Are you still afraid to go in the water?
Yes, it really has been forty years since good old “Bruce” – named after a certain director’s lawyer – prowled the waters of Martha’s Vineyard for a snack. Would movie-making really be the same without him?
Just four decades ago, the cinematic landscape had no conception of the term “blockbuster,” and summer movies had no real significance beyond the fact that they were released between June and August. It was up to a neophyte, a mid-twenties Steven Spielberg, hot off the threadbare classic Duel and an episode of Columbo, to redefine not only what populist entertainment could be, but to usher in a new era of commercial dominance that made those sunnier months the time for studios to rake in the mega-bucks.
Many have detailed how Jaws shifted the industry into a new paradigm, paving the way for such revolutionary products as Star Wars, but the really amazing feat is that this infamously chaotic production resulted in an accidental masterpiece that is as entertaining now as it was when it first unspooled in theatres. I’ll court controversy by stating that it no longer terrifies, at least for anyone in their teens or higher, but how could it? Everyone knows that the mechanical prop used to replicate the ferocity of a Great White is about as convincing as two popsicle sticks stuck together with ping-pong balls for eyes, but the title behemoth has never been the real draw to Jaws or why it continues to work as well as it does.
Our hero, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), has little to do in the nauseatingly picturesque Amity but keep the neverending peace and stop the local youths from karate-chopping the picket fences, and the quiet life is clearly too quiet for him. It’s therefore down to a bloody shark chomping up the skinny-dippers to give this former city cop renewed purpose. Really, this is a tale about three men finding themselves in the unforgiving ocean; Brody, shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and captain of the decrepit Orca, Quint (Robert Shaw), who task themselves with destroying a beast who might as well represent their personal demons.
When I think of Jaws, I don’t necessarily think of the unlucky Alex Kintner being torn to shreds or even Hooper’s jumpy discovery of a submerged corpse, but the quieter moments between a cast greater than the material itself. They do such a sterling job that you sometimes forget the film is about a rogue Great White at all, with the late Scheider in particular excelling as a good man doing everything he can to keep the beaches closed and ensure that this razor-toothed fucker gets his just deserts. Dreyfuss, too, has rarely been better, beaming with an enthusiasm common to scientists in movies and giving the stubborn Brody an honest-to-god ally (thank Christ they didn’t include Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife, as in Peter Benchley’s novel).
Then there’s Quint, a character perfectly matched to the boozy Shaw, an actor who finished production by leaving thirty cases of J&B scotch for the entire cast and crew. He turns the caustic old sea-dog into a mythical presence, even bagging the greatest scene in the movie; a dialogue-driven account of the fate which befell the USS Indianapolis. This minute of screen-time is effectively hair-raising without the benefit of a rubber fin or John Williams’ imitable score. It encapsulates why having an animatronic beastie which barely worked scarcely seemed to matter.
Ah, yes, good old Bruce. The difficulties Spielberg had in using his “star” only made the film better, reducing the shark to mere suggestion and the primal power of the aforementioned music. Had the salty water not eroded the poor bugger’s mechanics and allowed the crew to show-off their fiend, we might not be holding Jaws in such high regard all this time later. Steve’s genius was in leaving the majority of the Great White’s activities to the audience’s imagination, and there’s nothing more powerful than filling in the blanks for yourself. It is the tip of the iceberg in terms of his brilliant directorial choices, from bleaching the film’s colour palette of red to give the blood a bigger impact (the Kintner boy’s rouge trunks were an oversight) to using genuine sharks to blur the line between reality and make-believe. In 2015, this picture remains a textbook example of how to build and sustain suspense, as well as wringing absolute cinematic joy from the most schlocky of material.
Of course, Universal did their best to muddy the waters by chumming out three terrible follow-ups (sorry, folks, Jaws 2 didn’t need to be made either), an equally-unconvincing theme park attraction, and even a video game that played like a messed-up rendition of Ecco the Dolphin, but none of the cash-ins or spin-offs have been able to undo the pleasures of the original. It stands to reason that his humble creature feature will still make me smile like a son of a bitch in years to come.
See you in another forty…