The story is as simple as it is frightening. The poster is one of the most recognizable ones ever - a perfect image capturing a moment of utter horror. Even the title is simple. Unmistakably hostile. One word.
And so we've reached that dreaded moment where I'm supposed to say something intelligent about Jaws, one of my 10 favorite films of all time, and one of the most influential films from the '70s. Back then it was blamed for severely reducing visitors to seaside resorts, and in the last couple of years ignorant film commentators have blamed it for ruining Hollywood, as if Tinseltown wasn't obsessed with money before the Great White came along.
Having said that Jaws was the first modern blockbuster. It wasn't just a hit, it was a phenomenon. It made Steven Spielberg a household name, one of only a handful of directors referred to simply by their last name.
So without further ado, are you ready to get back into the water...?
The little island community of Amity, off the coast of New England, is about to get a crash course in Darwin's survival of the fittest theory, when a Great White shark takes a liking to its waters, and its citizens.
First a young girl is found dead on the beach, bitten to bits by the white menace. Police chief Martin Broody (Roy Scheider), a relative newcomer to these shores, does the only sensible thing: He closes the beaches, but soon he's forced to change that decision, when the Mayor convinces him that Amity really, really needs those beaches to be open for business.
An old fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to catch the shark. A marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives, and warns Brody and the Mayor that this is just the beginning. Soon the tourists pour in, and soon the waters run red with blood. Something has to be done. So Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint sail out in a rotten boat to find the shark, and kill it.
The music starts slowly, as the first credit cards appear. Just a few notes from a cello, barely a melody. We cut to an underwater shot, and the tuba kicks in. The camera is the eyes of an unseen menace, moving through the water. The tempo rises. The strings are added. Relentlessly we move through the water. The music swells and... Cut!
We're at a beach. There's a bonfire. A group of teenagers are enjoying themselves, and each other. The music from a harmonica flows gently through the air. Two teens, a boy and a girl, separate from the others. They run to the water for a bit of skinny-dipping in the moonlight. The boy collapses at the edge of the water, too drunk to stand. The girl jumps in and swims away.
She's swimming around in the calm ocean all by herself. Until...
We cut back to the water. The camera moves from below, up towards the unsuspecting girl. The music starts up again. We know something bad is on its way, and yet nothing can prepare us for the simple, primal horror of watching the young girl being eaten alive. She fights for her life. She screams for help. She cries out in pain. And then there's nothing. Only the sound of the water remains.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open a film!
The production of Jaws was famously fraught with problems of nearly every kind. I won't go into details about that here, but it's interesting that some of the most problematic productions often create the most memorable films. Think Gone with the Wind (1939), or The Godfather (1972). Sometimes the challenge of a difficult production forces everyone to step up, and consequently elevates the film to a new level.
Before we get any further let me stress that although Spielberg gets most of the credit, when it comes to Jaws, he didn't create the film single-handedly. He didn't write the story, and he didn't write the script. We also tend to forget that he was almost fired for being too slow, and everybody hated shooting the film! I also want to point out that Spielberg certainly wasn't the first good storyteller at the movies, nor did he invent anything new for this film, per se. So if I get a little carried away in the following text, please keep this in mind.
What Spielberg did do, though, was use his considerable knowledge of film to maximum effect, while being a part of a movement that didn't view entertaining the audience as something dirty. At the end of the day the only thing that matters is what's up there on the screen. And what's up there, when Jaws is playing, is one of the all-time greatest thrillers, and a study in how to tell a story effectively.
An interesting aspect of Jaws is that the story is split into two very different parts. The transition between them, however, feels absolutely smooth, because of the close relations between the themes of the two pieces.
