You’re gonna need a bigger boat.
Actor Richard Dreyfus called Jaws a “nexus point” during his question and answer period before a recent screening of the cinematic classic and I can’t think of a better descriptor. His words were relevant as far as his career, but also the medium as a whole. Here was a work of art that overcame a troubled production to become the first true blockbuster—a term that ultimately changed the face of the industry itself—and provided a sterling example of what it meant to utilize the adaptation process as an avenue towards unique creation. Despite initially trying to back out of his contract, director Steven Spielberg wound up diving in to make Peter Benchley‘s tale his. He visually captured its essence with his own suspense, comedy, and pathos.
It’s impossible to imagine what would have been if “Bruce” the robotic shark actually worked. The reason much is left to the imagination and reaction shots of lead actors Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Dreyfus is because Spielberg was left without a choice. He had John Williams craft an iconic leitmotif to signal audiences to each new attack and allowed a dorsal fin to become synonymous with death in a feat of minimalistic filmmaking that ensured the result would remain a horror masterpiece four decades later. He brought in Carl Gottlieb to punch up dialogue with script pages being rewritten during production the night before shooting and really condensed everything else to focus on a climactic shark hunt knowing the man versus monster dynamic was where its excitement lay.
Before boarding Quint’s (Shaw) boat the Orca, however, we need to first understand why. So Spielberg throws us into the water during Chrissie Watkins’ (Susan Backlinie) nude night swim, wading offshore while her potential suitor passes out drunk in the sand. The camera moves from voyeur to predator to see her through the shark’s eyes. The subsequent thrashing and screams cement our fright without ever glimpsing what grabbed hold. The score amplifies until only silence is left; the water’s ripples dissipating to nothing. We know what has happened. We know as soon as her remains wash ashore that the nightmare will be dealt with. And yet it’s poetic that the opposite occurs instead. For a tourist town like Amity, one life does not equal months of lost revenue.
Now arrives the subtext of a patronizing insulated population that believes it knows better than urban outsiders jumping to conclusions with unjustified over-reaction. Chief Martin Brody (Scheider) won’t even go into the water, his New York City roots instilling a fear of drowning that renders him an oddity enforcing law and order on an island. So why should anyone believe his worries stem from legitimate concern rather than embellishment? Why couldn’t Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) use his car salesman charisma to change the medical examiner’s initial “cause of death” from shark attack to boating accident? Without concrete evidence, the reasonable doubt necessary to sell one’s soul for summer season revenue is left intact. What about the next death, though? What about when Mayor Vaughn’s children are next?
This first act is underrated in comparison to what follows, but it’s both crucial to accepting the ensuing character dynamics and a means for unforgettable entertainment. There are many moments of authentic detail that flesh out a community many films have tried and failed to equal. These people aren’t merely potential casualties or noise pitting public safety against economic solvency. They’re endearingly fallible like Deputy Hendricks’ (Jeffrey Kramer): disappointed that Brody doesn’t think his penmanship is good enough for “Closed Beach” signs and innocently oblivious when his boss tries to catch his attention to corral the chaotic mess of unprepared fisherman seeking their bounty. And they’re relatably reactionary like Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) thinking her husband is overreacting before a gruesome book illustration reminds her of the danger.
There’s true weight to how these mounting tragedies affect Amity’s citizens. We witness the grief of a mother and the guilt of the police chief who didn’t do enough to prevent it. We watch as ego and hubris wash away to reveal a scared man desperately muttering to construct a story that saves his reputation rather than acknowledge the loved ones he willingly almost sacrificed with a grin. And there’s the brilliant incredulity of oceanographer Matt Hooper (Dreyfus) towards a populace’s refusal to listen to an expert opinion when easier (wrong) answers are within reach. If he left at any time during the film to intentionally let every human soul on that island die as a result of his/her own willful obliviousness towards reality, we wouldn’t blame him.
But we’re glad he stays as the third prong of a three-pronged attack in the middle of the Atlantic. This trio consisting of an over-confident warrior (Quint), a chip-on-his-shoulder scientist (Hooper), and a scared yet motivated cop (Brody) becomes the lynchpin to drama, laughs, and unparalleled tension. Spielberg adjusts his tone with expert precision, moving from a guffaw-filled conversation comparing scars to an entrancingly dark and dramatic monologue of survival to a raucous sing-along that ends in an attack’s wide-eyed uncertainty. We believe these disparate men could breakthrough the others’ defenses for true camaraderie and cherish the friendships built in such a short period of time to make any forthcoming tragedy meaningful. And neither ever commits the sin of acting against character. It’s all adrenaline, impulse, and anxiety.
That juxtaposition is enough. The calm serenity of Quint despite his boat falling apart around him is only made more potent when contrasted with Hooper’s animated frustrations and Brody’s numerous instances of suspended animation. And as the film continues, each ultimately transforms upon facing the harrowing facts confronting them. Shaw magnificently allows a subtle tinge of concern to enter Quint when everything that’s worked for him in the past isn’t good enough. Scheider earns Brody his sea legs when his survival hinges upon them while Dreyfus resigns himself to the reality that brute force might be their only viable option. The best parts of their unique personalities rub off on the others until the importance of their respective presence evens out to render each equally expendable.
It’s amazing how much we can learn about someone when his/her back is against the wall. The third act is a pressure cooker scenario with nowhere to hide. These men may leave the comfort of shore as hunters with personal assumptions about what they pursue, but it takes just one appearance by the shark to remind them nature is rarely on mankind’s side. It doesn’t matter how prepared or determined they are because they’re still just vulnerable humans caught in the path of a killing machine devoid of remorse. That’s Jaws‘ beauty. In the end, we don’t know if our heroes will succeed on their mission or survive. Rather than a supernatural monster playing by its own rules, this beast plays by ours. There’s nothing scarier than that.