So then came “Jaws” and suddenly everything changed. I’m not sure if that’s an actual quote by someone, but I figure it was said before, and probably said a lot after that first someone said it. If it has never been said, then let me be the first one to say it. The fact is, it’s true, picture 1975, the absolute middle of the decade that redefined Hollywood film making as an artfilm. Young filmmakers raised on French New wavers and early John Cassavetes, were rising up in the world churning out tough, challenging, and intimate movies that were successful and getting greenlit. This was the decade Scorsese made “Taxi Driver”, Coppola made “The Conversation”, and Altman made “Nashville”, three films that would not, could not get made today. It was a time of risk taking, by the directors, the producers, and the studios.
Yet amongst all these talented original voices, lied a different kind of artist who took his inspiration elsewhere like the old Universal horror flicks “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, along with Roger Corman’s B-movie drive-in thrills, with a nice helping of classic Hitchcockian suspense, and Howard Hawks male camaraderie, this young up and coming filmmaker called Spielberg created the unparalleled recipe for the summer block buster.
It may sound like I’m demeaning “Jaws” a little bit, I’m not, it’s a great film, it also happens to be very popular, but that has nothing to do with why it’s great. But you can’t talk about “Jaws” without mentioning the tonal shift it instigated in Hollywood, and boy was it a shift.
But let’s get to why this movie is so great. “Jaws” is like the classic story of the monster under the bed, we don’t see the monster, but we can imagine that it exists. We see the attacks it unleashes on its victims like the ill-fated skinny dipper Chrissy Watkins who is pulled around like a rag doll by something underneath her, until she is mercilessly dragged under the ocean. Later in a coroner’s office, we see Chrissy’s remains which are small enough to fit into a tiny examination pan, with only her severed arm shown quickly as a reference point to the mutilation that must have taken place.
Later we see another victim, a small boy Alex Kintner playing in the water on a floating device, when suddenly we see him from a distance flailing his arms around as blood is gushing from him, what did we see right before that? Was that a fin? A tail?, I’m not quite sure, suddenly everyone rushes out of the water, and we see Alex’s mother calling his name. We then cut to the now deflated floating device Alex was on, chewed up washed on the shore.
This is the brilliance of “Jaws” and something that is basically forgotten in our modern blockbusters, we are never shown the whole picture, what we are being shown are fragments of film, enough to tell a story, but able to keep it a mystery to the audience. What makes “Jaw” so scary, at least in the first hour and twenty minutes is we make up in our minds what we are seeing, our imagination is picturing the worst monster imaginable, and when we finally get a glimpse of the 25 inch great white shark revealing itself to an oblivious Roy Scheider as he’s dishing out fish guts over the side of a boat, we realize it’s as bad as we thought, and our heroes really do need to get a bigger boat.
There is a lot happening in “Jaws” but it is at its core a very basic monster movie. Steven Spielberg who, proving his talent in his iconic tv movie “Duel” which was about a common man being chased down the highway by a killer semi-truck, can really milk the suspense by showing us only what we need to see. He also benefits by having a really compelling trio of leading men.
As Chief Brody, a man really out of his element, hating the water, and used to dealing with New York street crime, Roy Scheider gives a terrific performance, he really speaks for the audience, like him we feel worried for everyone’s safety, and overwhelmed by the shear awsomeness of the shark.
Richard Dreyfuss plays Matt Hooper, a young keen scientist and shark expert. Hooper is basically the scientist who, if this were a 50s sci-fi monster movie would be there to explain all the science jargon for the audience to explain, yet “Jaws” is all too smart for that and plucks Hooper from a 1970s counterculture giving him a shaggy beard and a hyper confidence and youthful spirit.
The last third of the film takes place all in the ocean as Brody and Hooper join Quint, an expert shark hunter and fisherman brought to life by Robert Shaw, in full Ahab mode. We later learn Quint’s vendetta with sharks stems from his time in the USS Indianapolis which was a boat torpedoed after delivering the Hiroshima bomb, with most of its crew left adrift in the ocean and succumbing to shark attacks. Quint’s eerie monologue of the event is a centerpiece of the film and serves as another example of picturing the horror rather than showing it. Shaw, obviously given the most colorful character never goes overboard and adds a real unsentimental flavor to the monologue, it’s a great moment.
As you probably know by now, the rest of the story goes that “Jaws” opened in as many theatres as possible all at once, which back then was unheard of. Everyone went, and it quickly became a phenomenon; then people went back again, pretty soon it became the first movie to make over 100 million dollars, which may sound like chicken feed today if you don’t count inflation. Money of course has become the story of films like “Jaws”, and pretty soon box office grosses became more important than whether or not the film was good, and with that you could say “Jaws” is sort of a double edged sword, it’s a film with immeasurable craft, but it diluted the film industry immensely. Hollywood no longer needed the “Taxi Drivers”, “Conversations” or “Nashvilles” anymore, they found something that could make money, and our choices over what we could see in the multiplex seems to have narrowed over the years because of it
Today it seems as worse as ever, with words and phrases like “franchises” and “cinematic universe” becoming part of our lexicon, and there seems to be a complacency on both sides to keep it that way, maybe until something implodes, like movie theatres themselves.
Still there is “Jaws”, a great movie, maybe a perfect movie in what it sets out to accomplish, it’s a blockbuster that is smart, it doesn’t talk down to its audience, it remains memorable because it reminds us that what is truly frightening isn’t what we see, but what we don’t see.