Jaws didn’t just reel in millions at the global box office, it heralded the summer blockbuster era and turned Steven Spielberg into a superstar. Back on the big screen for a limited UK run, the director’s classy fish-themed thriller still wows.
The making of Jaws was almost the undoing of Spielberg. Filmed on and off Martha’s Vineyard, the production was beset by logistical headaches and clashing personalities. Stars Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw hated each other, the weather constantly changed, meaning matching footage and shots was virtually impossible, delays left the budget spiralling out of control, the three mechanical sharks broke down repeatedly and one time they almost lost the Orca to the briny deep, when the boat began sinking for real (with principal cast aboard). Spielberg feared not just being fired but never eating lunch in Hollywood again.
Partly inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, making old salt Quint (Shaw) the film’s Captain Ahab, the political backdrop involving a dishonest politician insisting the beaches stay open for business – even though “a perfect engine, an eating machine” is gobbling up locals – feels like a reaction to Watergate and growing distrust of government. An exciting plot, in which a great white shark terrorises a seaside community heavily dependent on tourist dollars, is also a finely acted and imaginative portrait of class conflict, represented in the drama’s key trio: working-class Quint, middle-class Brody (Roy Scheider) and Ivy Leaguer Hooper (Dreyfuss).
The coarse, vulgar fisherman (and USS Indianapolis survivor) insinuates both the Amity Island Chief of Police and the oceanographer aren’t as inherently manly as he is. Brody is afraid of the water, but as the island’s top cop, he is forced to go, reluctantly, beyond his comfort zone to restore order. Quint thinks Hooper has the hands of a woman or a mama’s boy who hasn’t done a day’s graft in his life. These class-based tensions, mixed in with nuanced and sometimes ironically comic depictions of masculinity, bring so much character to the film’s gripping second half, where the town has finally decided to act in protecting the islanders.
Jaws is something of a hybrid vehicle, one that’s part-slasher and part-western, featuring three very different fellows setting out to round up the bad guy and learning along the way, through trial by shark, to respect tolerate each other’s skillsets. Neither is it difficult or too much of a grab to see the voyage as a male bonding ritual.
Forty-four years on, Jaws is still terrific and has lost none of its bite. There are iconic shots aplenty and Verna Fields’ Oscar-winning editing aids in the crafting of so much high suspense and delicious black humour. Go for that theme tune, the abundant gruesome thrills, wonderful performances, the dialogue you know by heart; stay for the meaty 1970s America subtext and appreciate that there’s lots more depth to Jaws than its surface-level genre kicks.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn