Logline: A great white shark terrorizes a small seaside town.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the New Jersey shark attacks that inspired Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel Jaws, which was adapted for the screen and became one of cinema’s most iconic films.
If I had to choose only one film as my favorite of all time, it would be Jaws. It is, in my estimation, a perfect film in every way. It is beautifully shot, tightly edited, and sharply written with a host of great characters and performances and an incredible soundtrack. Jaws was the first film in history to surpass $100 million in box office returns and is considered Hollywood’s first summer blockbuster. Jaws made millions of people terrified to go in the water and launched Steven Spielberg’s career.
Ironically, the shooting of Jaws was a disaster. Shooting on a tight budget on the open ocean, which was unprecedented at the time, presented many challenges. Furthermore, the mechanical shark, affectionately called Bruce by the production team, never worked properly. This resulted in the shark’s limited onscreen appearance but therein lies part of the film’s genius. Point of view shots, music, and other devices, such as yellow barrels that are used to track the shark, announce its presence and make the film all the more frightening because of it. Though some will disagree, the look of the shark itself still holds up today.
Spielberg has stated that without John Williams’s score, Jaws would have only been half as successful. It is nearly impossible to imagine Jaws without its iconic music. The score is brilliant and not just the infamous main theme. Like the film itself, the score is minimalist but incredibly effective. After Jaws, Williams continued to collaborate with Spielberg on nearly all of his films.
One of the reasons that Jaws works so well is its characters. The characters are so great and likable and seem like real people. The film is also beautifully acted. Robert Shaw’s Quint is one of cinema’s greatest performances but Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are not far behind. The trio have such a wonderful dynamic and are fun to watch, no matter how many times you have seen the film.
Anyone interested in filmmaking needs to study Jaws for it is a lesson in how to construct a perfect narrative film. Each scene flows effortlessly into the next and it is all so seamless thanks to the film’s brilliant editor, Verna Fields. The film is separated into two distinct halves. The first takes place on Amity Island and the second, on the open ocean, where Quint, Brody, and Hooper go hunting for the shark. Each scene in the film is embedded perfectly in my memory. The opening scene, in which the shark attacks a girl at night, is probably the film’s most frightening sequence. Susan Backlinie’s screams are enough to make your blood curl. It is one of the film’s finest moments and sets up the tone beautifully. The second attack of a young boy in broad daylight, is considerably more bloody and gruesome. Its buildup is brilliant with an agitated Brody watching the waters for signs of the shark. Notice the camera movements in this sequence. They are simple and subdued but incredibly effective. The arrival of Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), some ten minutes later into the film, provides some great humor. The actor’s comedic timing is perfect. This is yet another reason why Jaws works so beautifully. It does not fit neatly into one genre. The film employs elements of horror, adventure, and comedy. Another beautiful scene, in which Brody’s son mimics him at the dinner table, is tender and honest.
The second half confines the three leads aboard Quint’s boat as they hunt for the shark on the ocean. The confined setting provides great drama. The way in which these actors play off one another is amazing and a showcase of their acting talents. It is during this time that my favorite sequence in the film occurs. After Quint and Hopper have been playfully comparing scars while Brody observes the two, Quint shares his experiences aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Shaw is amazing during this monologue, which is made even more powerful because it is based on truth. The U.S.S. Indianapolis delivered the world’s first operational atomic bomb on July 26, 1945. On July 30, the vessel sank after being hit by two torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine. Some 900 men made it into the water and the shark attacks began with sunrise of that first day. The attacks continued until nearly five days later, when the remaining survivors were accidentally discovered and rescued. After five days of nearly constant shark attacks, exposure, dehydration, and starvation, only 317 remained alive. After Quint’s monologue, the film builds to an unforgettable final half hour.
The massive success of Jaws led to a series of increasingly bad sequels and many imitators. Jaws is Hollywood’s first blockbuster and the king of all “killer shark movies.” Over forty years after its release, the film has lost none of its charm and retains its power. It is one of America’s indisputable classics and happens to be this film buff’s favorite film of all time.