In Popcorn Classics, I take a look at the films that left their footprints on the world of cinema. First is Spielberg’s beach-town blockbuster Jaws.
Before seafaring horror film Jaws, the phrase “summer blockbuster” was not a part of the cinema furniture in the way it is now. Jaws unleashed itself in the summer of 1975 and dominated multiplexes for weeks. In Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls he says that, in the wake of the film’s success, “studios wanted every film to be Jaws”.
For young director Steven Spielberg, though, and the crew around him, Jaws was by no means a guaranteed success. The issues that befell the mammoth 159-day production have been heavily reported on over the years, notably in feature-length documentary The Shark is Still Working. The product that arrived on screens in 1975, though, was something very special indeed.
To this day, it remains one of the greatest movies ever made.
At its heart, Jaws is a very simple story, based on Peter Benchley’s pulpy novel released the year before. It follows police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) as he investigates a spate of shark attacks in the seaside town of Amity. The town’s mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) refuses to believe that a shark is responsible for the crimes, until the death of a small child whips the people into a frenzy.
Proven right, Brody teams up with local hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to track down the creature at sea. After a tense chase in which Hooper takes a deep sea dive and Quint is chewed in half, Brody manages to dispose of the shark in explosive fashion.
The beating heart of Jaws is the camaraderie and chemistry between the three central characters. Spielberg isolates the trio at sea for the majority of the film, slimming down the story to a simple battle of man vs. (eating) machine. The performances are excellent with Shaw as the grizzled macho man, Hooper as the nerdy know-it-all and Scheider as the straight man in the middle.
Spielberg does an excellent job of stripping back the visual work – partly as a result of production troubles – to keep the tension brewing. This also enables the character moments to shine through. Shaw’s iconic “Indianapolis” speech is a blistering showcase of pure acting power and was at least partly written by Shaw himself. Spielberg has said that the scene arose from an idea by Howard Sackler, which was then extended by playwright John Milius and finessed on set by Shaw.
The genius of the Indianapolis speech is that it marks the moment that the three men finally learn to respect each other. Hooper, who had previously locked horns with Quint, is spellbound by the older man’s story and, without saying a word, conveys his new understanding of why Quint acts the way he acts and does the things he does. If Jaws is a film about the performance of masculinity, it is in that cabin scene that the facade of macho bravado falls away.
Suspense at Sea
Alongside its heavyweight trifecta of performances, Jaws is a masterclass of directorial skill. It’s no coincidence that the success of Jaws became a calling card for the relatively unknown Steven Spielberg – a man who is now perhaps the most recognisable film director on the planet.
The reason Jaws works so well is that, despite its label as arguably the inaugural “summer blockbuster”, it’s an exercise in directorial minimalism. Spielberg manages to create more tension from the movement of a yellow barrel than many modern horror filmmakers generate in an entire film. With Jaws, Spielberg made a film that felt epic whilst remaining minimalist. It’s a feat that few have achieved since.
Much of this minimalism is achieved by virtue of Spielberg – either by design or necessity – making sparing use of his robotic predator. Bruce, as the expensive prop was dubbed, worked only occasionally, which meant that its screen time had to be minimal. This forced some quite extraordinary creativity and, in fact, made the beast’s appearances far more impactful.
Whenever the eponymous creature appears in Jaws, it sends a loud, clear signal that business is about to pick up. Whether he’s appearing to shock Chief Brody out of his shoes or munching Quint’s torso, Bruce doesn’t show his face unless the story demands it.
When Bruce is off screen, Spielberg is forced to dig into his box of tricks. Yellow barrels substitute for the creature to create suspense without the cathartic release of getting a sight of the shark. John Williams’ iconic musical cue further enhances the atmosphere of oncoming dread too, painting a picture of an omnipresent menace, despite the fact the audience rarely sees it.
The tension work in Jaws does not lose impact even on multiple viewings. Everything from those terrifying floating barrels to the memorably sudden appearance of Ben Gardner’s decapitated head holds up every time. Perhaps as a result of its back-to-basics approach, there’s something about Jaws that feels timeless.
Box Office Bite
Much of the financial success of Jaws can be chalked up to the incredibly savvy and ambitious way in which Universal chose to manage the marketing and release strategy. In an unprecedented move, the studio spent $700,000 on television advertising for the film. They also chose to eschew the traditional model of gradually expanding release, opening the film in more than 400 American cinemas on the same day in June.
The film stuck around for the entire summer, expanding to around 700 theatres in July and almost 1,000 by the end of August. Similarly intensive releases in worldwide markets helped Jaws to its title as the highest grossing movie of all-time until the release of Star Wars in 1977. According to author Nigel Morris, Jaws recouped its sizeable production costs in just two weeks.
Jaws had an indelible impact upon the world of cinema. Summer became the obvious release period for tentpole blockbusters and saturation release became the norm for big movies. Such was the film’s influence on high-concept genre cinema that Ridley Scott’s Alien was originally pitched as “Jaws in space”.
Unlike other films of its era, Jaws feels as if it hasn’t aged a day. When it was re-released into UK cinemas in 2012, the film felt every bit as tense and terrifying as it has done since it first made its mark in multiplexes. Despite Spielberg’s successes in the wake of Jaws, it is his iconic shark movie that sits as perhaps his greatest cinematic achievement.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…
What do you think of Jaws? When did you first see it? Does it deserve its place as one of cinema’s all-time classics? Let me know in the comments section.