Ed Howard: The sudden resolution at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of those great, absurd movie moments that makes me really giddy, that never fails to put a grin on my face. It’s a (literally) explosive climax to a film that, despite its reputation as a nonstop fright-fest, isn’t liberal with these kinds of grand, cathartic gestures. I realize that’s maybe an odd thing to say about a movie that’s credited with being one of the very first summer blockbusters. In 1975, buoyed by a massive national marketing campaign and one of the earliest applications of the “wide release” distribution strategy, Jaws quickly achieved unprecedented commercial success, becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Although Jaws’ record was surpassed just two years later by George Lucas’ Star Wars, another harbinger of a changing Hollywood, the success of Spielberg’s film was a big factor in shifting movie distribution from slow release patterns and word-of-mouth hype to huge marketing pushes and national saturation.
In retrospect, Jaws the film (as opposed to its marketing) is an unlikely candidate for such an important place in movie history. It is a thrilling, scary, often darkly funny movie, a great and entertaining movie, but its sensational content aside, it doesn’t have a whole lot in common with what we now think of as summer blockbusters: grandiose effects spectacles with massive budgets, amped up as loud and fast as possible. In comparison, Jaws feels like a very classical film, a taut thriller where the first half is a succession of build-and-release suspense/horror sequences, and the second half is exclusively about three men in a boat, alternately bullshitting in the cabin and chasing a killer shark. The special effects are rough, the shark is often unconvincing, and indeed Spielberg and his crew were plagued with problems involving the mechanical sharks. The effects limitations led to what turned out to be a brilliant aesthetic as well as practical decision: the shark is often not shown, especially in the first half, where the briefest glimpses of a fin or a tooth-filled maw, coupled with indirect evidence of the beast’s viciousness and tremendous size, are sufficient to induce dizzying terror.
This is a long way from Transformers: technologically of course, but also in spirit. Although Jaws wound up ushering in an era where bloody, explosive spectacles dominate the summer moviegoing season, Spielberg’s film is clearly working on a much smaller scale. The film is rooted in Hollywood classicism, populated with idiosyncratic characters who have plenty of room to speak and interact in between the action/horror set pieces. About the closest the film comes to modern blockbuster territory is the improbable mayhem of the climax, but by that point a moment of excess after two hours of simmering tension and restraint feels more than earned. That climax can still make me giddy, over thirty-five years after the film debuted, because it’s a true catharsis, a product of an era before blockbuster filmmakers strove to make every moment seem cathartic and overpowering. Unlike successors that pummel viewers with nonstop “thrills” for two hours or more, Jaws modulates its violence and action with Hitchcockian suspense and quiet character moments, and as a result its bigger notes (like that irresistibly grin-inducing final showdown) hit that much harder.
Jason Bellamy: I see where you’re coming from. Thirty-five years after its release, the effects of Jaws are glaringly dated, but the effect of Jaws remains vital. There are numerous reasons for this, and the Hollywood classicism is just one of them; also worthy of being mentioned up front are John Williams’ score, which in its own way might be the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and mankind’s timeless natural phobia of the ocean. (There’s a chicken-or-egg debate to be had when it comes to attributing our fear of sharks—did Jaws tap into it or create it?—but I think we’ve always been innately aware that man is a land animal by nature and that we’re vulnerable, in all sorts of ways, in water), and yet as far as Jaws feels from the Transformers series, I have no doubt that they’re related, because in the end this is an overpowering effects film, too.
As much as the brilliance of the suspense and horror are tied to what we don’t see, which was inspired at least in part by what Spielberg was too embarrassed to show us (the malfunctioning mechanical shark), Jaws is ultimately reliant upon its big whammy of a special effect: that massive shark head that chews through the stern of the Orca and then rams its way into the ship’s cabin. Spielberg gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of showing the effect of the shark without utilizing the shark effect itself, but for all of that foreplay to pay off, eventually he had to bring the suspense to climax by giving us a physical representation of the shark that lives up to all that is suggested by the scene in which the skinny-dipper is thrust around like a ragdoll, or the scene in which the dock is split in two, or the scene in which the shark manages to dive deep below the surface with three barrels harpooned into its skin. Without the mighty mechanical shark to provide the exclamation point, all of Spielberg’s much praised suspense would be nothing more than a run-on tease, or, worse, an unintentional joke.
