Somehow I’d gotten through all my 28 years without ever seeing Jaws. It’s the sort of admission that shocks people – you must have seen it, everyone's seen it! Oh, I’d seen snippets, in film classes and such, but never the whole movie. Despite that, though, Jaws had such an enormous cultural impact that I knew almost everything about it: the key lines (“we’re gonna need a bigger boat”); the stories of the malfunctioning prop shark; not to mention John Williams’ iconic theme, a jagged two-note shortcut to deep, nameless terror.
As it was, Jaws had enough force to scare me off swimming without me needing to set foot in a cinema. All it took was my father teasing me with that theme, or an underwater hand grabbing my ankle, to send my skinny little frame bolting across the surface of the water to the safety of the shore.
It’s probably just as well I didn’t see it as a child: even now, 37 years after its initial release, Jaws still had me jumping. I could excuse my girlish screams and the fingernail scratches in the armrest of my seat by pointing to the digitally restored print but we’d all know that for the lie it is. No, be it on VHS, Betamax or Blu-ray, Jaws is a remorseless machine, forever building tension but never fully paying off until the final battle with the shark.
Spielberg’s direction never faults. The seaside town of Amity, New England looks picture-perfect, but canny editing and the unspoken fear conjured by Williams’ score suggest that Police Chief Brody (Roy Schneider) is right to be afraid: there’s something lurking out there. The conflict between Brody and the town mayor (Murray Hamilton) is pitch-perfect and makes for an interesting analog with the debate between scientists and climate change deniers. There’s enough tension here to sustain a movie of its own: is there really a shark, or is Schneider letting his own fear of the ocean get the better of him? Does Mayor Vaughan actually believe that story about a boating accident, or is he fooling himself?
By the time the action moves off shore and onto Quint (Robert Shaw)’s boat, the tone of the film has changed drastically. The evidence of the shark can’t be ignored any longer, so Williams’ score shifts from subtle, fluttering menace to more aggressive themes: the threat is real, and it is near.
There’s a great deal of attention paid to the tension that rises between Quint, Hooper and Schneider as they hunt the shark. The educated Hooper and the weatherworn Quint are at odds with one another from the start, each doubting the other’s abilities. The shark fades from view in this section, as the strain of the hunt puts pressure on the three men, trapped as they are in a small fishing boat together. The pressure of their situation forces a strange camaraderie between them, though, similar to the strained, odd relationships that form between the survivors in, say, The Walking Dead.
That camaraderie serves them well in the final scenes, in their do-or-die tangle with the terrible Great White. This last sequence does away with much of the subtlety that has been the film’s stock in trade until now, finally releasing the long-held tension in dramatic bursts of shark-on-boat violence, as the men race to find a way to bring down this monster. When, after a great deal of bloodshed and destruction, they succeed in destroying the creature, the victory feels deserved, and the relief Schneider feels is echoed by the audience.
For what is basically an old-fashioned creature feature at heart, Spielberg does amazing things with Jaws. The economical story is delivered with superb pace and subtlety, observing the small details that combine to make such a riveting whole. The harmony between Spielberg’s direction and Williams’ score is nothing short of perfect, and the performances are excellent throughout (she only gets the briefest of roles, but Peggy Scott steals her scene as Brody’s secretary). It’s a classic for all the right reasons, and will no doubt outlive its creators.
You’re still not getting me in the water, though.