“Jaws,” is a film that is at the top of many lists as the best action film ever made. It tells the story of the fictional east coast vacation town of Amity Island and the killer shark that wreaks havoc on swimmers during one bloody summer. The original story about the killer shark came from Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws that he published three years before the film adaptation was released. The shark’s first victim is a young beachgoer named Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) who enters the ocean water intending to have a playful swimming adventure with her drunken beau. Fortunately for the dude, he passes out on the beach before entering the water, completely oblivious to the gruesome attack that kills his girlfriend until her remains are discovered on the beach by local law enforcement. By the way, I am using the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” loosely here because I’m quite certain they met on that beach for the first time earlier that evening. The scene is terrifying and introduces us to the now infamous film score by John Williams. The most gripping moments of the film are when we are only alerted to the shark’s presence by the thumping film score- pure genius.
The illusion of the danger in “Jaws” makes the film much more suspenseful than if the horrors were just laid out on the table. One reason Spielberg used the technique of alluding to the presence of the shark versus just showing us the shark was due to the mechanical malfunction that often rendered the sled shark contraption unreliable. Spielberg said the choice to shoot on the ocean came with a tremendous amount of difficulties, but his relentlessness and youthful confidence drove the picture forward. My only issue with this film is that mechanical shark. It looks ridiculous most of the time, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a shark wouldn’t jump on the back of a boat like some beached whale and leave its mouth open for stuff to fall right in.
Now, let’s dive into why this film insights absolute terror. I can imagine watching this film in 1975 and feeling complete and total horror at the thought of being attacked by a killer shark. Back in ’75, people were just starting to get a glimpse of the gory horror films to come, and I imagine the images of violence in this film, though tame to us nowadays, were shocking to many. When we see Chrissy get tugged at from below, our hearts drop into the pits of our stomachs. The shark introduces itself by taking a small nibble, and then absolute carnage follows- when they find her remains, our worst fears are realized.
In my favorite scene in the film, Quint tells the story of his time on the USS Indianapolis during WWII and describes the time he spent in the water after the ship sunk. His story is haunting, and we see a scarred man exposed while getting a glimpse of his personal vendetta towards the world’s oldest predator. Robert Shaw’s delivery is priceless and demonstrates the expertise of a true artist. If you were to only watch this film for one reason, that reason should be because that scene is legendary. As they get closer and closer to the shark, Quint begins to sabotage their lifelines and connections to safety, ensuring that the only possible outcome of this venture is either the shark’s death or theirs.
A particularly masterful characteristic of this film is how they humanize the characters. The details are amazing- from Chief Brody’s playful banter with his wife, to him knocking over a container of paintbrushes at the store (how awful that experience looked). We see the conflict between the Mayor and Brody over how they should handle the shark attack situation. We see Alex Kipner’s mom wading helplessly in the surf calling her son’s name desperately as the rest of the beachgoers stare at her clutching their whole families in their arms. The casting of this film was rich; Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss compliment each other so well that your suspended disbelief is well rewarded, and you begin to see them as actual people working towards a common goal. As we are blitzed by the shark attacks, inept city officials, and the shark-obsessed Quint, we are also given reprieve with soft bits of subtle humor, especially between Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss) and Quint (Shaw). Shaw’s now iconic performance of Quint is a thing of beauty: the majority of his lines are insults being hurled towards the affluent Hooper, commenting on his appearance, his money, and his hands, describing his condition as a result of “counting money all your life.” The tension between them is palpable throughout the entire film.
“Jaws” was released in the summer of 1975, opening in an unprecedented number of theatres throughout the US. Everything about this film’s release was groundbreaking at the time, from the number of theaters hosting the film to the sheer volume of pre-release publicity ushered in by Universal Pictures. This film inspired the term “blockbuster” and changed the way film studios approach the summer movie season. Spielberg’s adaptation turned out to be a huge success and is still influencing audiences 42 years after its release. It has been one of my favorite movies since I was a kid, and it was the entertainment at my tenth birthday sleepover. I forced every friend I had at the time to watch “Jaws” and all of its sequels while eating lipstick shaped birthday cake and painting our nails. It was the best party I have ever thrown.