Two notes. The most memorable two notes in history, signalling to the world that a skinny dipper won’t be home for dinner. Composer John Williams, here winning his second of five Oscars – so far – and whom celebrated his 80th birthday last Wednesday, used these two notes to produce a primitive, devastatingly simple theme tune more recognisable than any other in cinema. Would Jaws have had such an effect without the tune? Probably, but it might not be quite so memorable.
Some credit should be given to the director too. A 26-year old working on only his second feature after the mild success of The Sugarland Express and his direct-to-TV man vs. truck classic Duel, cocky young upstart Steven Spielberg was eager to prove his worth. After purchasing the rights to Peter Benchley’s novel, what followed was one of the most famously arduous shoots ever experienced until Apocalypse Now. The actors hated each other. Boats almost sank or repeatedly drifted unwanted into shot. The pissed off Martha’s Vineyard locals incessantly badgered the crew, it all cost too much and took too long, with reshoots needed to make it just right (some scenes were reshot in the editor’s swimming pool). And of course, the shark didn’t work. The eyes looked weird, the jaws wouldn’t close, the thing wouldn’t float or just didn’t work full stop. Everything had to be geared around that giant mechanical fish. But in a way, all these obstacles came together to add to the whole. The three leads – Roy Scheider’s chief of police Brody, Robert Shaw’s salty sea dog Qunit and Richard Dreyfuss’ techie oceanographer Hooper are supposed to distrust each other, so a mutual dislike between the actors could only heighten that. Continued reshoots allowed shots to be perfected. And a malfunctioning shark meant they couldn’t show the monster, allowing audiences imaginations – always able to outdo any Hollywood special effects – to add in the gnashing teeth, piercing eyes and circling fins where needed. The film set the template for every blockbuster and mainstream monster horror since – only the best creature features save the big reveals to the end.
Whilst there is much to thank Mr. Spielberg for with regard to Jaws’ impact, there are some downsides too. Jaws was released nationwide in over 400 screens – unheard of in its day. Everyone involved assumed it would flop, so they prayed for a fair to middling opening weekend with which to gain back the millions lost in the making. Instead, they found the weekly grosses did nothing but rise, so a complete market saturation became the norm for all summer blockbusters, most notably Star Wars two years later. So nowadays you can blame the tentpole summer pictures – the floods of superheroes and giant robots beating the crap out of each other – at least partially on Jaws.
Not everything good came from the bad or accidental though. The script and staging is impeccable, with one notable scene – the three leads in the galley of Quint’s boat the Orca – passes from tension, to camaraderie, through heavy emotion, back to a sense of fun and then intense action, all without any sense of confusion or feeling rushed. There is some great blindsiding; assuring you something obvious is going to happen, before smacking you in the face with the exact opposite, and even the little moments – the ominous clicking of an unwinding fishing line under Quint’s steely gaze, Hooper’s boyish glee at the menagerie of jawbones hanging in Quint’s shack – all register with great impact.
Choose film 10/10