One of my firmest beliefs is that a summer without a viewing of Jaws is somehow a lesser summer, a summer of missteps that didn't get the full realization it deserves. Another of my firm beliefs is that any tv ad, poster, review, or person who says that a movie is "the next Jaws" is 1.) lying for the sake of pushing a mediocre monster movie into the public consciousness or 2.) has clearly never seen the sheer perfection that is Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Peter Benchley's best-seller.
Before we start, let's have a summary.
A police chief from the city moves to a island off the coast of New England and slowly acclimates his happy family to a life filled with boats and beaches. However, the peace doesn't quite last to their first summer, when swimmers start dying. The mayor and town elites are eager to say "boating accident" or "misadventure," anything but the word "shark" to keep the tourist dollars coming in. The new chief prefers safety to business and, prevented from outright closing the beaches, he deals with public pressure by going out himself to hunt the shark that he thinks is still roaming uncaught. With him is a grizzled shark hunter and a young, eccentric marine biologist. Together the three form an unlikely bond as they seek to protect the town of Amity from disaster.
Jaws represents so many iconic film elements rolled into a summer blockbuster of all things. That plot sounds like a classic monster movie plot. The Big Bad creature from the Unknown shows up and starts killing quietly. The townspeople panic, yet resist panic. The hero doesn't want to be a hero, but shows up to do what he must do. There's even a scientist, a classic monster movie staple, in Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) who at once understands and even empathizes with the hunted before realizing that it truly is a monster worthy of destruction.
Chief Brody is a sheriff on an island who's afraid of water! It's fantastic!
How about an Outsider plot? Brody (played by the wonderfully expressive Roy Schieder) is branded as this city boy who doesn't understand the community of Amity. He deals with this small-town stuff like bickering neighbors, nothing major until these bodies show up. And when presented with real danger, the mayor ends up stopping his every attempt to investigate. The opinion of the business leaders who rely on tourism and happy people splashing in the water is firm in the iconic line from Mayor Vaughn:
"You yell barracuda, everyone goes 'Huh? What?' You yell shark, we have a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."
It isn't until the danger touches his own children that the mayor and community finally relent to hire Quint, the formidable boat captain who agrees to find the shark, and kill it, for the right price. His recklessness, determination, and hyper-focus on the rough manliness of shark hunting combat perfectly with the wealthy, sardonic marine biologist Matt Hooper.
What takes this from a cheesy B-movie about a "killer shark" leaving a string of bodies to an iconic piece of film is the writing, the acting, and the editing.
The screenplay was adapted by the original author, Peter Benchley. His dialogue is so pared down, realistic, and downright funny in just the right ways. For being such a classic movie full of danger and drama, Jaws is also intensely quotable. Hooper's self-righteous sarcasm gives him some of the best lines. In response to Mayor Vaughn's unwillingness to admit the killer shark is at large, he scoffs, "I'm not going to waste my time arguing with a man who's lining up to be a hot lunch!"
The audience first meets Hooper when he comes in to aid Brody in learning more about shark behavior. He steps into the scene amid a crowd of fishermen piling into boats, hoping to catch the shark for the promise of bounty money. When he sees too many men overcrowding a boat and tries to warn them, he gets rebuffed. Instead of anger, attempting to engage them again, or simply leaving, he laughs hollowing and idly muses, "Hahaha, they're all going to die."
Brody's lines are clear and to the point, representing a man who wants to get things done with the best understanding he has. When Hooper expresses concern about being allowed to dissect the caught shark to see if it's indeed the killer shark, Brody gives a simple yet amused reply: "I can do anything. I'm the chief of police."
The acting also lifts Jaws from the fodder of monster movie schlock. Great lines can be butchered, but the natural delivery from the actors makes the film seem authentic. Quint, played by veteran Robert Shaw, conveys his sheer determination with a simple look at times. His character often bursts into quiet sea shanties instead of lines, an amused smile tugging at his lips as though he's seen it all. Dreyfuss's portrayal of Hooper's exasperation and nervous energy clashes well with Quint's solid presence; it always seems like Hooper is moving or making faces or busy with equipment against Quint's sure and controlled movements. Roy Schieder offers a face elastic with expression. He often looks intensely deep in thought, but he'll snap to high-strung surprise bordering on panic. Brody's best line, and the one most synonymous with Jaws, is delivered with a panic so severe that Schieder goes around the bend and turns it bitterly monotone. He sees the huge jaws of the largest shark in living memory, backs deep into the cabin, and says calmly to Quint:
"You're going to need a bigger boat."
Another beautiful quality in Jaws are the moments of silence. There's a scene in which the conflicted Brody is brooding over how to proceed now that he is fairly sure the shark is still out there. On one hand, he's terrified of the water. The mayor doesn't want to hear this. On the other, he feels responsible for a little boy who has died and the safety of his own children. His youngest son sits next to him, quietly mirroring his father's concerned face, clamped hands. They mimic each other back and forth until they're pulling silly faces and laughing, breaking the tension. A silly B-movie would keep up contrived drama and skip such a scene altogether. Theres no shark, theres no screaming. But there is a moment in which the audience remembers that this man is a father. That he is a sheriff outside, but inside his house he's a loving man who drinks wine with his wife and plays with his sons.
This quiet tonal shift happens again on the boat when the men rest from shark hunting for a while. There's alcohol and food, rough talk and banter, and a contest of sorts where they show off their battle scars. The warm moment suddenly cools when Quint calmly corrects Hooper about his tattoo removal scar; it had been a tattoo from the USS Indianapolis. The atmosphere changes palpably as Hooper realizes the gravity of such a statement. Dreyfuss and Schieder visibly tuck-in for this gruesome story that at once interests and appalls the characters. Shaw tells of the sinking of the ship and the bloody, shark-filled waters he was in with just the barest dip into emotion. A lesser film would have emphasized the horror, drawn out the violence like a campfire ghost story. Instead it's solemn and finite, a survivor's tale.
Despite the writing and acting, Jaws still could have slipped into cheesy B-movie territory were it not for the careful editing of Verna Fields. The issues with the manipulation of "Bruce," the nickname given to the mechanical shark playing the killer Great White, were legendary. Whole scenes didn't work, the shark would break down, and worst of all it would sometimes look too fake. When interviewed, Spielberg often admitted that he wanted that expensive, scary mechanical shark in the scenes far more than it appeared in the final cut of the movie. The decision to leave the reveal of the shark until much later in the movie, and to cut short many of its appearances in the water, was what made the movie so effective. Quicker, shorter visuals of the creepy dead-eyed shark offered far more of a viscerally shocking effect. If the shark appeared on screen even a few seconds more per scene, there's a chance that the audience would feel that artifice of the shark's mechanical nature, ruining their suspension of disbelief and undercutting the effect that made Jaws the movie that made people afraid to go into the water for years to come.
Jaws is my official must-see movie every summer. No matter how many times I see it, I always keep coming back.
Chief Brody: [swimming back to shore] Hey, what day is this?
Hooper: It's Wednesday...eh, is Tuesday, I think.
Chief Brody: Think the tide is with us.
Hooper: Keep kickin'.
Chief Brody: I used to hate the water.
Hooper: I can't imagine why.