Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Jaws (1975)
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Jaws (1975) is a masterful, visceral and realistic science-fiction suspense/horror-disaster film that taps into the most primal of human fears - what unseen creature lurks below the dark surface of the water beyond the beach? The tagline for the tensely-paced film, "Don't go in the water," kept a lot of shark-hysterical ocean-swimmers and 1975 summer beachgoers wary (similar to the effect that Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) had on shower-taking).

The screenplay, mostly written by young, 27 year-old director Spielberg himself and Carl Gottlieb, was provided in part by Peter Benchley who wrote a trashy action novel by the same name (but originally titled A Stillness in the Water) about the fictional New England coastal town of Amity, Long Island - a summer resort that is terrorized by a menacing Great White Shark (known as the genus/species Carcharodon carcharias). It remains a major mythic tale of the forces of Man against the supernatural power of a Shark.

Both Benchley's best-selling book (released in the winter of 1973-74) and Spielberg's film borrowed from various sources:

  • Herman Melville's 1851 Moby Dick, about a search for a monstrous sea creature (a great white whale) by a determined Captain Ahab
  • Ibsen's 1882 classic play An Enemy of the People
  • the exploits of diver Peter Gimbel's shark expedition recounted in the documentary film Blue Water, White Death (1971)
  • Peter Matthiessen's 1971 non-fiction book Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark
  • two great 50s horror films: The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)
  • a real-life incident on the New Jersey shore in the summer of 1916 that claimed five lives over the course of two weeks

Benchley's next water-related book that was brought to the screen as another hit was The Deep (1977), with a reappearance by Robert Shaw and mostly remembered for Jacqueline Bisset's scuba-diving in a wet, revealing white T-shirt.

The three major characters who ultimately confront the film's major character - the shark (similar to the whale search in various Moby Dick sagas), include:

  • Chief Brody (Roy Scheider, although Charlton Heston was considered), the town's young, principled police officer, with a family
  • Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, while Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms and Jan-Michael Vincent were other possible candidates), a young, bespectacled, bearded, knowledgeable marine biologist expert from Woods Hole
  • Quint (Robert Shaw), a grizzly, salty fisherman and WWII veteran from an older generation; portrayed as over-the-top and obsessed (as Captain Ahab was) to hunt and kill the great white from a boat named Orca (named after the black and white predatory 'killer whale' - the shark's sole enemy besides man); [both Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden were considered for the role of Quint at one time]

The unheeding Mayor (Murray Hamilton), a devious, self-interested and dishonest authority figure in the town, is aligned with the town's 'fathers' who continually make unwise decisions that affect the safety of the community. The actions of the morally irresponsible Mayor, who covers up the dangers of the underwater enemy in the community and restricts the local police chief, resonated with audiences in the mid-70s following the Watergate era (and its own cover-up) and the earlier failure of the US military effort in Vietnam.

This was Steven Spielberg's second-directed feature film (following his poorly-received The Sugarland Express (1974)) with Goldie Hawn, but it was more similar in theme to his earlier Duel (1971) - a 73-minute ABC made-for-TV movie (and released theatrically in 1983) about a relentless, sinister and face-less driver in a demon gas tanker-truck in pursuit of a salesman's (Dennis Weaver) rented car. The same technique of delaying a glimpse of the dangerous force was employed in this film - a full view of the shark is not provided until over an hour into the film (although there are a few brief glimpses).

From four Academy Award nominations, it won three Oscars: Best Sound, Best Original Score (composer John Williams, his first Oscar of many awards in the category), and Best Film Editing (Verna Fields, her final editing assignment before her death in 1982). Its Best Picture nomination went unrewarded. [That year, freshman director Spielberg was the only director of a Best Picture nominee that didn't receive a Best Director nomination.] This was Spielberg's and Williams' second collaboration together, following their work on The Sugarland Express (1974), and they would go on to collaborate on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - among others.