The first part takes place in and around Amity, and looks at the big picture, the Mankind vs. Nature aspect, if you will. The second part takes place exclusively on the open sea, and narrows its focus to a more personal Man vs. Beast struggle. The first part centers on the cold hard financial realities of the situation versus simple human compassion, with the sleazy Mayor representing the first, and Brody representing the latter, while the second part focuses on the social aspects of this conflict, by playing blue collar and white collar characters against each other, and even to some extent city folks vs. country folks. To put it simply: Jaws goes from being a disaster movie to a personal drama.
When you think about it, this is rather unusual. Most big event films try to get bigger and more complicated throughout the story, Jaws does the opposite. It keeps getting smaller and more simple. Perhaps that's why the film works so well. Before we have a chance to get bored with the shark-attacks on the beach, the film takes the three main characters, whom we've learned to love (or hate), and moves them to the most dangerous place of all. The film removes almost all distractions, all supporting characters, not to mention the safety-net of solid ground, and practically serves our heroes up on a plate in front of the beast! The conflict is reduced to its most basic form: 3 men. 1 boat. 1 shark. It doesn't get simpler than that.
The reason this works is that the driving force in Jaws is the characters. The film doesn't rely on a mystery, not even when it comes to revealing the shark. The film plays around with our perception of the big fish, but we know it's a shark, and we know it's big. Movies that revolve around a central mystery, or a hidden menace tend to get less and less effective the more answers we get, or the more we see of that menace. By the end all that's left is a fight to determine if good or evil will prevail. In Jaws we essentially still end up with a "good fights evil" scene, but it works on a completely different level, because we're asked to invest in the conflict between the three lead characters. That's where the real drama plays out. When we finally see the full scope of the shark, it's almost a throwaway moment, our eyes aren't trained on the beast, we're watching the three men's reaction instead.
Adding to the effectiveness of the story is the use of understated humor. Just a few moments here and there that lets us laugh a bit, or even just smile. It means so much that we're allowed to do that. Ever noticed how many directors are afraid to let you laugh these days? It feels as if they think laughter from the audience will devalue a film. Either that - or they are SO afraid they'll ruin the mood they're trying to create that they actually hold on to it too tight. Here's the thing: It's very hard to create a film that accelerates in thrills or danger for two straight hours. You need to slow down and let the film settle every now and then, so you can build up the tempo again. A little laughter will do that. This is clear in the classic Indianapolis scene.
First we get the beautiful scar-comparing moment, which lets us come down from the excitement of the previous scene. This leads to Quint's haunting speech about the Indianapolis, which provides us with some chilling descriptions about sharks, while giving us a look into Quint's character. Then Hooper begins to sing, the mood becomes playful, and then at the exact right moment we cut away from the warm company of the three men, to the cold dark sea, where the familiar yellow barrels pop up to reveal that the shark is back.
Take away any component of this scene and the structure collapses. The sequence works precisely because we get those changes of pace, and the shifts in mood.
Having already established that the characters are the primary focus here, let's look at how that's accomplished. When we examine Jaws it's pretty obvious that it belongs to a different time, and I'm not just talking about the clothes. or the lack of mobile phones. There are scenes here that wouldn't make it into a modern blockbuster. Calm, quiet moments that rely on subtlety, moments that provide background and fill out the characters, rather than stuffing obvious information and simple labels down our throats. Like the "post-shark-autopsy-dinner-scene".
Brody is sitting at the table contemplating his next move, lost in his own thoughts. His son is watching him closely mimicking his every move. Brody's wife Ellen appears in the doorway. She doesn't say anything, she just watches father and son interact. Now flashforward one hour, when a 25 foot shark is stalking a tiny fishing boat on the open sea. We don't worry about Brody because we have to, we worry because we know what kind of man he is. That's been planted in our minds by the dinner scene, and other similar scenes. That's what many modern blockbusters don't understand. We're not going to love the hero automatically, because he is the hero, you have to give us a reason.
Take the very first scene where we meet Brody and Ellen. It's morning, they're waking up. There's a lazy, comfortable mood. They talk about the kids, about having moved. It's casual and feels real. Compare this to a similar scene in a less than subtle modern film like Independence Day (1996).
