Often credited as the first of the summer blockbusters (the first bonafide $100 million box office earner), Jaws would turn director Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park) from an up-and-coming star to one of the major filmmaking forces the world would ever know. In theory, Jaws is b-movie fare, with little more to it than a shark terrorizing a resort community. Perhaps at the hands of any other director at that time, this would have been junk cinema, only of appeal to schlock-lovers looking for a cheap thrill. Under Spielberg’s direction, this is anything but. Jaws is a surprisingly intelligent, powerful, riveting, and scary film that stays with you for a lifetime — a true masterpiece of horror without supernatural elements, with raw suspense that many filmmakers try but fail to recreate even to this day.
Roy Scheider (Blue Thunder, Last Embrace) stars as police chief Martin Brody of Amity, a New York island resort community just about to enjoy its most popular season of the year, in the sun and fun of the 4th of July. All is not idyllic on this day, however. A teenage girl has been found washed up on the beach, apparently the victim of a shark attack. Brody’s instinct is to close the beach, but he pulls back when the mayor of Amity reminds him how important it is to keep the tourists coming, warning that news of a shark in the water could cost the community dearly. Meanwhile, the attacks continue, and try as they might to keep a lid on things, they are soon forced with a decision to close the beach or catch the shark themselves. Enlisting the help of a wealthy oceanographer (Dreyfuss, American Graffiti) and charismatic shark hunter (Shaw, The Sting), Brody sets to the ocean in order to lure the large Great White shark near to go for the kill.
As in many suspense vehicles, it is the director that drives the adrenaline that pumps the excitement into what could be lackluster if not done with style. Here is where Spielberg succeeds smashingly, as Jaws proves to be one of the most brilliantly executed suspense vehicles since Hitchcock’s heyday. Just as Psycho made people afraid to go in the shower, Jaws would do the same for people going into the water at the beach, forever planting in the mind that unseen danger lurks below the water’s surface that can ravage a human being in seconds, in one of the most sadistic way imaginable. Spielberg uses a variety of tricks, many from Hitchcock himself, but does so in a way that never shows that he is a relative newcomer in the business, only 28 years old at the time of filming. With a smash debut in Duel, an influential television movie with a similar theme, Spielberg finely honed his skills in how to create tension without words, letting the sounds of the score, the editing of the shots, and reactions of the actors drive the emotional turmoil and terror we all can relate to.
While Spielberg and composer John Williams (The Eiger Sanction, Star Wars) would get the lion’s share of the credit as to why Jaws succeeds, just as important is the quality of the acting. Scheider is fantastic as Chief Brody, looking every bit as confused, fearful, and determined as a man would be in the same situation. Richard Dreyfuss brings in energy and intelligence, a perfect foil for Robert Shaw’s more laid back and emotional approach to sailing the seas. All three play off of each other in fascinating ways, but Shaw often steals every scene with his perfect portrayal of a madman at sea, like Ahab chasing Moby Dick.
With excellent character development, a pitch-perfect delivery of mounting intrigue, and a hell of a climactic showdown that will have every viewer silent on the edge of their seat, Jaws proves to be one of the greatest thrillers ever created — a blueprint for all movies to follow it in how to achieve true visceral suspense. Absolute must-see entertainment for fans of Spielberg, monster flicks, and just about everyone looking for a scary good time.
Qwipster’s rating: A+
MPAA Rated: PG for violence, language, brief nudity, and a scene of drug use (probably PG-13 by today’s standards)
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Benchley (cameo)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb (based on the novel by Peter Benchley)