(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 Richard Dreyfuss‘ Hooper: what we are dealing with here is a perfect movie. A cinematic machine.
While 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 that if you took the foremost film writers and thinkers, put them in a room and had them talk it out, they’d decide that Jaws is Spielberg’s best.
Simply put, Jaws has no flaws. There’s nothing wrong with it. Or even the one thing that is – that troublesome, faulty mechanical shark that’s terribly dated – was spun by Spielberg into the film’s greatest strength. Summoning all of his gleaned Hitchcockian powers, Spielberg 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’re just not exactly sure from where, or when, he’ll strike – and then devour. But he will (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 shores off of beaches where we swim.
But of course tension is often a product of tempo, and so having award-winning editing sure helps (Verna Fields‘ work here won the Oscar). Her pacing crescendoes from smooth progressions to a jarring energy. It’s perfectly structured hysteria. This is how you should build suspense and get underneath people’s skin, even if your visual effects budget is limitless.
One of the joys about Jaws for film lovers is that it’s such a great example of how Spielberg sees everything in Panavision, even mediums and close-ups. From lens choices to framings to movement to composition, whether complex or simple, Spielberg shoots every shot for a widescreen canvas. This degree of scope – assembled with a style designed to unnerve – isn’t simply a delight for film geeks; it also contributes to the visceral, primal emotions we experience.
For all the cinematic power that Spielberg wields, the most unheralded virtue of Jaws is how intimate it often is. It’s the film that literally created the Summer Blockbuster (in that it was the first to have a wide – rather than gradual – national release, and the first to haul in over $100 million during its first theatrical run) yet, by today’s standards, it’s surprisingly patient and character-focused, at times 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.
It’s sweet but also inspired, and not your typical saccharine beat. Or , in sharp contrast, the scene that preceded it, when a grieving mother confronts Brody following a lethal shark attack (it’s an unflinching, heartbreaking pause in the narrative).
These moments give weight to the scares, to the suspense, to the fear, elevating base genre thrills. They attach something more substantial, more personal, to the instinctive fear of violence: the existential fear of loss. To the screams, they add humanity – and the possibility of grief.
Or perhaps the most telling example of intimacy: the movie’s entire second half takes place on a small three-man boat out at sea. Nearly everything is intimate here, whether it be emotional character moments (like Quint’s WWII story) or, for the most part, practical spacial confines. And yet Spielberg and D.P. Bill Butler never cease to come up with grand, at times beautiful, angles and frames (like this one):
We also see several examples of The Spielberg Oner throughout, those deceptively lengthy single-take shots that move and reframe several times 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 a beach with an eye witness. The shot starts wide with the subjects far away, tracking right to left, then it pauses as the subjects move to the foreground – from wide to medium to close-up – and then the camera subtly turns a complete 180 from East to West and tracks the subjects from left to right in a medium. And yet it actually never draws attention to itself.
Another slyly impressive one is highlighted here in a video (appropriately) called The Spielberg Oner, starting at 2:13 (FYI: other parts of this video contain strong language and some vulgarities).
I’m also reminded of another scene, how the camera tracks through Brody’s office, from one room to the next, as he prepares to enter a log about a recent attack (with the tracking briefly interrupted by quick, extreme close-ups of the data he’s typing in). Even on land and indoors, Spielberg’s camera “lurks”, maintaining an air of the shark’s looming presence in our psyches on a subconscious level.
The core trio of characters are compelling, too, and a compelling mix at that. Roy Scheider‘s Chief Brody is a down-to-earth lead that is able to carry the movie without the baggage of some contrived backstory that haunts him, or that he must overcome. It’s enough to be confronted with such a formidable, life-threatening challenge.
Dreyfuss is so thoroughly entertaining and charismatic, yet he plays Hooper with total sincerity and conviction, not some supporting role schtick. And Robert Shaw‘s Quint? Iconic, in every sense. From his memorable entrance to his climatic confrontation, this film’s Captain Ahab may be, on the surface, a grizzled character archetype, but Shaw makes him truly one-of-a-kind.
Spielberg, or any filmmaker, has no business being able to build suspense and terror as he does – let alone with such visual artistry – from such a limited tool box, especially in that final hour while stuck to the boat’s limitations. Most directors would compulsively cut back to worried families at home, or base camp experts for periodic contact (and narrative/visual variety). Staying on this “floating island” for half the movie wouldn’t even be considered a wise option or course, yet that’s exactly the dare Spielberg takes – and he delivers, not just a thrilling adventure but an all-time classic.
- Jaws was the first $100 million blockbuster in its first-release theatrical run. With its unprecedented wide release strategy and marketing push, Jaws delivered on its hype. It not only forever changed how movies were made, but also how they were sold.
- Quint’s story about the U.S.S. Indianapolis at the end of WWII is actually true, and will soon have a movie version of its own starring Nicholas Cage.
- Jaws was nominated for 4 Oscars, but the Academy infamously denied Spielberg a director nomination – the first in a decade-long run of snubs, ranging from denied nominations to denied sure-fire wins. This film did, however, 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 first hired Spielberg for his feature debut The Sugarland Express).
- Director of Photography Bill Butler worked previously with Spielberg on his awful TV movie Something Evil (covered in Day 3 of this retrospective) and the failed series pilot Savage.
- Roy Scheider, the lead 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. This take has become the most famous reference for the technique, as many people today actually refer to “The Vertigo Shot” as “The Jaws Shot”.