Thus, to some degree what’s changed in the decades since Jaws premiered isn’t the blockbuster filmmaker’s need to fill the screen with incredible, impossible awesomeness so much as the amount of incredible, impossible awesomeness it takes to (metaphorically speaking) “fill the screen.” To put it another way, filmmakers like Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan and Roland Emmerich are adjusting for inflation. Whether that works is another matter. Indeed, as you implied, the typical modern blockbuster is so jammed with (supposed) awesomeness that it often throws off our sense of scale, allowing the extraordinary to become ordinary, which defeats the purpose. Still, there’s no denying that Jaws is like the modern blockbuster in at least one crucial way: it attempts to overpower us through an effect-based visual that in order to succeed must be awesome beyond the scale of our imagination.
EH: What makes Jaws special, in my opinion, is the way it balances those (necessary and satisfying) sensational moments with more nuanced effects, effects that don’t require large-scale mechanical constructions or demolitions experts but are no less special. Spielberg’s first film, the made-for-TV thriller Duel, managed to create menace and foreboding from very little, using camera angles and judicious editing to frame an ordinary truck with an unseen driver as the terrifying embodiment of masculine violence and random destruction. Jaws has a more inherently frightening villain, but it similarly creates most of its effect through pure filmmaking bravado.
The opening sequence, after the credits, is a perfect example. The film begins with a gorgeous nighttime scene as a group of young summer tourists have a party around a fire on the beach. A guy and a girl catch each other’s eyes from across the campfire and run off across the dunes, the girl stripping in silhouette, laughing as she runs, the guy stumbling drunkenly after her. Anyone who’s seen a few horror or slasher movies know that only doom is awaiting them in the dark, as it always does for young people who run off into the night to have sex. The imagery is dim and shadowy, the dark blue of the sky blending into the denser darkness of the water, which could hide anything, but the mood of these opening scenes is initially as poetic as it is foreboding. The sight of the girl’s head bobbing in the water is chilling, as are the point-of-view shots from beneath the water. Those shots, ostensibly from the shark’s perspective, recall the underwater shots in Creature From the Black Lagoon, one obvious old Hollywood reference point for Spielberg’s film, announced right up front in these early scenes. As these moody images slowly lead towards the horrifying moment when the girl first feels a faint nibble below the water and then begins frantically thrashing around, John Williams’ infamous dun-dun-dun-dun-dun shark theme starts stealthily creeping into the music, increasing the sense of dread.
Later, the girl’s hand washes up on the beach, the first evidence of the shark that will soon terrorize the area, and Spielberg delivers a sensational closeup of the detached hand with crabs scuttling all over and around it, a horrifying image that reinforces the impact of the opening sequence. But Spielberg leads into this gory image patiently, with a shot of the police officer who’d discovered the hand, blowing a whistle to summon help. The whistle slides out of his slack mouth as he sits weakly in the sand, facing away from his discovery, which is hidden from the audience as well by the tall dune in the background. Spielberg understands that this shot, in which we feel the horror through the policeman’s reaction without knowing precisely what he’d found, is just as important as the explicit closeup that follows, if not even more so.
JB: That’s very true. And it leads us to what I think is the biggest difference between Jaws and the modern blockbuster: its recognition of the significance of the loss of human life. Consider for starters that you can count on one hand the human deaths in Jaws: 1) Crissy, the skinny-dipper at the outset; 2) Alex Kintner, the boy on the inflatable raft; 3) Ben Gardner (memorably discovered after the fact); 4) the guy in the dinghy on “the pond”; and 5) Quint (Robert Shaw), the film’s Captain Ahab, whose death seems inevitable from the very start. That’s it and that’s all. Five deaths. That’s all it takes for “Jaws,” the shark, to be one of the most fearsome monsters in movie history, and it takes less than half that for the shark to be monstrous: other than the town’s mayor and the touchingly fearless kids, no one in the quaint beach village of Amity is too crazy about going in the water after Crissy’s and Alex’s deaths—and it’s Crissy’s death alone that sends this story into motion and the water-phobic police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), into panic mode. By today’s blockbuster standards, five deaths isn’t the sum of the carnage; it’s the remainder of a much larger equation.
And yet what’s so striking about Jaws isn’t the modesty (in number) of the carnage. It’s the sincerity of the horror that the carnage creates. When the police deputy, who in appearance and slumped posture in that early scene always reminds me a bit of John Cazale, comes across what’s left of Crissy, yes, his crumpled reaction beautifully heightens the tension of the reveal, as you noted, but it also reminds us of the significance of Crissy’s death. A shark has taken a beautiful young woman and shredded a night of (quasi)innocence into gruesome death and dismemberment. Through this single death, Jaws achieves the kind of impact that the Transformers films level entire cities in search of. And why? Because Jaws doesn’t treat Crissy’s death as a prelude to or sideshow of tragedy. It treats it like a tragedy in its own right.