We live in a good ol’ time 42 years later since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws‘ big successful splash of a release in 1975 that – together with George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars – changed the whole game on American cinema, heralding the form from the New Hollywood Cinema that producers would adopt for their summer blockbusters. Somehow, Jaws has proven to be so damn good that every shark movie that existed since feels like an utter knock-off of the beach thriller, no matter how different the premise or how good the movie is (and honestly I think only one good shark movie has been made in all those 42 years since, last year’s The Shallows). That’s how big and wide its footprint is in American cinema history and while the Hollywood popcorn movie has mutated into something like Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence as these past few years are any indication, I’ve never felt like it reflected poorly on Jaws‘ quality one bit. When a movement is so good it started from the top (and I know calling popcorn cinema a “movement” is a heinous crime worthy of disqualifying me of ever watching movies but it is merely in the absence of better words to use. Please rectify that in the comments), it’s hard not to peak early and Jaws was simply that.
I’ve never ever engaged in a count to find out what the movie I’ve watched the most times is, but I feel like the closest possibility to that title is Jaws. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid. I’ve been watching it as I went to college for film, with co-writer Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log as a filmmaking bible for a while (Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel which Jaws is based on, was the other writer for this film). I’m still watching it as an adult and I can’t imagine myself ever stopping. For a movie somewhat dedicated in that low-key New Hollywood style of focus on characters (indeed, the town of Amity Island is part of what keeps me coming back, it’s like a less cynical Robert Altman picture) and spending half of its time with men sitting in a boat in the middle of the ocean, this is seriously an accessible film for anybody. My whole family unanimously loves the movie, it may be one of the few things we can all agree on. It helps that it was one of the movies that pulled in the high-concept that could be hooking an audience in from the very start: “shark attack” is all you really need to say to summarize and attract an audience. And well, the brilliant opening scene on a beach at nighttime beautifully illustrates it from its opening shot of a perspective stalking in the water like an angry slasher to his unseen consumption of a helpless teen (Susan Backline), bobbing into the water violently as she’s shoved back and forth before being silenced under the water, the camera only remaining distantly on the surface. An early reflection of the talent of legendary editor Verna Fields, who had early in the release received most of the acclaim over the then-green Spielberg, but now she’s been unfortunately forgotten mostly for Spielberg’s accomplishments. Let’s bring that back over because Fields is probably the biggest reason the movie works despite its mechanical shark famously breaking down, with her economy in showing the shark’s appearance and ability to give a moment like that attack its own shocking abrupt rhythm without being dissonant to John Williams’ forever iconic two-tone score. Go on, play it in your head. You know it’s already there, I ain’t gotta say nothing, those horns already are slowly running in your brain.
But then that high-concept hook would be ignoring the richness of the characters on Amity Island (mostly provided by character actors in their subdued zone or natives of the movie’s filming location Martha’s Vineyard): including the source of the main conflict for the first half of the film, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), new enough in town that he has to put effort into sounding like an islander, is attempting to close the beaches off due to the opening attack. This is resisted by Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton), who points out that Amity Island is essentially a summer tourist trap and closing the beaches will do harm to its main source of income. This power struggle only causes them to be ill-prepared when a young boy Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is himself killed and eaten, leading to a bounty for the shark’s capture that causes an amateur frenzy for the money (Benchley stated that had he known the ill effect his novel would have in fear-mongering towards sharks, he might not have written it, and dedicated his life after to shark preservation. I think the bounty hunting scene is his way of illustrating exactly how horrific and destructive mob frenzy can be). It ain’t enough for veteran hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) who demands $10,000 and it isn’t satisfying for Brody’s requested oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who quickly asserts that the tiger shark captured and displayed does not match the bite marks on the early teenager’s body, further infuriating Mayor Vaughn and getting them right back where they started and unable to help when another casualty happens in broad view of everyone. That last attack additionally puts Brody’s elder son (right in the proximity of the beast) in hospitalized shock, forcing him to take straight to the ocean after the animal with Quint and Hooper.
That all covers just the first hour of a movie a little over two hours and I’m sorry, I always forget how fast-paced Jaws is a-movin’ on a scene-by-scene basis (thanks again madly to Fields and Spielberg, for getting their storytelling skills focused on swift scenes like staircase steps, getting straight to the point and establishing how far along the town is to going crazy and how close Brody and the Mayor are to coming to blows). Nothing about it feels unearned or rushed and yet I simply feel almost as familiar with Amity Island as I would be the residents of Twin Peaks and it is enough to take up a whole feature film on its own, with Scheider and Dreyfuss (at his career pluckiest) as brilliant everyman anchors.
And yet it’s all just in service of establishing the stakes of the sea adventure Jaws becomes in the second half where Spielberg, Fields, and cinematographer Bill Butler’s skill must truly come to the test: staying on one location – Quint’s Boat – the whole time and filling it with just as much momentum despite the limited setting and narrative beats. That also means the second half is where we spend the majority of our time with Shaw’s Quint and discover just how colorful and dangerous of a character he is, all crusty masculinity and insane Ahab-esque unpredictability. Quint is obviously the most memorable presence on-screen, but his being stuck in a boat with the practical Brody and hothead Hooper proves to be just as compelling an anti-buddy character study as anything in Amity Island (even a source of class conflicts with wealthy educated Hooper and rugged working-class Quint).
And that’s before the shark shows up in the famous moment that led to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, once the shark starts fighting on its turf things get much compact and heated and the movie goes to being an escalator of tension at this point. Before no time, the actual action takes place and… man, there’s literally no scene that gets my heart pounding as much as the calculated final showdown between the shark and the sinking wreck of a boat as Brody mutters “Smile, you son of a b–“. No matter how many times I watch this movie, knowing how it all turns out, I’m always at the edge of my seat.
Jaws is perfect. I won’t hear any of your complaints, sorry. I know there’s no movie that EVERYBODY loves, but the moment Jaws is dismissed from New Hollywood canon despite being no-less sophisticated or subdued or ambitious than any of the best of them, that’s when I just shut out all the movie’s dissenters. There’s not a frame or cut misplaced, there’s no performances that bother me, there’s nothing I can find bothering viewers beyond its successes that are absolutely not its fault except by way of quality. If I were Steven Spielberg, I’d be pretty full of myself for making such a success so early in my life (and of course there’s the famous “I can’t believe they picked Fellini over me” incident) because I can’t possibly find a way that a career so dedicated to popcorn cinema and summer movies can be improved upon after Jaws, no matter how good your movies are.
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