Will Smith wakes up and crawls out of bed. He takes a piss, then he heads out to pick up the paper AND SEES A GIGANTIC UFO IN THE SKY. You can almost feel the director being all giddy and unfocused during the scene, because he can't wait to get to the big sight gag. Even the dialogue is flat and on the money. The dog brings Smith his slippers to impress him. The girlfriend says "he's just trying to impress you". He looks out the window and sees that the neighbours are moving. He says "the neighbours are moving". We still like the guy, but we like him because he's Will Smith, not because he's a fully formed character.
On the surface the scene in Jaws is not that different, but Brody and Ellen are real characters, they talk like real people, and because of this we get an instant connection to them. And what happens at the end of the scene? Brody leaves. That's it. There are no UFOs in the backyard. Hell, we haven't even seen a shark yet. Why? Because this was a character moment. Pure and simple.
The interactions between the characters are a key point in Jaws. They become very important in the second half of the film, when our cast is reduced to three people. This is also when our three lead actors get a chance to shine. I won't waste any time praising the work of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss, because I would probably go overboard, but let me just mention one scene: The examination of the first victim. This is a gruesome scene! And yet, except for a small glimpse of the body near the end we don't actually see anything. The scene is left completely in the hands of Richard Dreyfuss, and he's so good!
But I digress.
Actually Hooper is a great place to start, when we're talking about the characters in Jaws. He's a good example of how costume design and character design can play an important part in a film. Hooper is an academic, but he dresses like a hippie. He looks like he's blue collar, but he's actually filthy rich. This gives him multiple uses in terms of character dynamics.
There's an instant connection between Hooper and Brody. They immediately like and respect each other - It makes sense, they both have their feet on the ground and their hands in the dirt. They can stand side by side against the Mayor, but what happens when they run into Quint? Quint disregards Hooper's costume right off the bat, and sees straight through to the rich guy inside, so there's an instant conflict between these two characters. This continues when they head out to the open sea. Just remember the famous "crushing the beer can/plastic cup"-scene, where Hooper and Quint size each other up!
Now we get to the clever part: On the water Brody is no longer on the same level with Hooper, a more experienced sailor. He's at odds with both Hooper and Quint because he's a fish out of water (so to speak). Quint and Hooper often find themselves on the same page because of their shared experiences, when it comes to sharks and the water (which is reflected in the scar comparison scene), but while Hooper just gets frustrated with him, Quint often watches over Brody protectively (and condescendingly), to make sure he doesn't mess up too bad.
This, again, is one of the master strokes of the film.
Because the characters are built properly, from the ground up, because the scenes are loaded with information, not just simple labels, the characters aren't just pawns in the script, they actually feed the action at every turn, and provide extra layers to the story, when they clash.
Should you feel tempted to read the book after seeing the film, let me be blunt: Don't. A few changes when a book is adapted from page to screen is to be expected, but there are some rather radical differences between Jaws the movie and Jaws the Book.
The most serious one is the fact that Brody and Hooper are at odds with each other right from the start in the novel. Hooper actually has an affair with Brody's wife, which obviously creates a totally different character dynamic.
The ending is also radically different, in terms of who lives and who dies, and how they die, but I don't want to spoil that for those who haven't read the novel. Suffice it to say the thing that elevates the film to a new level is missing from the book.
SHOT BY SHOT
The technical and logistical challenges in Jaws were massive. They were shooting with a mechanical shark that didn't work, they were shooting on the water, and if there was a ship on the horizon they couldn't just paint it out in the computer, they had to wait for it to pass by. The film ended up taking three times longer than planned.
The most important technical challenge was undoubtedly the shark. Contrary to popular belief the shark was never supposed to be shown all the time. When the mechanical creation didn't work, the team used the yellow barrels instead, but had the fake shark worked it would have appeared in lieu of those barrels and not much more often.