Spielberg's film was a huge summer box-office blockbuster in the mid-1970s, although the filming suffered technical problems (the film was dubbed "Flaws" by the crew), costly delays in the schedule on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts where the set was located (the on-location shoot escalated from 55 days to 159 days), and difficulties with malfunctioning, hydraulically-operated mechanical sharks (one was nicknamed 'Bruce' after the name of Spielberg's lawyer) after they were placed in the salt-water. Hollywood realized that it could increase its profits by advertising this new release on television and promoted the film with a massive, revolutionary TV marketing campaign (of $700,000) for the film.

The film was also booked into almost 500 theatres for its opening weekend - a record! The film's impact caused its celebration on the cover of Time Magazine (June 23, 1975). With a modest film budget of about $12 million, Jaws was the highest grossing film up to that time (unbroken until the release of George Lucas' Star Wars (1977)), and earned its 27 year-old director a place in Hollywood. It grossed $438 million in eleven weeks, and was also the first film to top the $100 million record in box-office rentals (cruising past previous pace-setters Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965)).

Its tremendous success spurred Hollywood studios to aggressively look for further blockbusting, 'big-event' films with expensive ad campaigns, and the film industry did so - with Star Wars (1977), Grease (1978), and Superman (1978), while overlooking or neglecting smaller films. Repeated attempts were made to duplicate the original film's success in three mostly-weak sequels, although there were two Oscar-winning actors in these inferior sequels: Lou Gossett, and Michael Caine:

Jaws 2 (1978) Jeannot Szwarc (a replacement for original director John Hancock)
Four years later, on Amity Island; Roy Scheider - the only major returning star; also with Murray Hamilton (the mayor) and Lorraine Gary (Brody's wife)
Jaws 3-D (1983) (aka Jaws III) Joe Alves Originally released as 3-D; set in Florida at Sea World Park; with Dennis Quaid as one of the sons of Chief Brody, Bess Armstrong, Lea Thompson, and Louis Gossett, Jr.
Jaws: The Revenge (1987) Joseph Sargent Again set on Amity Island - and in the Bahamas; with Lorraine Gary as Brody's widow; also with Mario Van Peebles, Michael Caine, and Karen Young

There were other exploitative imitators, knock-offs, copy-cats, and rip-off 'terror in the water' films, including Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), Tintorera...Bloody Waters (1977), Orca (1977), Tentacles (1977), Joe Dante's Piranha (1978), Killer Fish (1979), Crocodile (1979), Anaconda (1997), the Peter Benchley-scripted NBC mini-series The Beast (1999), Lake Placid (1999), the effectively scary Deep Blue Sea (1999) [with a number of 'in-joke' homages that paid honor to the original, as well as a memorable shark chomping attack on Samuel L. Jackson], and the chillingly-dramatic Open Water (2003) (a cross between Jaws and Dead Calm (1989)), based on a true story of two divers stranded in open waters.

It also inspired spoofs and parodies, including the opening of Airplane! (1980) in which a jet's rear tail (like a shark fin) sliced through the clouds, and an oft-played skit on Saturday Night Live in which a shark disguised itself as a pizza and candy-gram delivery person to enter an apartment. It was also parodied or referenced in Top Secret! (1984), Clerks (1994), Swingers (1996), and The Simpsons TV show - among others.

Plot Synopsis

The ominous, well-known, 'shark theme' - the two-note (E and F) 'da-dum' cello and bass chords of John Williams' moody, driving musical score play under the opening credits, followed by a subjective camera view of an underwater creature swimming along. The opening scene, shot day-for-night, is marvelously visual and terrifying. It depicts a blonde girl skinny-dipping and her brutal, unexpected murder. It is the most remembered, gripping scene in the film, and prominently displayed on the film's poster in distinctly Freudian terms (showing the ventral view of the shark's gigantic, pointed head, positioned vertically in a phallic position, with a dark mouth filled with voracious, jagged teeth).

