Spielberg’s crafty fishing movie: Jaws

I remember the summer Jaws came out and I remember you couldn’t get away from it. Everyone did that John William’s four note theme: da-da, da-da … Everyone saw the movie; TV was filled with it; shark sightings were popping up like coffee shops. But that was over 35 years ago. The hoopla subsided. What is left is a movie that is a brilliant example of craft.

Jaws (1975)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Most of the world was introduced to director Steven Spielberg in 1975 with a little film called Jaws that did boffo box office. Wow! What an introduction! Jaws is arguably the best thriller ever made; it’s definitely one of the top three. It’s also something of a seminar in storytelling. It’s simple, direct and very effective.

Spielberg had directed a few movies prior to this one and had also directed a number of episodes of various TV series including Columbo (“Murder by the Book”), Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D. But to the wider public he was unknown. All that changed with Jaws.

Based on Peter Benchley’s hugely popular novel of the same name, one of the first decisions made about the movie by Spielberg and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown was to drop all but the shark story. No plot complications with characters, no detailed backstory; just a straight line from the discovery of the shark to the story’s resolution.

The threat of a shark becomes real.

This legislated simplicity allows the filmmakers and, as a result, the audience to focus on the heart of the story: a killer shark.

Another much discussed Spielberg decision was to avoid actually showing the shark until the movie is well underway. We don’t see it till about halfway through the movie. All we see up to that point is a dorsal fin and even that takes quite a while before making an appearance. What we do see are the effects of the shark.

It begins with the famous opening of the young woman in the water swimming. We don’t see the shark when it attacks; we see her struggling with it.

We also see the environment the shark had chosen to appear in: a resort town in summer with tourists everywhere, basking in the sun on the beach and playing in the coastal waters. We get characters, like the mayor played by Murray Hamilton, who have no conception of the degree of threat, in contrast to the shark’s presentation which is always menacing.

Robert Shaw as Sam Quint trying to land the shark.

The first half of the movie is all set up. By increments the problem mounts: a killer shark, a self-interested and greedy town mayor refusing to take action, a bounty that brings out crackpots trying to catch the shark (clueless to how enormous the threat is) and a main character , the chief of police (Roy Scheider), in over his head and despite his better judgment, passively going along with the mayor.

Then we get the next two primary characters: an shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), almost a cliche of a fisherman and modeled on Moby Dick‘s Captain Ahab.

The turning point is yet one more death by the shark — in the vacation waters with dozens of other swimmers urged into the water by the mayor — and the imminent threat to Chief Brody’s own child. This is where the movie shifts to the hunt. Now Spielberg is ready to show us the shark — but not right away.

Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss hunting the shark.

As simple as the story is, the elements that go into making it all work are many and in that sense it is complex. Two that standout are, first of all, the performances of the three main actors: Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw.

I suspect on paper there wasn’t a great deal to them but the actors bring them to life making them three dimensional. Some key scenes are dependent on their performances, particularly Shaw’s as Quint telling the story of his experience during the Second World War.

There is also John William’s famous score and it’s ominous ostinato (repetitive) theme that announces the shark and underscores the threat so that, while we don’t see it, we’re sure it’s there and we’re on the edge of our seats.

Spielberg’s wonderful sense of composition also adds to the movie. The images he presents often tell the story, like an isolated boat on the horizon looking small and vulnerable. Or the opening, when the young woman and man run along the beach to the water with a fence jaggedly splitting the screen in half from top left to lower right.

Chief Brody is running out of time.

There are also little “gotcha” moments such as when Richard Dreyfuss’ character Hooper is underwater examining a boat that appears to have been attacked.

As he examines a hole in the hull a severed head floats out and we jump. We’ve seen the movie many times yet still we jump.

Jaws makes no pretensions at being anything other than a thriller entertainment.

What makes it such a great film is that it is a masterpiece of the filmmaking craft. All the many elements cohere into a movie that ultimately becomes a timeless movie, watchable again and again because it continues to hold us, scare us and just plain entertain us.

It’s wonderful.

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