*. I’ve mentioned before the difficulty, not to mention the pointlessness, of writing about a movie that has had so much written about it already. Citizen Kane. Psycho. Alien. In cases of movies that have had a huge influence on pop culture the problem is only compounded. You might think of all those names I just mentioned plus Blade Runner, and Star Wars, and Jaws.
*. The place Jaws holds in the history of film is hard to exaggerate. Maybe not as art, but as a blockbuster that in many ways transformed the entire business of movies. It was a gamechanger. On the business side it broke all kinds of new ground. In the first place it showed the importance of “wide breaks”: releasing in as many theatres as possible. Then it surprised everyone by exploiting a summer-youth audience. Summer releases had previously been avoided by studios, and Jaws had been optimistically pegged for Christmas 1974. Post-Jaws summers were seen as the prime calendar real estate. Add to this the extensive television advertising and the creation of a new blockbuster mentality. As Peter Biskind puts it, “Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws.”
*. In the summary judgement of Carl Gottlieb (co-screenwriter and author of The Jaws Log, an excellent account of the making of the film): “Jaws became the first ‘summer blockbuster,’ redefined how films would be released thereafter, and established a North American distribution and marketing pattern that remains the model for the industry to the present day” (this was written in 2001).
*. Creatively, the impact of Jaws could be seen as being just as important. Biskind again: “such was Spielberg’s (and Lucas’s) influence, that every studio movie became a B movie.” Roger Ebert said something very similar in saying that Spielberg and Lucas defined the modern blockbuster as a B-movie with an A-movie budget. In his essay on Star Wars he writes of how it “effectively brought to an end the golden age of early-1970s personal filmmaking and focused the industry on big-budget special effects blockbusters, blasting off a trend we are still living through. . . . In one way or another, all the big studios have been trying to make another Star Wars ever since. . . . It located Hollywood’s center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager.”
*. Or, rounding up this overview, here’s David Thomson: “it [Jaws] means nothing at all . . . it is zero to the power of ten.” Its “model became the basis for the new cinema of the young . . . The young demographic was in charge. And the bright days of the early 1970s were shutting down.”
*. This is a point that I think is widely accepted in any history of the period now. Jaws and Star Wars marked a real turning point. Biskind even relates a funny story of Spielberg taking his friends Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and John Milius to the studio where the shark (“Bruce”) was being built and Lucas sticking his head in its mouth only to be stuck when Spielberg couldn’t get the mouth to reopen. “A premonition of things to come,” Biskind writes, referring both to the mechanical difficulties they would have with the shark and the fact that this was going to be the fish that swallowed Hollywood.
*. At the same time, we do have to record that these movies wouldn’t have had the effect they did if they hadn’t been first-rate entertainments. As Ebert also says of Star Wars, “you can’t blame it for what it did, you can only observe how well it did it.” And as Thomson says of Jaws, it’s “a comic-book Moby-Dick that could not be bettered.” Yes, they gave young audiences what they wanted, which was fairground thrills, spectacle, cartoon characters, and hokey dialogue. But they did it well.
*. If re-watchability is one of the tests for a great movie, and I think it’s one of the best, then Jaws passes with flying colours. I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, and I’m proud of the fact that I first saw it in a theatre (not in 1975, but on a later re-release). And though I can’t say I enjoy it more every time, or see more in it, because I don’t, I do still enjoy the experience. It is a great movie, and a personal favourite too.
*. Spielberg’s best movie? Antonia Quirke, in her BFI volume, calls it his “nimblest, crispest and best film.” I’d agree. That it came so early in his career is impressive, but also that, at only 27 years old, he managed such a huge, and difficult, production. But then, as always, we have to think of Orson Welles making Citizen Kane when he was 25. Welles sort of stands outside any rules.
*. It started life as a bestselling book by Peter Benchley. The prehistory here is instructive too about the way the industry was beginning to work, with the film rights being sold before it had even been published. I’ve read it, and it’s a trashy beach read that’s crudely written but with a decent plot. Robert Shaw thought it was shit and I think everyone agreed with Spielberg’s assessment that the movie was better.
