[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….
If that’s not enough to make you squirm in your theater seat you might consider leaving (if you were anxious to squirm in the first place). That unknown thing down there wears the jaws of the film’s title, and we finally do get to see it, but never again is the tension so tightly drawn that our knowledge of the inevitable fails to mitigate our horror at the grisly, limb-gnashing death that the shark brings to the peaceful world of Amity. In similar sequences which follow, we spend a good deal of our time more or less waiting for the expected attack, until the anticipatory thrill wears itself out. By the time the shark is crawling into the shark hunters’ boat and swallowing everything from men to explosive canisters of compressed gas (which only momentarily satiate his appetite), we’re actually having a pretty good time marveling at the technical brilliance of the whole affair.
And a fair amount of awe is due not only to the creation of that monstrous hulk that lumbers through the water like some out-of-control Disney nightmare; Jaws, beyond being a minor triumph of special effects and fabricated reality, is really a well-constructed and -executed film that deserves attention and praise for its craftsmanship if nothing else. It is too long, but one wonders where the elisions might most effectively have been made; the points at which Spielberg decides to relax the pacing provide some of the best moments. Just when Dreyfuss is getting a little too cute as the rich-boy scientist and Shaw is waxing a bit too unbelievably mythic as an old salt from a lost era, the two of them begin comparing various battle wounds and Quint (Shaw) unwinds with his yarn guaranteed to raise the hackles of anyone who’s placed a foot in saltwater. Seems he was on a ship at the end of WWII that was torpedoed by the Japanese; the crew bobbed in the ocean for days, and each day a few more men were peeled away from the huddle of floating survivors by marauding sharks. Seems this was also about the time of Hiroshima, and Quint’s passing allusion to The Bomb is about as close as we get to measuring the symbolic dimensions of that thing cruising beneath his boat. Indeed, a moment later, after listening to a whale sing in the night like a strange echo that has a beautiful and terrifyingly lonesome otherworldliness to it, things begin going bump in the night and the shark is busily doing his best to eat both boat and inhabitants.
Lest we drift away from the scene without a sufficiently clear idea that this is no ordinary shark but a cosmic Fish, a couple of shooting stars streak conspicuously through the sky and roughly mark a turning point in the physical and metaphysical focus of the film. Before now we’d been involved in all sorts of local political scandals and a conflict between Scheider (the fledgling police chief of the town) and an unbelievably thickheaded, money-grubbing mayor who refuses to shut down his beach on the biggest holiday of the tourist season just because of a couple freak accidents, a hand or two that washed up on shore with the morning tide. From this fable of impending chaos (even the kids are going nutsy, karate-chopping picket fences and bicycle wheels all across town) comes an allegory of cosmic malevolence boiled to a pithy microcosm of man battling beast on the high sea as Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw set out to kill the shark. One of them eventually slides into that gaping maw, but not before we’ve been served our quota of moments that seem real enough, as when Scheider is chumming guts over the side of the boat and all of a sudden a head hunkers out of the water and fills the whole background of the frame with teeth and jaws.
Spielberg depends more on the visual presence of his shark in the second half of the film than he did in the first half, where the tension derived mainly from that awful, unseen potentiality. The possibility of seeing it was sufficient, and Spielberg got more than his share of mileage from playing upon our anxiety when kids and folks are splashing innocently out in the bay while the big guy lurks below just waiting for his chance. Verna Fields’s editorial style in such cases is succinct and pointed: quick cuts between Scheider on the beach and the people in the water, an underwater shot (meaning: he’s there), Scheider again, a piece of wood which a now-absent dog was carrying through the water; and then it happens: the shark just sort of shrugs from the water, toppling a boy and his raft, and we see Scheider’s reaction in a weird, almost nauseating lurch of motion as the camera simultaneously pulls back and zooms in as if space were somehow being wrenched apart at the seams. A gush of bloody water, and another victim has been consigned to the deeps. The underwater viewpoint tends after a while to become misleading (he isn’t always there), but there is nonetheless a consistency to Spielberg’s logic of motion; a penetrating track or a lateral pan suggest the motion of the shark. Even when he’s not around there is a vague insidiousness to the wafting and sluicing movements across or into or out of the water which lends to the persistently subjective point of view not only a feeling of physical immediacy but a hovering sensation of destructive imminence.
Direction: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, after Benchley’s novel. Cinematography: Bill Butler. Editing: Verna Fields. Special effects: Robert A. Mattey. Live shark footage: Ron and Valerie Taylor. Music: John Williams. Production: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown.
The players: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann