"Jaws"

1975

DirectorSteven Spielberg
ScreenplayPeter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
CinematographyBill Butler
EditingVerna Fields (AA)
SoundRobert Hoyt, Roger Herrman, Earl Madery and John Carter (AA)
MusicJohn Williams (AA)

Principal Characters

BrodyRoy Scheider
QuintRobert Shaw
HooperRichard Dreyfuss
Ellen BrodyLorraine Gary


Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Peter Benchley's best selling novel is that rarity of rarities a movie that is better than the book. One of the biggest box-office attractions in the history of motion pictures, "Jaws" unerringly swam its way into our cultural lexicon with its stunning animated score by John Williams. It literally took a bite out of beach attendance in 1975.

In his second directing job Steven Spielberg demonstrates an extraordinary ability to develop a stock scary story (giant marauding shark attacks swimming villagers) into a sweeping adventure with the power capture and hold the audiences attention.

When a marauding great white shark begins attacking bathers in the waters off Amity Township the local sheriff, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), wants to close the beaches. He is prevented from doing this by the towns mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who fears the political and economic repercussions if he does so. It is not until the shark strikes again that the mayor, reluctantly agrees to heed the advice of the expert -Hooper ( Richard Dreyfuss), an ichthyologist who has suggested the closing of the beaches. He also agrees to hire Quint ( Robert Shaw), a crusty shark hunter, to pursue and destroy the shark. Guilt ridden over his failure to close the beaches Brody (who ironically is afraid of the water), sets sail with Hooper on Quints' boat the Orca.

As a horror film "Jaws" is peerless. The bulk of the carnage occurs largely off screen. Like its predecessor "Psycho" the touches of gore that Spielberg does show on screen are used to effectively increase the audience's dread of the next shark attack. "Jaws" achieves its thrills by appealing to the audience's imaginary sense of danger, their dread of the unknown. As in the best horror movies, the audience is encouraged to care for every victim, and Spielberg's masterful direction ensures the audiences direct involvement in every attack.

The film's few technical and dramatic rough edges are more than overshadowed by the strength of Bill Butler's cinematography and Verna Fields' Oscar winning editing. When combined with Robert Hoyt, Roger Herrman, Earl Madery and John Carter's Oscar winning sound and John Williams' Oscar winning animated musical score the sharks presence is felt before the audience even sees it. By the time Spielberg finally gets around to showing us the shark (nicknamed Bruce), it doesn't matter that it is obviously a mechanical prop. The audience is so rattled that a plastic model would probably scare them.

None the less it is Spielberg's ability to induce precise and economic performances from his actors that elevates this film above the standard monster / horror picture. Roy Scheider is perfectly cast as the water hating sheriff who must surmount his fears in order to save the villagers. Robert Shaw's exceptional performance as the eccentric Quint heightens the tension of the man against nature (shark) conflict. The most exceptional example of this occurs in the scene where he recounts the terrifying fate of the crew of the USS Indianapolis. Richard Dreyfuss provides the film with its much needed comic relief as a visiting ichthyologist Matt Hooper whose professional knowledge facilitates the viewers participation in the film. Lorraine Gary strikes the right note as Brody's supportive wife, it is to the authors credit that they wisely left out her love affair with Hooper from the screenplay.

"Jaws" is not a cheep rip off of Moby Dick , although it does borrow heavily from the classic novel. It is rather, an exemplary product of the monster - genre that it represents. That Spielberg obviously admires classic films from this genre is apparent, examples of the classics are liberally inserted throughout the film. The films' opening sequence where the shark stalks its first victim is strikingly reminiscent of scenes in "The Creature From 'The Black Lagoon" (1954). The sequence where Brody sets his communications system on the beach is highly suggestive of a similar sequence in "The Forbidden Planet"(1956). The smash zoom shot of Brody's face as he witnesses a brutal shark attack comes directly from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" via Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo". Although these sequences are inspired by previous films here they have been refined to a new level. "Jaws" is a prime example of what can happen when a young filmmaker, who is already performing at the top of his art, is allowed to do what he does best. It stands independently as classic monster film.