This leads us to the actual shark attacks. They are SO FRIGHTENING, even though they are quick, and there aren't that many of them. In fact, only 5 people are killed in the film, one of the deaths happens off-screen and another happens during the climax, so we basically only see three kills during the main action of the story. I've already described the first attack in the earlier paragraph. The second attack is worth studying a bit closer. We've already covered storytelling a bit, but there's a purely technical aspect to this as well.
The scene begins with Brody hanging out on the beach, nervous about the prospects of another attack. Then the swimmers go in, nothing happens and we're on the verge of relaxing, when suddenly a young boy is devoured by the beast. The meat (sorry) of the sequence plays out in only four shots:
1) A young man is calling out for his dog, a moment ago they were playing fetch.
2) The stick they were playing with is floating in the water.
3) The camera moves through the water towards the boy from below. We've already established that this is the point of view of the shark.
4) SHOCK! Pure visceral terror as the boy is chewed up in a partially obscured long shot!
It looks simple, but there's nothing simple about telling a story visually in a handful of carefully executed shots. Even if you haven't seen the film, and are only presented with these four shots, you'll still be able to understand the story.
I love to call attention to Spielberg's one-shot scenes, where he tells the story with his camera, without cutting. My favorite example is a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (the link will send you to an article in Danish, but the images should speak for themselves).
In Jaws we find a great, but more simple example of this, when the Mayor tries to convince Brody to open the beaches again. Here's the scene:
Rather than cutting closer to Brody and the Mayor, or even moving the camera, Spielberg makes his actors move. It's actually written into the story: The Mayor pulls Brody away, to talk with him in confidence, and while he does this he pulls Brody towards the camera. As the intensity of the conversation increases, the shot becomes more and more focused. Extremely simple, but very effective.
Generally speaking Jaws features plenty of unique and memorable shots. Who doesn't remember the "you're gonna need a bigger boat"-scene, which contains the single best image from the film? The shark emerges while Brody throws chum in the water, just as he looks away. That's one big fish!
Or how about the "incident" with the body that pops out of the hole in the fishing boat? A scene that still makes me jump every time I see the film! Or how about the shots of the aforementioned yellow barrels that pop out of the water signifying impending death and mutilation? I could go on, but I guess we have to end this eventually.
Like I said earlier Spielberg didn't create this film single-handedly.
Among his closest collaborators were cinematographer Bill Butler, who had to keep a steady hand during the shoot, literally, since 90% of the film was shot handheld, while delivering excellent sharp images. Credit must also go to camera operator Michael Chapman, who physically operated the camera throughout the ordeal.
Verna Field took care of the brilliant editing, and won an Oscar for it. She would review footage with Spielberg and Butler every day, to keep a close eye on what worked and what didn't. And let's not forget production designer Joe Alves, who also served as location scout, he directed a few second unit shots, and he storyboarded the entire climax of the movie.
All of these people (and a few more) helped to create the wonder that is Jaws.
Well, let's wrap this one up in a jiffy, there's no need to get elaborate.
Jaws has lost none of it's power. The ferocity of the beast is only matched by the effectiveness of the storytelling. Sure, it launched Steven Spielberg's career into the stratosphere, sure it created the term "blockbuster", but at the end of the day, when you pop the film in the home theatre and crank up the volume, the only thing that matters is this:
Jaws is a perfect movie.
Next up: You can't tell. Not even Mom, but it's time to watch the skies.
Beard Factor: Dreyfuss sports a spectacular facial appendage! It's biblical! In fact he looks a little like Spielberg would look later in his life.
Composition: 50% male bonding, 35% dum-dum-dum-dum, 15% shark.
The Sound of Williams: One of those scores you can recognize after hearing two notes of the theme! Absolutely classic! A big reason for the film's success.
Once again, we need a few shoutouts!
Thanx to Dennis Rosenfeld, for feedback and music research.
And to Anne Petersen for awesome rpoof reading. (Yes - that mistake was a joke).