By all rights Jaws shouldn’t exist. Troubles surrounding the production are now Hollywood legend. The shark didn’t work, the shoot went massively over schedule and over budget, the cast was becoming miserable, the director was a perfectionist, the boat sunk. It was Murphy’s Law come to life. The final product should have been a mess but instead it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. How did the production not collapse under its own wait? Working in Jaws’ favour was a visionary with his steady hand on the helm, Steven Spielberg. An up and coming director who was too young to know that the impossible couldn’t be done.
The movie was about a killer shark but the shark robots were not working in the water and there was no CGI to fall back on. The only thing they could do was shoot around the shark and their pain was our gain. What we don’t see can be more scary than what we do see. Our imaginations will fill in the blanks. All we need is a dorsal fin and two musical notes and we’re good to go. John Williams score is as visceral now as it was then. If it doesn’t get your heart racing you must already be dead. We don’t even see so much as a fin during the first attack that opens the movie. A teenage girl goes for a skinny dip while the guy she was flirting with passes out drunk on the beach. We switch back and forth between passively watching the girl swim from above the water and entering the shark’s point of view as he stalks her from below. We watch as the girl gets pulled under the water and then ruthlessly yanked around, all the while the soundtrack ramps up the tension. Finally she is pulled under for last time, the surface of the water calms and the soundtrack quiets. There is no glimpse of the titular character, there is no gushing blood but we know we are in for a wild ride.
Make no mistake Jaws is a scary movie. The editing is fantastic, the camera never lingers too long or too little. Sure there are a few shots where you can tell the shark is mechanical but they don’t matter. By that point the movie already has you in its grip. Classic horror movie tropes are used to keep you on edge, investigating a bitten up boat in the dark, lights flicker and the power goes out, the sharks right behind you! This is a Spielberg who pulls no punches. He makes you believe he can and will kill off anybody in this movie by killing off a dog and a little boy in the first 20 minutes. The dog dies off-screen but the little boy gets eaten in front of our eyes. Once all bets are off you’re on edge whenever anybody goes near the water, which people will continue to do even though they should really know better.
The film is grounded by the human characters and the great performances from the actors who bring them to life. All the characters have a vulnerability to them and in a movie that has limited time to waste on non shark action they are each given quiet moments that let their characters complexities shine. There’s Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper needing to splash his face with cold water after examining the first victim, Roy Scheider’s Brody enjoying a playful moment with his son at the dinner table, or Quint bringing the movie to a four minute standstill as Robert Shaw terrifies us with the story of what happened to the USS Indianapolis. The quiet moments let us catch our breath but they also let’s us get to know and like these characters. We want them to succeed. I mean I wasn’t the only person who watched Jurassic World and rooted for the dinosaurs right?
Through its three main characters Jaws explores masculinity in a way I have not personally seen any other film do. The three main characters are very different men but none of them are presented as an unattainable masculine ideal. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Brody is our hero. A career cop from New York who has relocated his family for a quieter life, sorry for your luck buddy. When he meets enthusiastic oceanographer Hooper, who talks in scientific terms and his clearly freaked out by dead bodies, Brody immediately likes the guy. He appreciates the skills and knowledge Hooper brings to the table and not one derogatory comment is directed at his squeamishness. Quint the grizzled war vet turned shark killing fisherman does immediately dislikes Hooper. Quint makes Hooper prove himself to get aboard his ship and needles him throughout their time together. There isn’t a lot of malice behind the needling. He thinks Hooper is a rich city boy who hasn’t done much of anything. Quint never questions Hooper’s manliness he questions his work ethic. As the two get to know each other a grudging respect grows.
Compare the way Quint treats Hooper and the way he treats Brody. Brody is also a city boy, who is afraid of the water and has no experience with boats. Quint doesn’t make Brody prove himself, and he never makes fun of him or tries to embarrass him. At one point Brody pulls the wrong rope sending Hooper’s oxygen tanks falling all over the deck. Quint shifts the focus onto Hooper and all his toys and then quietly tells Brody to ask him which one to pull next time. The men are never in competition with each other and are seen to be constantly working together on the Orca. When *SPOILER ALERT* Brody finally takes down the shark he might be by himself but he does it with Quint’s gun and Hooper’s oxygen tank. As their bound grows the men increasingly become more comfortable with themselves and with each other. They can casually throw their legs over each other to compare wounds or hold onto each other after surviving the unsurvivable and their is no commentary needed about how straight and tough they are. Of course that doesn’t mean that they’re always nice to each other, they get annoyed, lose their temper, and Quint loses his grip more than once, but that’s all apart of being human. They just get to be people, and even 40 years later it’s damn refreshing to watch.
The movie is gorgeous to look at. Spielberg refused to use tanks or a sound stage and demanded to film in the Atlantic Ocean. It might have made filming it a nightmare but it was worth it. All of the hardships of filming produced something that more than stands the test of time. Every now and then the film industry produces a miracle, this summer we had Mad Max: Fury Road, on June 20th 1975 the world got Jaws.
Those Iconic Lines:
“I’m not going to waste my time arguing with a man who’s lining up to be a hot lunch.”
“Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.”
“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
“You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white.”
“Okay, so we drink to our legs!”
“Boys, oh boys. I think he’s come back for his noon feeding.”
“I used to hate the water.”
“I can’t imagine why.”