A Look Back At Spielberg’s Masterpiece “Jaws”

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Directed by Steven Spielberg

Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw star in this terrifying thriller about an enormous man-eating Great White Shark that terrorizes the fictional coastal summer resort town of Amity, Long Island on the Fourth of July weekend. Based on the trashy best-selling novel by Peter Benchley (who also provides the screenplay along with Carl Gottlieb), this low-budget film (operating on a reported $12 million) which had a mostly no-name cast, was a surprise cash cow. Thanks to a sophisticated, unrelenting publicity campaign, Jaws was the first film to rake in over $100 million (it grossed more than $260 million at the domestic box office and nearly $475 million worldwide). It went onto spawn three sequels (all terrible), laid out a blueprint for summer blockbusters and put Steven Spielberg onto the A-list of Hollywood directors.

Spielberg doesn’t serve up mass quantities of blood and gore but what makes Jaws work is the confident direction combined with stellar editing that draws the audience into relaxing at precisely all the wrong moments. Spielberg’s meticulous attention to creating suspense recalls the best of Hitchcock. Jaws remains tense by not showing audiences the shark for the majority of the film. For the first hour, the only glimpses we catch of the beast are fleeting and indistinct. The camera doesn’t dwell upon it until the final act. We are only treated to a long hard look at the shark when it passes by the deck of the ship, setting up the film’s most memorable line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” In the final scenes, it becomes apparent why Jaws gets so little screen time – it simply looks fake. Spielberg openly admits that if the technology had been better, he would have shown the shark more often. Ironically, it is this handicap that resulted in the film’s greatest strength. By keeping Jaws hidden from the audience, the movie effectively builds suspense and the end result is an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

The sheer ambition of making of a movie on the scale of Jaws is admirable enough. Special effects at the time meant animation, blue screen model work, and crude animatronics so creating a convincing 26-foot great white shark seemed like an impossible task. The shark in Jaws was actually a combination of real footage and five different mechanical sharks (all nicknamed “Bruce” by the crew) built to be shot from different angles. Spielberg envisioned Jaws as a water-based reworking of his previous film Duel, and as he has stated in recent interviews, he was “young and fearless – or perhaps dumb.” Jaws flirted with disaster on land and water and the making of Jaws proved to be just as entertaining as the film itself. Each mechanical shark was made largely of plastic, weighed 1½ tons and cost about $150,000. Although built for different purposes—one for left-to-right movements, another for right-to-left movements, a third for underwater scenes—each was similarly operated by hydraulic pistons and compressed air. Bruce required 20 assistants and a twelve-ton steel platform, to which the mechanical shark was attached by a 100-ft.-long umbilical cable, to be sunk to the ocean floor. The controls on the platform were operated by 13 technicians wearing scuba equipment. In short it was a difficult feet and upon it’s debut, “Bruce” sank to the bottom of the ocean taking with it, half the budget to the film. In the special features Spielberg went on to say, “With all the planning we did, nobody thought much about the currents or anything at all about the waves.” A strong current would cause equipment boats to drift away. Water colour would change, the rhythm of the waves would fluctuate. “I could have just shot the movie in the tank.” The problems seemed endless yet decades later Jaws still remains Spielberg’s best film.

While you can’t deny the brilliance behind Spielberg direction, Jaws was a success due to a talented, relentless and ambitious crew. The screenwriters deliver well drawn characters, crisp dialogue and wisely opted to introduce two villains; the face of bureaucracy and the man eating beast. Cinematographer Bill Butler did remarkable work shooting much of the film from right above the water line. The point of view of someone treading water helped increase the level of suspense – while on the Orca – he opted to use the wide expanse of sea and sky as an imposing background – emphasizing the isolation of the crew.

The film’s framing techniques are brilliant, most noteworthy is the steady-cam view looking down a 100 foot pole upon a rocking boat. Of course no one can forget the main theme, for Jaws. The classic two-note shark theme is one of the most recognizable cues in movie music history. Combined with the shark’s p.o.v. camera shots, Williams’ music is enough to evoke the approach of the creature, even when we don’t see it. John Williams’ unforgettable Jaws theme reminds us of the terror that lurks just beneath the surface; its heartbeat-like pulsing tone of impending terror is more responsible for the power of the film than the shark itself. Finally editor Verna Fields in her final editing assignment before her death in 1982, helped create an incredible sense of pacing, tension and horror that made Jaws such a grabber. To this day many of the crew and cast members go so far as to say that it was her editing that saved the production.

The acting, while a secondary element of the film, certainly doesn’t hurt. Spielberg builds the characters beyond the usual stereotypes so often found in Hollywood films. Roy Scheider is strong as the transplanted city cop trying to overcome his fear of the water. Richard Dreyfuss is surprisingly and effectively low-key as the scientific egghead and Robert Shaw (as Captain Ahab) is most outstanding. Bordering of parody, Shaw plays Quint as an old grumpy loner, slightly deranged yet slightly heroic. None of them had the box office draw of a Robert Redford or Paul Newman, but they all worked well as a team delivering breakthrough performances in some of cinema’s most unforgettable moments.

Spielberg overcame many obstacles, and delivered one of the greatest primal scare-thrillers ever to come out of Hollywood, while taking in four Academy Award nominations and winning three (Best Sound, Best Original Score and Best Film Editing). Jaws was chosen by the prestigious American Film Institute as one of the 100 Greatest American Films of all time and forever changed the way entire generations thought about swimming in the ocean. Jaws was more than a blockbuster; it remains a cultural phenomenon and one which sparked a worldwide fascination with sharks.

– Ricky D

  1. Bill Mesce says

    I’m just now watching a documentary on the making of JAWS. The original budget was $4 million and escalted to over 12. Richard Dreyfuss said that would be the equivalent today of a $30 million budget running up to $150 million.

  2. Bill Mesce says

    JAWS is always worth a look no matter how much time passes by since it — along with STAR WARS — inaugurated an era of big budget blockbusters, obsessions with opening weekends, huge national rollouts, and massive multimedia marketing blitzes.
    JAWS also benefited from having the summer to itself. In those days, summer was more typically a dump-off time where the studios shoveled cheap junk into theaters for a predominantly young audience. JAWS reversed that trend showing there was a big spending audience hungry for more lavishly-produced entertainment.
    One correction, though: at the time, $12 million was considered a fairly lavish outlay (if I recall correctly, I think at the time an average budget was more in the $3-5 million range; THE FRENCH CONNECTION, produced just a few years earlier, was turned out for $2 million).
    Nice piece, though.

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