Jaws ★★★★★

A shoot fraught with problems, a director out of his depth, editing which had to remove the central threat due to it not working, a big name on set who turned up drunk and forgetting lines to such a degree that he just made up his own! Yes, all the elements of the making of Jaws should have ended up with a complete disaster, and the director run out of Hollywood never to be seen again. However, instead that young director showed exactly what he could do with as little useable material as he could, resulting in not only one of the finest summer blockbusters of all time, but one which actually set the formula up for decades to come!

Adapted from the novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws tells the tale of a New England tourist town beset by the appearance of a shark, right at the peak of tourist time. Whilst the mayor, Larry Vaughn, wants to keep things quiet to avoid causing panic, police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider in his most iconic role of his career) is determined to keep the beaches safe, no matter the cost. As the shark attacks build, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and captain Quint (Robert Shaw) join Brody in his attempt to hunt and capture the great white menace.

With only one film under his belt at the time (Duel), Spielberg was pressured by the studio to make Jaws, and was then faced with a film that spiralled out of control, blew its budget, and had a plethora of set issues that plagued it. However, in amongst the chaos of production, many other factors were so perfectly placed that they stand as good reason why the film became such a success, and still stands proud against similar themed films of today.

The casting was critical. Not wishing to go with big names, Spielberg turned down actors such as Charlton Heston as he was concerned their screen presence would unbalance the film. So it was that known – but not huge – names such as Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Murray Hamilton, and Robert Shaw, amongst others, found themselves added to the line-up. Scheider, in the primary role of Brody, is so well placed that it feels like the role was written with him in mind. Immediately believable in his character aspects as a family man and police chief, with scenes which focus on his home life being just as engrossing as those where he chases the shark at sea. Dreyfuss as Hooper has an enthusiastic charm, the role re-drafted for the actor, and now representing Spielberg himself in the film (Dreyfuss would again play a Spielberg-esque character in Close Encounters). The pair balance out well, and the inclusion of the grizzled Robert Shaw as Quint, a character clearly inspired by Captain Ahab, rounds out the trio perfectly – Shaw, in particular, famously improvised a lot of dialogue including elements of the Indianapolis speech.

With a cast well placed, all the film needed was a great monster in order to work – and this is where it got tricky. Bruce (the affectionate name given to the animatronic sharks used) constantly failed to work, causing no end of troubles for the production. But this is where Spielberg got creative – rather than show the beast early on, it became a tease instead. If the effect doesn’t work, just use them effectively and avoid them where possible. This approach serves well to build tension, as we see attacks from the shark point of view, feet thrashing in water, and in reality, don’t actually see much at all. For a film that preys on the primal fear of the unknown beneath the sea, keeping the beast hidden works a treat to mess with our minds. When we finally get a good look at the creature, we can ignore any cheapness in the effects as we are already terrified of it enough to overlook it. Our reaction is summed up by the reaction Brody has, jumping back in shock and realising they are going to need a bigger boat.

The final ingredient that really works for the film, and it is perhaps the most critical of ingredients, is the music. John Williams would become a long-time collaborator with Spielberg, and it is no surprise as with this film they showed how they formed a visual and audible partnership of perfection. The lighter moments of music, a seeming celebration of summer at a beach resort, are offset perfectly by that ominous, deep bass string. Starting slow and drawn out, but then building to a rapid pace, the bass-tones thrust us perfectly underwater – after the lighter, high notes above the surface, the contrast reflects the manner in which sound is distorted beneath the waves. The use of the theme is so effective that just a few bars of the notes immediately put us on edge as we seek out signs of menace in the watery shadows. So conditioned are we to the use of the music that Spielberg pulls a great shock trick in his non-use of it in a latter part of the film.

Spielberg worried that his career would be over whilst making the film, as budgets and shooting spiralled out of control. Instead he made his mark on the big screen and inspired decades of work following. Jaws is a pleasure to rewatch, and is a film that captivates every generation. Proof that in the right hands, a simple tale with bad effects can end up being one of the scariest and most engaging films of all time.

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