a glimpse into the virtuoso talents of Dreyfuss.
Nevertheless, Dreyfuss is only one face in a supremely talented cast. As Chief Brody, Roy Scheider turns in a fabulously grounded performance. He begins the movie with the incoming glut of tourists as his most ominous concern, and the evolution of his understanding of the shark and the threat it poses mirrors the audience well. When he sits on the beach and watches the initial attacks unfold, or when he finds himself on a boat in the middle of the battleground, he captures the uneasy courage we all hope we could feel. He is a variation on the archetype of the moral lawman, pitted against the greedy politician, here supplied in all its slimy glory in the form of Mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton). Brody is forced to step up for the good of the community, but instead of a band of outlaws, he comes face to maw with a shark.
Beyond Dreyfuss and Scheider, the supporting cast fills in the film wonderfully. Though, only one succeeds in effortlessly stealing each of his scenes, and that is Robert Shaw as Captain Quint. He is the very essence of Captain Ahab if the man had survived his doomed quest for Moby Dick and washed up, layered in salt and angst, to follow one more beast into the twilight of his own making. When he sits in the boat cabin and tells Hooper and Brody of his wartime saga, the movie is at its most transportive. Spielberg sets his camera on Shaw and lets him work, breaking away from him only to show the other men reacting.. The story of his doomed ship, the very one that delivered the bomb to Hiroshima, builds the already potent sense of dread. He may be telling of a different ocean, a different ship, and a different shark, but the horror of the attack, and the backdrop of the war slip seamlessly into the tone of the film.
Above all else, the assembled players never let onto the reality that the shark itself, when seen in all its practical effect glory, was most likely far from terrifying. With one technical mishap after another, it is a testament to the cast’s talent that they never allowed terror to devolve into camp. The concept of a giant shark terrorizing a New England town is inarguably preposterous, but it never shows in their faces.
Jaws also marked the first collaboration between Spielberg and his now near-constant musical partner, John Williams. Before Williams helped give life to dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), or sent E.T. flying across the moon in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), he went to the beach. The score is a lesson in simplicity. The most memorable theme consisting of little more than a few repeated notes that crescendo into a cacophony upon attack. But it sticks. It is folded into the taut world that Spielberg builds frame by frame. The film is at its best when he and Williams work in tandem, preying on our expectations. During the first attack, when the theme is blaring, over underwater shots from the shark’s perspective, the audience begins to associate the music with the visceral nature of the scene. As the film continues, so does the theme, recurring again and again, always warning some poor unsuspecting swimmer it’s too late to get out of the water.
I would truly love to have been in the room when this film was pitched. How did Spielberg and company walk away with funding? You can hear the stories, but to have seen it done must have been a spectacle in its own right. However it happened, it laid the groundwork for an indomitable career. From that film on, Spielberg expanded his love for practical effects, and has never stopped exploring the ways that conventional characters respond to unprecedented challenges. Here is a director who has never ceased experimenting, finding the drive to produce his first animated movie 57 years into his directorial career. It is such ceaseless inventiveness that made Jaws the film it is. It remains agelessly frightening because no matter how many years pass, we will never truly feel the same about going back in the water. Spielberg made us question what could be lurking in the water, and though you may know there is no shark in your swimming pool, terror trumps logic.