The scene begins with teenagers partying one night on the beach, and sitting around a bonfire. One of the teenage partygoers, a blonde named Christine "Chrissie" Watkins (Susan Backlinie) leaves the group and runs toward the water, announcing teasingly that she is going swimming. Followed by a drunk male admirer Tom Cassidy (Jonathan Filley) who is eager for an intimate swim and casual sex, their run takes them along a run-down sand-dune fence - that in silhouette resembles skeletal bones or vertebrae - of a large fish. She strips off items of clothing one-by-one as she runs further down the beach before plunging in naked. Her silhouetted image splashes at the surface, first viewed in a low-angle shot from a distance far underwater (threatening an X-rating), and then from closer range. Her drunken teenage companion passes out on the shore. A metal buoy's bell on the surface of the water 'tings' at various intervals.

In what may be retribution for teen immorality, her nude body is suddenly pulled under, and then dragged helplessly (pulled this way and then that way) on the surface by the unseen shark underneath, as she screams: "God help me!" For a brief moment, she desperately grabs the buoy and rings it for help (sounding a death knell), but is then attacked and submerged for the last time in a horrifying sequence. The water surface is again still and deathly quiet.

The next morning, after a dissolve into a view of the ocean's sunlit surface, stalwart Police Chief Martin Brody's (Roy Scheider, who had received an Oscar nomination for his role as Gene Hackman's sidekick in the Best Picture-winning The French Connection (1971)) black silhouette covers half the screen. He is groggy after awakening in his New England coastal home. A few facts about Brody are economically communicated - he is young and married with two boys, the house was purchased in the fall and now it's summer, and Brody's blonde wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) makes fun of his out-of-town New York accent in their transplanted New England location: "In Amity, you say 'ya-a-d." [not 'yar-r-d.'] Brody had moved from New York City to Amity in order to find a better life for his family.

An outsider to the town, former New York cop Brody receives a phone call from his Deputy Officer Jeff Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer). He asks: "What do they usually do, wash up or float or what?" He promises to join an investigation in about twenty minutes. It is just at the start of the peak summer tourist season, and he and his family are new to Amity Island, having moved there from the city. Their beachside house is surrounded by a strangely-inadequate white picket-fence with gaping holes and unusually high sections. In his yellow truck, he passes a billboard advertising the favorite holiday destination: "AMITY ISLAND Welcomes You, 50th Annual Regatta, July 4-10." [Note: Amity is an unusual and ironic name for a town that is being besieged by a man-eating giant shark.]

The teenaged boy Tom Cassidy who followed Chrissie to the water's edge has reported a possible drowning off the coast. The camera tracks Brody and the boy as they walk along the sand toward the body. However, Brody's Deputy Officer Hendricks has ruled out the possibility of drowning - he has already found the remains of Chrissie's body and her severed hand, washed up on the sand dunes. The sight of the attack on the local girl nearly makes Brody sick.

In his office, the troubled chief is bothered by a report from his assistant - it's another problem with fences: "Now we got a bunch of calls about that karate school. It seems that the 9 year-olds from the school have been 'karate-ing' the picket fences." He hastily types up a police report on the suspected shark attack, dated July 2nd, revealing his flustered, rushed state. He has mistyped (or misspelled) the entry for "REMOVED TO" - "CORNERS OFFICE." The date of death is the night of July 1st, and the possible cause of death is "SHARK ATTACK." He is summoned by phone to speak to the medical inspector/coroner (Robert Nevin) who states it was probably a shark attack. As Brody leaves his office, he asks Hendricks: "Where do we keep the 'BEACH CLOSED' signs?" He is bluntly told that Amity Island doesn't have such signs: "We never had any."

