Jaws review – still the greatest blockbuster

Steven Spielberg's thriller about a murderous shark offers up a blockbuster template that is yet to be beaten

“What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine,” says Richard Dreyfuss’ oceanographer, Matt Hooper, partway through Steven Spielberg’s seminal classic, Jaws. He is talking, of course, about the twenty-five foot shark referenced in the film’s iconic title – a beast with the mind of a serial killer, arrived on the shores of Amity to terrorise its community during those prosperous summer months. But Hooper might as well be talking about Jaws itself, a perfect engine of a film if ever there was one, and a feat of blockbuster filmmaking so efficient and slick it almost feels like the industry has been treading water ever since.

In the forty-four years since its initial release, Jaws has amassed something of a dual reputation. It is regarded by many as the finest blockbuster of its kind. But film historians also like to flag Jaws – the first true summer “tentpole,” released country-wide and marketed all out of proportion – as the point where the business of movie-making changed forever. It became about the hype, the merchandising, the having seen it multiple times. But this is a blockbuster that deserves to appreciated for what it is, not what it inspired.

Events kick off when Police Chief Martin Brody (a never better Roy Scheider) discovers the mutilated body of a girl washed up on the beach. What’s originally credited to a boating accident (the mayor is adamant that the summer season, which brings in most of Amity’s profits for the year, remains unaffected by the death) soon gives way to a more sinister explanation. It isn’t long before Brody and Hooper, a charmingly arrogant shark expert sent from the mainland, come to realise they’re actually dealing with a predator of huge proportions. Eventually they are no left with no choice but to head out to sea with grizzled seafarer Quint (Robert Shaw) in order to kill the beast.

Peter Benchley’s original novel was a far pulpier affair, and Spielberg made several changes that rendered his own Jaws less melodramatic. He removed a mafia subplot, and also an affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife. Hooper – more of a rival on the page – became an ally and the film became an unashamed men-on-a-mission flick. In that notion lies the true success of the picture: Jaws isn’t great because of the shark. It’s great because its three leads are fascinating, complicated, and engaging human beings. The relationship they share, and the ensuing camaraderie they develop in pursuit of their goal, forms the heart of the picture. It’s the reason we keep going back. Take note, modern Hollywood.

The impact of John Williams’ iconic two-note theme cannot be underestimated, of course, but the rest of his score is exemplary, too – especially later, during the third act, as the music takes on the spirit of a pirate adventure. And then again, in the film’s final moments, a beautiful, melancholy piece plays as our remaining heroes kick their way back to shore. To ignore the brilliance of William’s entire score in favour of the two-note theme is to miss what gives Spielberg’s thriller so much of its well-oiled appeal.

But what else makes Jaws tick with the precision of a celluloid Swiss watch? Put it down to a combination of two things, perhaps: Spielberg’s natural instincts, which he would later rely on to create some of the most popular movies in cinema history, coupled with that all-too-rare occurrence: the planets aligning, the right elements coming together at just the right time. So we get a witty but never overcooked three-act script in which not a single beat is wasted. Gliding, Hitchcockian cinematography. Verna Field’s immaculate editing. Few films manage such a cohesive synchronicity of filmic elements.

Even the disastrous moments on set, the ones that Spielberg surely assumed would lead to the end of his career, resulted in a better product. When the fake shark refused to work, the director opted to show less – a masterstroke that served to increase tension, not undermine it. Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss famously hated each other, yes, but the loathing is right there on the screen, enhancing the drama in ways that acting alone never could. Lightning in a bottle, and then some.

The most frightening moment of the film might not involve the shark at all. Holed up in the cabin of the Orca, Robert Shaw’s salty seafarer (and U.S.S. Indianapolis survivor, it turns out) recounts the incident that set him onto the path of vengeful shark hunter. His five minute-long speech is a tour-de-force of eerie realism, arguably cinema’s best monologue. “Anyway,” Quint tells Brody and Hooper, who stare on, wide-eyed, as he signals the end of his story: “We delivered the bomb.” It’s at this point that Jaws, already flirting with genius, transcends its pulpy origins to become something more: an American masterpiece.

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