Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) – the Friday Classic review
Just when you thought years of over-familiarity had diluted its power to shock, you watch it again…and are instantly reduced to a gibbering wreck.
(Steven Spielberg, US, 1975)
For the heinous crime of giving audiences an adrenaline rush that they’d spend their whole cinemagoing lives trying to replicate (and making bucketloads of money in the process) Jaws is regularly cited by stuffy film scholars, alongside Star Wars, as the beginning of the slide from the intelligent, character-based drama of 70s American cinema to the modern blockbuster mentality…
…which I find quite staggeringly unfair. Surely – to take only one contemporary example – The Towering Inferno is as guilty of the same audience manipulation and precedence of spectacle over meaning? But it didn’t make quite as much money, did it? It strikes me that Jaws’ only real crime was – and remains – to be one of the best movies of its type ever made.
Lumping it in with the committee-led dross it inadvertently inspired is spectacularly disingenuous. Jaws is intelligent and character-based; it just happens to use those virtues in the service of a thriller about a man-eating shark. It was never intended to have any depth (though, ironically, its predatory focus on the surface narrative allows any number of subtexts to be realistically considered).
Certainly, its spiritual heirs couldn’t have less in common with the model of concise, effective storytelling that is presented on screen. Martin Brody’s first scene alone is a masterful piece of exposition, with the simple act of him picking up the wrong phone revealing everything we need to know about the sleepy complacency of Amity.
It’s so well structured that the best lines were apparently adlibbed (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”) or beaten into shape (the Indianapolis speech) and you can’t see the joins – all films need tinkering with on-set, but if the framework’s in place to begin with the results can be breathtaking.
And that’s without mentioning Spielberg, in a breakthrough movie as muscular as Mean Streets, as exciting as Breathless and as precocious as Citizen Kane. The apocryphal story, that Spielberg messed up the shoot and was saved by Verna Field’s precision editing, might have diluted his contribution, but is surely only half the story.
The first hour, at least, is a storyboarded masterpiece, gaining immeasurably from Spielberg’s confidence to shoot in deep focus Cinemascope. Every scene hits home with devastating effect, from the genuine, low-key emotion of Mrs Kintner confronting Brody, to the attack on Alex Kintner itself, perhaps the most perfectly composed scene the director has ever created, seamlessly integrated into the narrative but delivering a stand-out charge of adrenalin in its own right. The pace, balance and air of unspoken menace is extraordinary.
But when the plot switches, at exactly the point where the rhythm needs changing, so does the film’s style. As it progresses from Birds-esque small-town horror to Boys’ Own adventure (via a haunting dissolve of the Orca sailing into bloody water), the framing and cutting becomes less formal, more on-the-fly, more space given to the exceptional performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. Whether or not this was planned, or a result of the technical difficulties involved in shooting on water, it’s such a thrilling change of pace it’s hard not to accept that it wasn’t deliberate.
Besides which, it doesn’t matter. The true reason for Jaws’ success is the filmmakers’ absolute commitment to scaring the shit of us. Spielberg cannily targeted it neither at children nor adults, but sensed that (scientific veracity be damned!) the shark taps into something primal within all of us: the fear of the unknown. It’s something that’s cleverly expressed in the shark’s own democratic attitude to dinner time. Although the first victim – a promiscuous hippie teenager – is someone we expect to become shark feed, the second victim decidedly isn’t. If a boy (and, while we’re on the subject, a dog) can be eaten, then all bets are off and we can’t be sure who will make the final credits.
Which is why Jaws remains far more frightening than, say, the theme park amusements of Jurassic Park. More than twenty-five years later, its power remains undimmed thanks to its all-out, no-holds-barred psychological attack. No matter how many times I see it, set-pieces like the head falling out of the boat retain the same wrenching, almost violating, shock, and that’s a hell of an achievement for a film accused of dumbing things down.