Brody marches to the local hardware store - along more white picket fences - to buy materials to make BEACH CLOSED signs. Along the way, an old man points out fence vandalism by the young kids: "Look what the kids did to my fence!" In the store, he purchases paint, brushes, signboards, and unpainted picket fence stakes. Hendricks drives up and alerts him to a potential problem: "...there's a bunch of Boy Scouts out in April Bay doing their mile swim for their Merit Badges. I couldn't call 'em in. They're no phones out there." Brody switches places with his Deputy, assigning him the job of making signs: "BEACHES CLOSED, NO SWIMMING, by order of the Amity P.D." The Chief of Police decides to close the area's beaches immediately - fencing off natural open areas will prove to be a considerable challenge.

While attempting to get the Boy Scouts out of the water, Brody is confronted by the mayor and town's fathers in the confined space of one of Amity's ferries, suggesting the island's isolation and dependence on beach-going summer tourists for its livelihood and survival. Amity's slimy mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), comically wearing a gray sportcoat decorated with white anchors, tells Brody that he can't close the beaches on his own authority. Technically, he must have a civic ordinance or a resolution by a Board of Selectmen. Vaughn is concerned about the impact closing the island's beaches will have on the businesses in the exclusive town:

Vaughn: We're really a little anxious that you're, ah, you're rushing into something serious here. It's your first summer, you know.
Brody: What does that mean?
Vaughn: I'm only trying to say that Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars. If people can't swim here, they'll be glad to swim in the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island.
Brody: That doesn't mean we have to serve them up a smorgasbord.
Mayor's Assistant: We've never had that kind of trouble in these waters.

The medical examiner/coroner tells Brody that the police report must be amended - he must retract his earlier judgment about the cause of death - it is now only a boating accident. (He has been pressured by the town's fathers because publicity about a shark attack would be harmful to the approaching tourist season.) After ordering a coverup, the avaricious, sleazy mayor orders Brody to keep the beaches open:

I don't think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these things...It's all psychological. You yell 'Barracuda,' everybody says 'Huh? What?' You yell 'Shark,' we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.

Along the beach waterline, crowds of people enjoy the long Independence Day holiday, including Brody and his own family - in the first of two beach scenes in the film. Sunbathers lie on the packed beach. It is a typically American scene - an obese female bather enters the water in a brightly colored swimsuit and sunhat. A transistor radio plays music on the soundtrack. A young boy named Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is permitted to go out on a raft for "just ten more minutes" by his mother (Lee Fierro) - she wears a shapeless yellow sun hat. A worried and suspicious Chief Brody sits in the sand, wearing a navy blue T-shirt. He nervously scans the shoreline. Uptight as he sits in front of a red and white striped bathing tent, he watches while hundreds of swimmers sunbathe on the beach and frolic in the water. He hears his nearby wife, wearing a deathly-black bathing suit, speaking to a black-haired, sunbathing friend-resident (later identified as a motel owner) about their lack of territorial status on Amity Island - as outsiders uprooted from New York:

Ellen: I just want to know one simple thing. When do I get to become an islander?
Friend/Motel Owner: Ellen, never. Never. You're not born here, you're not an islander. That's it.

A young boy throws a stick for fetching by his black dog - the animal splashes and swims with a stick in its mouth (a Hitchcockian foreshadowing of another use of jaws). A young couple share a tight embrace in the water. Just beyond most of the swimmers, Alex floats on a bright yellow rubber raft, and the fat woman floats on her back without the aid of a raft. The camera plays peek-a-boo with Brody - as he looks out at the water's horizon and passers-by block his view as he struggles to be watchful. A few false alarms are sighted, effectively and expertly building viewer expectations, tension and suspense. An elderly swimmer named Harry, whose grayish-colored bathing cap is mistaken for a shark fin, swims up behind the floating woman. As the husband of the resident-islander kneels in front of him and complains about parking problems in town, Brody cranes his eyes above the man's massive shoulder to maintain an unobstructed view. The young couple's horseplay and screaming (as the boy playfully lifts his girlfriend onto his shoulders) fool the "uptight" police chief into thinking the shark is attacking. He sits back in relief, as Harry - with the ugly bathing cap - sits down in front of him and needles him about his reluctance to get wet (and water phobia):

Harry: It's cold. We know all about you, Chief. You don't go in the water at all, do you?
Brody: That's some bad hat, Harry.

