Release Date: June 20th, 1975 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Susan Backlinie
he music is one the most famous element of “Jaws,” preceding just about every other noteworthy aspect of director Steven Spielberg’s 1975 contemporary classic (the theatrical poster art is also quite stunning). Composed by the now legendary John Williams, the incredibly simple, thundering tune is instantly recognizable and completely unforgettable. It manages to foreshadow the killer creature, convince of its presence, and augment the behemoth’s viewpoint, even when it remains offscreen.
And then there’s the shark itself. Though notoriously plagued with difficulties that forced many of the scenes to go without a creature at all (unintentionally yet brilliantly adding to the tension), the tangible animatronic invention doesn’t betray its faulty mechanics or fragmented construction. The realism of a highly detailed puppet allows the big reveal to be much more effective. Combining a ferocious monster with action, believable characters, manipulative scares, and a massive marketing campaign helped “Jaws” to become the first summer blockbuster – and it jumped to the distinction of “highest grossing film of all time” shortly after its theatrical opening. Its critical and commercial success and inspiring lucrativeness greatly impacted the way movies would be distributed during the summer months, while also setting the bar for horror films and thrillers for decades to come.
The sleepy town of Amity Island is ramping up for a profitable 4th of July celebration when a young woman’s body washes up on shore, badly mutilated and crawling with crabs. Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) hypothesizes a shark attack, which would warrant the closing of the beach, but the greedy town officials, led by Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), convince him it’s a tragic boating accident. When a second victim, a little boy, is gobbled up in shallow waters, the town panics. A $3,000 bounty is put on the shark, which draws out crusty Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a fisherman with particular skills, who offers up his shark-catching services for a lofty $10,000. While the town stews over his bid, other boaters catch a tiger shark (a man-eater and rare to find in the area) that momentarily calms the people but doesn’t convince oceanic researcher Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an expert called in to confirm the cause of the first death.
Even after Hooper and Brody discover a third body, a mangled boat, and a large tooth that clearly belongs to a Great White shark, the mayor won’t listen. Shutting down the beach on a major holiday isn’t an option, since the town depends heavily on the profits of tourists – but a fourth attack does the trick, persuading everyone that hiring Quint is the best option. The grizzled seafarer is mostly drunk and insane, but a more than qualified hunter. The police chief and the scientist accompany him on the open water to make sure the job is completed quickly and accurately. From here, it’s a waiting game; the three men bicker, trade stories, play cards, compare scars, and throw bait into the murky depths, leading to one of the most famous of all movie moments: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” exclaims Brody after the twenty-five foot fish rears its toothy head.
The last half of “Jaws” is filmed entirely on (and under) the water, with no one but Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss (and the shark). The tension is chillingly high as the three actors admirably carry the weight of believability, their apprehension aided by the pounding theme music. The plot all but disappears, giving way to a desperate fight for survival on a sinking boat with an unlikely but acceptably exciting conclusion. The body count is low, the blood loss is high, the ideas are genuinely terrifying and adventurous, the atmosphere is phenomenal, and the direction is clever enough to be studied in film schools (despite Spielberg’s own admission of naivety and foolhardiness). “Jaws” is frequently considered one of the greatest movies of all time, placing high on many Top 100 lists, including those for horror, thrillers, and action films, as well as for heroes, villains, and music. It went on to win three Academy Awards, fostered several sequels, and is the first of Spielberg’s most acclaimed works, leading to a directing career that boasts “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and many more.
There’s something gratifying in the notion that “Jaws” has not succumbed to the relatively common practice of critics, scholars, and historians attaching a level of subtext to the plot and themes. Unlike the horror films of the ‘50s, including “The Thing from Another World,” “Them!” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” which were plastered with political, socioeconomic, and ideological allegories (not limited just to the Cold War, McCarthyism, communism, and the deterioration of autonomy), “Jaws” has escaped excessive analyzation into deeper levels of meaning that were certainly not present during the authoring of the book by Peter Benchley or while Spielberg was directing (though the Watergate scandal and “Moby Dick” make for amusing parallels). Instead, the product can be appreciated entirely for its extraordinary entertainment value, nail-biting suspense, sense of adventure, and old-fashioned Hitchcockian scare-tactic roots. And isn’t that what great monster movies are all about?
– Mike Massie