When Jaws came on the scene in the summer of 1975 it was a cultural phenomenon that inspired a new word that would forever define the future of summer movie events: the Blockbuster. Based on a hugely successful book, Jaws was expected to do well, but it was not expected to motivate devoted fans across all demographics to see it again and again and again, causing the once troubled production to become one of the most lucrative films ever made. Accounting for an adjusted gross income Jaws still ranks number 7 among the top moneymakers of all time.
Peter Benchley (the book’s author) and Carl Gottlieb co-wrote the screenplay, Bill Butler (The Conversation) gorgeously crafted the cinematography and, most importantly a then relatively inexperienced Steven Spielberg directed (The Sugarland Express was his only other feature credit at the time). What could have become a cheaply made, B-movie monster film is instead a wonderfully subtle and beautifully depicted suspenseful thriller.
Much of the credit of the film’s success must go to the actors, and Spielberg must be credited with doing an exceptional job of casting. Roy Scheider (All That Jazz), better known at the time for his frequent turns as flamboyant characters, is at his absolute best playing a regular small town sheriff who defies all the odds to defend the community that he has sworn to protect and serve. His only assistance comes from a nerdy marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss in his breakout role) and a crazy old fisherman played eerily to perfection by the Shakespearian trained actor, Robert Shaw (The Sting). The film is basically a Western in the water, only this time the villain has fins.
Interestingly enough, many of the defining moments of this film were not a part of the original script, but forced into being by the continual delays caused by the mechanical shark. Left with the threat of shutting down production, Spielberg often had to think on his feet and create new sequences that would allow him to avoid filming with the malfunctioning nemesis. In the end the delay of the sharks reveal only adds to the overall suspense, and is credited as a large part of the film's ultimate success.
Perhaps the most memorable of these on set creations is the scene where Quint (Shaw) recounts a tale to Brody (Scheider) and Hooper (Dreyfuss). The story is of the ill-fated crew members of the USS Indianapolis who were set adrift and besieged by sharks. It is a seminal moment in the film as the Old Sea Salt tells the tale of the most horrifying experience in his life, and all though we see nothing but his ghostly face and the pale expressions of the men to whom he is speaking the effect is absolutely bone chilling. It is a moment created out of sheer performance.
And that moment stands as a reminder that, for all his special effects and fancy filmmaking, Steven Spielberg is a very talented director capable of drawing out the best an actor has to offer. I am reminded of this fact and appreciate Jaws even more every time I see it.