Jaws is a pretty impressive film. Not only did the film serve to launch Steven Spielberg’s career and subgenre of monster creature features, it also effectively kick-started the summer blockbuster. However, watching it again all these years later, it’s amazing how well Jaws holds up – far better than the vast majority of films that it ultimately inspired. There’s a lot of reasons that Jaws works, and a lot of them come down to Spielberg working as director, but also in the scripting and the acting. It’s rare for a movie to produce one character that we truly care about. Jaws manages to produce four compelling leading characters – the three men who ultimately end up on the boat, and the shark itself.
Looking back at Jaws, it’s very easy to imagine how it could have all gone wrong. Spielberg was a young director. His previous film hadn’t set the world alight. His three leading actors were not matinee names. The film ran over budget and re-shoots were necessary. Spielberg apparently didn’t like the shark prop and – even if he did – the salt water ate away the animatronics inside the beast. This, understandably, severely restricted what Spielberg could do with his monster. On top of all that, its summer release was hardly a vote of confidence from the studio. At the time, films they expected to do well came out at Christmas.
However, none of this ultimately matters. In fact, Spielberg manages to turn several of these potential problems into endearing advantages. He harnessed suspense by famously shooting around the shark, creating a minimalist approach that complemented the iconic score, but also meant that the shark was scary everytime that it appeared. His three leads were able to create three characters free of audience expectations. One imagines that Spielberg also managed to do all this with relatively little studio interference since it seems like the studio had already written off the film.
I’ve read Peter Benchley’s Jaws. I thought it was a fine book, but there’s no denying that the movie streamlines the plot a great deal. None of the characters in the book – with the possible exception of Brody – were especially likeable and even Brody himself was a little dull. The lives of the islanders were cluttered with soap opera antics that didn’t add much to the plot – they often seemed included to eat up space. The pacing of the conflict with the shark seemed off as well, with the gang returning to shore each evening.
Spielberg’s film wisely strips away the extraneous matter. The Brody family is not thrown into chaos by the arrival of Hooper. There’s still a sense of life on the island, but without excessive melodrama. The climax is streamlined, with all the conflict occurring during one encounter with the beast – making things tenser and raising the stakes. Hooper compares the shark to an efficient machine, and – to a large extent – that’s what the film version of Jawsis.
It runs a minute under two hours, but the whole film breezes by. Chief Brody might be the most efficient horror protagonist in history. We’re less than five minutes into the film before he has decided to close the beaches – what turns out to be the correct call. There’s no hesitation or denial from Brody, no soul-searching or padding. Everything moves like a well-oiled machine, and Spielberg paces the movie superbly. We are teased with enough the shark to keep us interested while he establishes his cast of characters and the mechanics of the world, and then he keeps kicking everything up a gear about once every five minutes.
Spielberg’s direction is superb, and you can see the raw talent on display. Jawshas an almost Hitchcock-ian knack for suspense, and Spielberg builds pressure like nobody’s business. Indeed, some of the more effective cues are never even expressly commented upon – the disappearance of the dog before the shark’s third attack. While his decision to to dwell on the creature itself might have been dictated by outside realities, Spielberg’s direction of those encounters is absolutely brilliant, as is the way that he handles the rising pressure.
Speaking of Hitchcock, that Vertigo-inspired shot of Brody as he realises the beast has returned is a fantastic moment. However, so is Spielberg’s lead-up to it, as the camera cuts progressively closer to Brody as people pass by, giving us a sense of just how uncomfortable Brody is. It’s amazing how much of the film stays with you – I’m not talking about scenes, plot or dialogue, but the way a shot is framed or constructed and how it is put together.
That’s not to dismiss the work being done by the cast. In particular, Robert Shaw did an excellent job fleshing out Quint’s back story. It’s to the credit of the screenplay, the actors and the director that each of the three central human characters feels real and tangible. We understand where each of them is coming from. Each is damaged and haunted in a strange way, and it’s great to see the cast playing off one another.
Quint initially seems to resent Hooper for his wealth (and possibly his ambiguously Jewish origins), and Hooper isn’t fond of Quint’s blowhard attitude and condescending manner of dealing with the pair. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that all three men have an obvious affection for one another. Unlike the novel, there’s never a sense that the three men are about as likely to kill each other as they are to kill the shark. (Although Quint comes close to seeming psychotic, Shaw keeps him sympathetic. We understand where his obsession comes from, thanks to another of the movie’s iconic scenes.)
The shark is arguably just as much of a presence as the leading three actors, and Spielberg actually manages to imbue the creature with a strange humanity. That said, Spielberg has always had a knack for find the humanity in non-humans. The creature is clearly very smart, and there’s a sense that it’s locked in a battle of wits and wills against the leading three actors, to the point where it almost seems like a grudge match. It might just be a gigantic killing machine, but it seems to think and reason in such a way that it can’t be casually out-thunk. Despite the fact we hardly see it, Spielberg does an excellent job conveying the idea that it is more than just a hungry animal looking for warm-blooded food.
Jaws is amazing, and it’s one of those rare films that remains as good today as it ever was.
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