*. The biggest change had to do with the character of Hooper. In the book he has an adulterous affair with Ellen Brody, who seems underserviced by her husband. I think I read it first when I was about 8 or 10 years old and her imagining herself with “her dress bunched up around her waist and her vagina yawning open, glistening wet, for the world to see” imprinted on my brain in what was probably a damaging way. In any event, Spielberg didn’t want any sexy business. He wanted the characters to be more likeable. This was part of his being a popular filmmaker. He also wanted the more likeable Hooper to live at the end (in the book he’s killed by the shark). Audiences liked that too. Some people would call this selling out but I think it’s really just a case of Spielberg wanting what everyone he was making the movie for wanted.
*. A digression on women. Ellen is a major character in the book and here she basically disappears (this upset Lorraine Gary, but she would be back with a vengeance, literally, in Jaws: The Revenge). Spielberg is much like his contemporary George Lucas when it comes to women. They remain “girlfriends” for Lucas and moms for Spielberg, never sexual.
*. The problems they had on set are legendary. Shooting on location in open water was a nightmare. The shark didn’t work. They went way over schedule and over budget. And yet when you’re working on a project as blessed as this one even bad luck turns into something good. Because the shark wasn’t available more had to be done keeping it out of sight. Hence the barrels, prefigured in the turning dock in the scene with the two amateur fishermen who stick the roast on a chain. So no shark led to them getting something even better. Sometimes, even when things go wrong they’re right. It’s not surprising at all the most famous line in the film was improvised. It was that kind of a movie.
*. The trio of male leads are perfect, but none were first choices, or big stars at the time. Scheider had mainly been in supporting parts (a slick pimp in Klute, straight man to Gene Hackman in The French Connection) and Dreyfuss had only been noticed in American Graffiti. I’ve said before how much I enjoy Robert Shaw in anything, and he’s perfect here. Sure Lee Marvin or Sterling Hayden would have been great as Quint too, maybe even better, but Shaw needed the money the most and in hindsight could you imagine anyone else in the role?
*. Shaw is very good at something I’ve always thought must be very hard for an actor: playing a character who’s very bright in some ways but very stupid in others (I think of Alex in A Clockwork Orange). Quint knows sharks, but that’s about it. Present him with something he’s not familiar with and he has the look of a stunned ox.
*. Pauline Kael was hard on Quint: “the fool on board isn’t the chief of police, or the bookman, either. It’s Shaw, the obsessively masculine fisherman, who thinks he’s got to prove himself fighting the shark practically single-handed. The high point of the film’s humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they’re tougher than anybody.” I’m not sure that’s fair. Quint is the working-man hero and he’s genuine enough. He’s the professional, not the student or the landlubber cop at sea. He knows what he’s doing, and with the Indianapolis speech (that Shaw wrote) we understand what drives him. He may be a fanatic, but he’s not stupid.
*. Quint as Ahab was a connection that was originally made even clearer. In the book he’s dragged down by the shark much like Ahab with Moby-Dick, and in Spielberg’s own draft script he sits in a cinema watching Moby Dick and laughing it. No need to be that obvious though.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the psycho-slasher Maniac (1980) that director William Lustig had wanted to make “Jaws on land,” and that this was the same way Sean Cunningham had conceived of Friday the 13th. So in addition to giving birth to the shark genre, which would take us through several Jaws sequels and on to stuff like Deep Blue Sea, The Shallows, a couple of 47 Meters Down movies, and the whole sorry Sharknado franchise, you can also think of Jaws as being the start of the slasher horror craze of the late-’70s and early-80s.
*. But not really. I think Quirke in her little book is very good on this point. There’s a big difference between the dyspeptic tone of Benchley’s novel, where nobody is likeable, and Spielberg’s movie, where everyone is a hero. The “tone of nastiness” Spielberg wanted to avoid is more appropriate to the slasher genre, where people are chum.
*. In retrospect it seems like they couldn’t have missed. The concept, wedded to the summer release, with this cast, and the score by John Williams, and Spielberg measuring every jump scare. At the time, however, it seemed anything but a sure thing.
*. Of course now it’s recognized as one of the handful of movies that made Hollywood what it is today. For good and ill, and at least partly by accident.