Jaws has surely got to be one of the greatest films ever made. The original summer blockbuster, it’s groundbreaking, thrilling, intelligent, and still scares me to this day – no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the film, and on Friday (June 5th) Motley Movies will be bringing their pop-up cinema to Cardiff’s waterfront, for a special screening of the classic that made audiences everywhere scared of going into the sea.
Ahead of the screening, I’ve decided to take a look back at the some of the reasons behind Jaws’ success, and why it remains such an iconic piece of cinema.
It makes sense to start by talking about the film’s music, as that’s the first thing you immediately notice about Jaws. As the film begins, there’s a good few seconds of nothingness on the screen – just blackness, and a low rumbling that slowly starts to build.
Suddenly, John Williams’ score thunders to life, accompanied by the image of an almost alien-like underwater world. As quick as the music reaches its screeching crescendo, it disappears as the film cuts to a group of teenagers having a beach party.
The fact that the music is gone as quick as it arrives, represents the shark itself, who appears as if from nowhere, attacks, and quickly disappears back into the ocean. The shark and the music are effectively one in the same, with Speilberg using the score as a way of getting around the technical problems with the mechanical shark – affectionately named Bruce on set.
It’s a way of showing us the shark, without having to actually show us – a siren that warns us that the monster is coming. It’s a terrifying theme that sends chills down the spine and instantly transports you back to the film, whenever you may hear it.
Whilst the music isn’t as complex as John Williams’ other work, its simplicity is the reason why it works so well. In the documentary, The Shark is Still Working, Spielberg talks about the score and how the Williams seemed to be inspired by the film, to make something primal and predatory.
It’s perhaps because of this that the theme has become embedded in the filmgoer’s psyche for all these years. Much like Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho, John Williams’ score for Jaws has become an entity in its own right. Even if you haven’t seen the film, chances are you’re aware of that terrifying theme – a comment to its success.
I always seem to forget just how scary Jaws actually is. I’ve only ever seen the film on the television, in the safety of my own home, and it still makes me jump every single time I watch it.
From the famous moment a corpse floats into view through the crack of a sunken boat, to the film’s excellent climax, which sees the shark relentlessly attacking our heroes – I can imagine that on the biggest and loudest screen possible, Jaws would be an even more exciting and thrilling cinematic experience.
There’s an almost darkly satirical tone running through the film that I love too, as Spielberg plays with the idea of a small town community – complete with white picket fences – that comes under attack from a shark, and essentially become a floating floating buffet of bronzed flesh.
The director lingers on the people at the beach, until it’s impossible not to see them as walking meat. He also toys with the notion of the car crash effect, where you know you shouldn’t look, but at the same time find it hard not to, as the idea of a shark attack becomes a spectacle for some binocular weilding beach-goers.
What I love about Spielberg’s films, is how the lead heroes are normal, everyday people. In Jaws, the three lead characters are played by Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Rob Scheider – each a fantastic everyman, who brings an authenticity to the movie.
In fact, you can’t get more authentic when it comes to the performances of Shaw and Dreyfuss, who both on and off screen, didn’t like each other at all. Stories from the set tell of Shaw’s constant berating of Dreyfuss and how the pair would continually bicker.
In a way though, it could be considered that their off screen disdain for one another, helped in their performances, as the relationship between Quint and Hooper remains one of the highlights of the film.
Away from the adventure and horror of the movie, Jaws has some wonderfully quiet moments, where the performances really get to shine. A centrepiece which sees the men compare battle scars, resulting in a monolouge from Quint about surviving the Indianapolis, is a chilling sequence that has a tremendous performance from Shaw.
Only Spielberg’s second cinematic feature – one of the biggest joys when watching Jaws, is seeing one of the best directors of all time, honing his craft. A trail by fire – or rather water in this case – Jaws proved to be a hugely difficult production, and a massive learning experience for Spielberg.
Not only did he have to contend with Mother Nature herself, deciding to shoot the film at sea, when most would have shoot it in a tank on a studio backlot – but he had the difficult task of making a fake shark look real, and more importantly, getting it to actually work.
Problems with the mechanics of Bruce, meant there was a great deal of improvisation on set. Changes were constantly made to the script in an attempt to work around the faulty shark. I’ve already spoken about the way in which music, for example, was used to build tension and scare us.
Spielberg and his writing team had to think of new ways they could shoot scenes, where you didn’t actually see the shark at all. If you think about it, in terms of the film’s overall length, we hardly ever see the shark – yet, the film still works, perhaps more so, because of that fact.
With so much to contend with, it could be said that Jaws helped shape Spielberg into the director we know and love today. It showed the young director how to create huge, electrifying cinema, whilst at the same time maintaining a smaller, much more human story.
David Brown, producer of Jaws, sums it up best in The Shark Is Still Working, when he says that the film is “a big independent movie, masquerading as a big studio movie”. For all of its summer blockbuster fun, Jaws still has all the heart and emotion that we associate with Spielberg, with some much quieter moments – such as the aforementioned monolouge, or the lovely father/son moment at the dinner table – that make it more than just a film about a shark.
Watching Jaws, you can see an auteur developing his style and voice, which is as absorbing to watch as the film itself. It’s this, as well as John Williams’ brilliant score, the fantastic performances, and absolutely thrilling story that make Jaws such a great and historic piece of cinema. It’s a ‘perfect storm’ of a movie, where each individual thing, combined and blended to make a masterpiece of pure entertainment, that has been loved and embraced by generation after generation.
Here’s to another forty years of being afraid to go into the ocean.