Kids splash and scream in the foreground of the water, while Alex floats further out. Brody's wife encourages him to relax - and supportively gives him a back and neck massage.

The film builds more suspense in the next remarkable sequence of quick-edited, brilliant cuts: the dog-owner makes plaintive calls for his dog Pippet but only the stick floats on the surface of the water; the familiar score is repeated; gyrating, wiggling leg movements are photographed from underwater; another underwater view shows Alex's legs vulnerably kicking off the back of his raft. There is a momentary view of a giant fin slicing through the water. A strange shape surfaces beneath Alex's raft, grabbing him and overturning the raft. A vacationer on the beach remarks: "Did you see that?" Blood gushes from Alex's body like from a fire hydrant or fountain. The boy screams and then is dragged underwater - his yells turn to bubbling gurgles. Around the raft, the water becomes red - Alex is the great white's second victim.

Brody's worst fears have become a reality - a subjective smash-zoom (or push-pull) shot (similar to the mission tower camera work in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958)) zeroes in on his shocked, recoiling face as he reacts to the harrowing attack he has just witnessed. Literally, his chair moves toward the camera while the background surroundings move backwards. He jumps up to his feet from his place on the beach, yelling at the water's edge: "Everybody out!" Terrified parents run into the water, pulling their children out as fast as possible. Alex's mother frantically calls over and over again for her boy: "Alex! Alex!" - only his rubber raft, swirling around in blood-tinged water, washes up on the shore at her feet. The yellow raft has a gaping hole bitten out of it.

The next day, a REWARD sign is posted on a bulletin board in a corridor where townspeople talk about the crisis. Mrs. Kintner has put up a bounty, advertising in the town's paper and other out-of-town papers all over New England [the date on the reward sign is inconsistent with Brody's police report about Chrissie's death]:

A $3,000.00 Bounty To The Man Or Men Who Catch And Kill The Shark That Killed Alex M. Kintner On Sunday Jun 29th on the Amity Town Beach.

People in town are still wary of drawing conclusions: "We don't even know if there's a shark around here," argues the female motel owner. Brody worries that the bounty-offer may become a "contest." Brody feels responsible for the town's public safety. A meeting among the town's elders is assembled in a crowded Amity City schoolroom (dubbed the "council's chambers" by the mayor) at the end of the corridor, to talk about closing the beaches of the picturesque resort town. The room has a long, semi-circular desk at the front of the room, and a blank blackboard stands behind rows of chairs at the back.

When the meeting is convened, Chief Brody announces current plans regarding the beaches:

Brody: We're gonna put on the summer, the extra summer deputies as soon as possible. And then we're gonna try and use shark spotters on the beach.
Motel Owner: Are we going to close the beaches?
Brody (after a long pause): Yes, we are. (There is loud grumbling in the audience.) We're also planning to bring in some experts from the Oceanographic Institute on the mainland.

Although Brody hasn't yet agreed to the order to close the beaches (he protests: "I didn't agree to that"), the mayor clarifies that the beach closure will only be for 24 hours: "Only 24 hours." Brody is left helpless, emasculated, and speechless in front of the meeting.

Suddenly, master fisherman Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), an eccentric, grizzled shark-hunter, makes a dramatic entrance by silencing the commotion of the meeting.

[His name conjurs up his legendary predecessor - Captain Ahab. In Latin, Quint means fifth or five -- consequentially, he eventually becomes the great shark's fifth and final human victim, after: (1) Chrissie Watkins, (2) Alex Kintner, (3) Ben Gardner, (4) Michael's sailing teacher - the guy in the pond, and (5) Quint.]

