Jaws (1975)

D: Steven Spielberg
S: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

"The great fish moved silently through the night water," begins Peter Benchley's 1973 best seller about a giant shark terrorising an Island community off the Eastern coast of the United States. But it was sound which introduced audiences to the 1975 film adaptation. Beginning with peculiar underwater radar noises over the Universal Studios logo and immediately followed by John Williams' now legendary theme music, Jaws takes hold aurally before any scenes of confrontation, carnage or suspense.

Yet despite the benchmark which the film represents in terms of the cinema of sensation, Jaws is a sophisticated combination of old-fashioned monster movie and contemporary drama. Its evocation of the natural environment is strikingly authentic despite its visual lushness. Its portrayal of character addresses serious issues about masculinity in the face of seventies feminism despite is formulaic nature. Its scathing attitude to government reflects the malaise of the populous who flocked to it, though it is ultimately an adventure film.

Spielberg was a cinematically literate filmmaker whose small but not inconsiderable experience had already established his pedigree with tales of fantasy and action. He was also of the generation of so-called "New Hollywood" directors whose awareness of the structuring conventions of cinema was matched by a sense of contemporary America which had been lost in the death throes of the Studios.

Jaws was an $8m gambit by producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck. The novel had been optioned almost immediately upon publication, and a script was hastily put together in the midst of a writer's strike. Though eventually credited to Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, it received a working over from an uncredited John Milius.

Substantially changed from the novel, Jaws is a streamlined study of political corruption in seventies America filtered through the generic structure of the classic monster movie. It pits a selection of familiar character types in a small community against a malevolent external threat. The creature not only represents a real danger to life and limb, but could also bring about the end of a way of life (in this case the insincere, capitalistic tourist trade upon which the community depends).

The film's first half deals entirely with the battle on land between well-meaning Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and the assembled forces of bureaucracy and business which are determined to cover up the fact that a killer shark is at large. Fleeting references to the real-world political crisis in America are present, including an in-joke reference to "Deep Throat."

To a point, the film seems at home alongside the likes of The French Connection, The Godfather, Chinatown, and The Parallax View as an evocation of the helplessness of the contemporary American in the face of a society of corruption in which heroism is an outdated notion. Despite Brody's attempts to enlist the help of bespectacled WASP scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and the offer of old world blue-collar fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill the creature for $10, 000, the town's hypocritical mayor (Murray Hamilton) insists that nothing is amiss and encourages visitors to come to swim on the Fourth of July to sustain the island's economy and his own social position.

There is a discernible change in tone half way through when three men of conveniently different temperament and social background are then pitted against the monster at sea (separating them not only from society, but specifically parting Brody from his wife (Lorraine Gray)). The drama played out between them results in a final confrontation between man and beast which spectacularly asserts the triumph of the professional middle class over both the educated and working sections of society.

All of this social and psychological substance is set alongside plenty of high adventure action, with several scare scenes relying more on build up than shock. Spielberg borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock (and Jack Arnold) and, aided by Bill Butler's clever widescreen cinematography, Verna Fields' Oscar-winning editing and Williams' Oscar-winning score, crafts a film whose rich visual texture both complements the script and tells a whole story of its own.

Note: The Region 1 & 2 DVDs are roughly the same, with a great selection of additional features including deleted scenes and a production documentary. It lacks a commentary by Spielberg, but some interview material is incorporated.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.