Jaws (1975) is the first summer blockbuster and is considered by critics and fans alike as one of the greatest films ever made. After success with the TV thriller Duel (1972) and his first theatrical release of The Sugarland Express (1974), director Steven Spielberg set out to adapt Peter Benchley’s novel about a Great White shark which terrorizes a small New England beach community. The screenplay was co-written by Benchley, actor-writer Carl Gottlieb (M*A*S*H*), and an un-credited John Milius who helped with some of the film’s most memorable dialogue like “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” and the legendary U.S.S. Indianapolis speech.
The film opens with one of the greatest sequences ever shot. A young woman leaves a bonfire beach gathering to go skinny-dipping in the ocean while being chased by an inebriated young man. The young man ends up passing out in the surf while the woman swims out to the middle of the channel. An underwater low angle shot represents the point of view of the shark as it begins to stalk its prey. John William’s haunting score builds as the young woman is thrashed around and is pulled under by the shark. This scene did to ocean night swimming, what Psycho (1960) did for women’s showering.
Amity Island Chief of Police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is informed of the missing girl and is called in to investigate. Brody, the young man, and Brody’s Deputy find the young girl’s remains on the beach the next morning. Brody is informed by the medical examiner that the attack was due to a shark. While attempting to keep the peace, Brody orders the beaches to be closed until further notice. The town’s Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) persuades Brody to reconsider closing the beaches due to the negative effect it would have on the town’s economy for the season. Brody reluctantly goes along with it until the killing of a young boy occurs at the town beach by the same shark. This killing sparks hundreds of local and regional fisherman to find the shark for a bounty of three thousand dollars.
Brody is met by a young marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who has come to Amity Island to help the authorities find out what type of shark is responsible for these killings. Several fishermen catch a large Tiger Shark and the town rejoices believing that their troubles are over in time for July 4th weekend. Hooper measures the bite radius of the animal and informs Brody that this is not the shark. After the mayor refuses an autopsy, Brody and Hooper confirm that the shark’s stomach contains no human remains and set out that night to find it.
This is one of my many favorite parts in the film. Hooper and Brody set out to test Hooper’s theory that the shark they are hunting is a “rogue”, a loan hunter who continues to feed in an area with an adequate food supply. Hooper detects something on the radar and the two men find the wreck of a small boat belonging to local fishermen named Ben Gardner. Hooper dives underneath the wreck and discovers a shot glass size tooth in the hull of the boat. Upon further inspection, the remains of Gardner startle Hooper and he drops his only piece of evidence that the species of shark they are after is a Great White. This evidence does nothing to convince the Mayor who plans to have the beaches open for the holiday weekend.
With the summer festivities underway, the shark turns the beach community into a smorgasbord, which forces Brody to hire Quint (Robert Shaw) the island’s own Captain Ahab. Hooper accompanies both men in order to gather research material and to help kill it. The three men learn to work together aboard Quint’s boat The Orca while using various techniques to track the large shark. The three men (Brody in particular) pass the time by learning to tie maritime knots and laying a chum line. Quint straps himself into a chair harness as he scans the ocean for a faint clue to the shark’s whereabouts.
As Brody is forced to lay another chum line, the shark is seen for the first time in the film as Brody whips his head up away from where it came out of the water. This is where Brody utters the most famous line in movie to Quint “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”. Quint harpoons the shark with a barrel attached in order to slow it down and to keep it from going under the water. As the men chase the shark, it pulls the barrel underwater and disappears. Quint tells them that they will stay out there until they find it again.
As the three men retire to the ship’s galley for dinner, Hooper and Quint begin to swap stories and share scars due to their many encounters with sharks. This scene is where Quint tells both the men about his experience aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II. John Milius was rumored to have written the scene in a very short time, in between shots as filming was done aboard the boat while on the ocean. It is one of the greatest scenes ever filmed and Shaw’s delivery is flawless.
My last favorite part of the film is definitely when Hooper goes into the shark cage and tries to kill the shark with a large spear full of poison. The shark attacks the cage and Hooper screams bloody murder as he tries to avoid being eaten whole. The film’s climax is wonderful and it is one of the most satisfying conclusions of any film in my opinion.
Jaws proved to be one of the biggest commercial successes of all time, and was for a brief two-year period, the highest grossing film of all time until Star Wars IV took the spot in 1977. Jaws solidified Spielberg as one of Hollywood’s A-List directors and began a career, which after forty years is still going strong. Several other directors were picked for the project but Spielberg received the job from both Richard Zanuck and David Brown who had produced Spielberg’s first theatrical film The Sugarland Express.
Spielberg was eager to helm the job and began principle shooting of the film in May 1974. Zanuck and Brown put up 3.5 million dollars for the film. Despite the mechanical shark breaking down constantly, the film going way over budget, and the fear that the film would end not only Spielberg’s career but the whole cast’s, made for one of the greatest films of all time. Jaws is the ultimate summer film and after nearly forty years, it still makes me terrified to go swimming in the ocean.
Jaws is available on DVD and will be released on Blu-Ray on 8/14/12 to celebrate Universal Picture’s 100th anniversary of movie making.