The colorful old sea salt with a brogue-accent scrapes his fingernails - on a disembodied arm - irritatingly across the blackboard (with a drawn/doodled outline of a Great White Shark with a human being in its tooth-rimmed mouth) at the back of the audience to get everybody's attention. As the camera slowly pans toward him while he munches on a salty cracker, the foul-mouthed charterboat captain proposes to rid the town of the menacing, deadly shark - for $10,000:

You all know me. You know how I earn a livin'. I'll catch this bird for ya, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish! Not like goin' down to the pond chasing bluegills or tommycats. This shark will swallow you whole. Shakin'. Tenderizin'. Down you go. Now we got to do it quick. That'll bring back the tourists and it'll put all your businesses on a payin' basis. But it's not gonna be pleasant. I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, Chief. I'll find him for three, but I'll catch him and kill him for ten. You've got to make up your minds. Gonna stay alive and ante up? Or want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter. I don't want no volunteers. I don't want no mates. There's too many captains on this island. $10,000 dollars for me by myself. For that, you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.

The old salt is told by the mayor that the matter will be considered: "We'll, uh, we'll take it under advisement." Abruptly, "No Swimming, Hazardous Area, BEACH CLOSED" signs (by order of the Amity P.D.) are staked and pounded into the ground.

The film provides background on shark behavior and real shark attacks, as Brody studies up on sharks and their predatory behavior. He reads, studies and peruses picture books with colorful pictures of gigantic sharks. One of the illustrations shows how the shark's lateral sensory system serves as a vibration detector, alerting the shark to erratic impulses from a fish in distress. As his wife sits down behind him while he is engrossed in the book, Brody jumps from shock and alarm - symbolic of the tension that is beginning to enter their lives, but she reacts with a giggle and tells him: "Oh, you scared me." He tells Ellen what he has learned about the mysterious beasts of the deep:

People don't even know how old sharks are, I mean, if they live two - three thousand years...They don't know.

Functioning as the voice of reason and common-sense, she advises him to put the book away and again relax with her ("Wanna get drunk and fool around?"). She also complains when her husband needlessly orders their children, Sean (Jay Mello) and Michael (Chris Rebello) in from the boat at the dock, but then changes her mind when she sees proof in his book that sharks can attack boats:

Ellen: Martin, it's his birthday tomorrow.
Martin: I don't want him on the ocean.
Ellen: He's not on the ocean. He is in a boat. He's not gonna go in the water. I don't think he'll ever go in the water again after what happened yesterday...(She glances into a shark book with an illustration of a shark biting the side of a rowboat.) Michael! Did you hear your father? Out of the water now! NOW! (Startled by the abrupt about-face, Brody turns toward his wife with a look of incredulity.)

Two old local fishermen (a few of the many amateur shark hunters who have gravitated to Amity Island), one named Charlie (Robert Chambers) decide to capture the shark and collect the reward. They clumsily toss out ("Come and get it") and float raw bait - a pork roast (or "holiday roast") into the water, attached by a chain (and a floating inner tube as a surface bobber) to the short pier they are sitting on.

The exciting, humorous, and nail-biting sequence is inter-cut with gruesome, colorful photographs of shark's jaws, razor-sharp teeth and human victims - more pages that Brody leafs through at his desk. The pages of the book are reflected in Brody's glasses, projecting his thoughts on the horror. Out on the water, the shark seizes the bait and takes it out to sea, pulling the men into the water and taking half of the pier as well. The terror of the scene is magnified by the fact that the shark is unseen. One of the old men manages to scramble onto the remaining portion of the pier, but his partner, Charlie is in the water, frantically swimming back to safety. The section of the pier that is floating out to sea turns around and begins chasing the swimmer as he struggles to get back onto the slippery pier. Both of the men barely escape with their lives - avoiding becoming the shark's third victims.

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