(for disturbing images and descriptions, scary shark attacks and violence, some suggestive material and references, brief nudity, substance use, and language)
Released: June 20, 1975
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
To paraphrase Hooper, the young oceanographer played by Richard Dreyfuss: what we are dealing with here is a perfect movie. A cinematic machine.
Film critic aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have Jaws near (but not at) the top of Steven Spielberg‘s movies. I’d wager, however, that if you took the foremost film writers and thinkers and put them in a room to hash it out, they’d decide that Jaws is Steven Spielberg’s best.
Simply put, Jaws has no flaws. There’s nothing wrong with it. Shoot, even the one thing that was — that troublesome, faulty mechanical shark — was spun by Spielberg into the film’s greatest strength.
Summoning all of his gleaned Hitchcockian powers, Spielberg ditched his plans to see the shark extensively and, instead, raised and heightened tension by what we didn’t see rather than what we did.
We know the shark is lurking there, right beneath the surface; we just don’t know exactly where or when he’ll strike, how gruesome his sneak attack may become, and who or what he’ll devour.
But he will devour, as John Williams‘ music tells us in no uncertain terms.
It’s the kind of fear one might attribute to the Devil himself. In Jaws, the demon is a Great White, and it has possessed the beaches where everyone swims.
Tension is often a product of tempo, and editor Verna Fields‘ Oscar-winning work here makes that tension intensely palpable as her pacing crescendoes from smooth progressions to a jarring energy. It’s perfectly structured hysteria. This is how you build suspense and get underneath people’s skin, and it’s an art that not even a limitless visual effects budget can guarantee.
For cinephiles, one of the joys of Jaws is its Panavision scope; that widescreen scale is how Spielberg sees everything, even mediums and close-ups. From lens choices to framings, to movement and composition, and whether complex or simple, Spielberg shoots every shot for a vast canvas, one that contributes to the visceral, primal emotions that grip us.
Yet for all the cinematic power that Spielberg wields, the most unheralded virtue of Jaws is how intimate it often is.
For the film that literally created the Summer Blockbuster (see trivia below), it’s surprisingly patient and character-focused by today’s standards, at times even tender. Like this scene, in which Brody (after a truly horrible, tragic day) shares a touching moment with his son at the dinner table:
You’ll never see something so gentle, or clever, in a comic book franchise tentpole.
Sweet but also inspired, it’s not your typical saccharine beat, nor is the scene that precedes it. Emotionally jarring, it’s the moment when a grieving mother confronts Brody following a lethal shark attack, one that serves as a heartbreaking pause in the propulsive narrative. (Sadly, the actress who played the mother, Lee Fierro, passed away on April 5, 2020 due to complications from the Coronavirus.)
These moments give weight to the scares, elevating what would otherwise be base genre thrills. They attach something more substantial, more personal, to the violence: an existential fear of loss. There’s not just terror at play here, but poignant humanity.
That’s felt throughout the entire film, too, including the second half that takes place out at sea on a small three-man boat. Nearly everything is intimate here, whether it be in emotional character moments (like Quint’s WWII story) or the boat’s tight confines. And yet Spielberg and cinematographer Bill Butler never cease to come up with grand (even beautiful) angles and frames, like this one:
We also see several examples of The Spielberg Oner throughout the entire film. Oners are deceptively lengthy shots that move and reframe several times within a single unbroken take before making a cut. You can find several of them highlighted in the video below, “STEVEN SPIELBERG Shot By Shot”.
My favorite can be seen at @6:00, where Chief Brody is walking along a beach with an eye witness. As the shot begins in wide frame, the subjects are far away. It first tracks right to left, then pauses as the subjects move to the foreground — effectively turning the wide shot into a medium and then a close-up — and then the camera subtly turns a complete 180 from East to West and tracks the subjects from left to right. That’s a lot of technical choreography but of an artful kind that never actually draws attention to itself. It enhances the the characters, what they’re discussing and eventually discovering, rather than distracting from them.
Another impressive Oner is highlighted in a video appropriately called The Spielberg Oner; the take starts at 2:13 (FYI: other parts of this linked video contain strong language and some vulgarities).
Forgive the geeking out but I’m also reminded of yet another scene that takes place in Brody’s office, a location that hardly screams for cinematic ambition. From one room to the next, the camera tracks through Brody’s office as he prepares to log a report about a recent attack. The tracking is only briefly interrupted by quick, extreme close-ups of the data he’s typing in, but otherwise the effect remains.
Why do I keep pointing out all of these Oner references? Because they’re absolutely key in how the film builds tension from start to finish. Whether on land or indoors, Spielberg’s camera lurks. These Oners maintain (even unconsciously) a sense of the shark’s looming presence in our psyches at all times.
The core trio of characters are compelling, too, and a compelling mix at that. Roy Scheider‘s Chief Brody is a down-to-earth Everyman lead whose own humanity (and not some contrived backstory baggage) carries the movie. It’s enough for him to be confronted with a formidable, life-threatening challenge, rather than also being haunted by some tragedy from his past that his heroic response to these events can redeem.
As Hooper, Dreyfuss is so thoroughly charismatic and entertaining yet also played with total sincerity and conviction.
And Robert Shaw‘s Quint? Iconic, in every sense. From his memorable entrance to his climatic confrontation, Quint is this film’s Captain Ahab. On the surface or at first blush, Quint may simply appear to be a grizzled archetype, but Shaw makes him truly one-of-a-kind.
Spielberg, or any filmmaker, has no business being able to build such searing suspense and terror from such a limited tool box (let alone with such artistry), especially in that final hour when his entire landscape is stuck to the boat’s limitations.
Anxious about being visually and narratively constrained, most other directors would have compulsively cut back to worried families at home, or base camp experts for periodic contact (along with visual variety). Indeed, staying on this “floating island” for half the movie would be considered much too risky and limiting for most, yet that’s the dare Spielberg takes.
And he delivers — not just a thrilling adventure, but an all-time classic.
- Jaws was the first movie to have a wide national release rather than a gradual one, as well as the first to become a $100 million blockbuster in its initial theatrical run. With its unprecedented wide release strategy and marketing push, Jaws delivered on the hype. It not only changed how movies were made but also how they were sold.
- Quint’s story about the U.S.S. Indianapolis is actually true. It’s an event from World War II that was recently dramatized in movie version of its own starring Nicholas Cage.
- Jaws was nominated for 4 Oscars, but the Academy infamously denied Spielberg a director nomination. For the young filmmaker, it was the first in a decade-long run of snubs, ranging from denied nominations to denied sure-fire wins. Jaws did, however, actually win 3 of its 4 nominations, for Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Editing (Verna Fields), and Best Sound. It’s one loss? Best Picture (for producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, who had first worked with Spielberg on his feature debut The Sugarland Express).
- Director of Photography Bill Butler worked previously with Spielberg on his last two TV movies, the awful horror flick Something Evil and the failed series pilot Savage.
- Roy Scheider, who plays the lead role here as Chief Brody, was on Spielberg’s shortlist for Indiana Jones.
- For the second film in a row, Spielberg employed the Vertigo “dolly/zoom” shot. The final result — which magnifies Brody being struck with a sudden realization of terror — has become the most famous referenced example for this iconic technique, as many people today actually refer to “The Vertigo Shot” as “The Jaws Shot”.