Above the main door of a certain Italian eatery in Chicago hangs a roughly 10-by-15-inch photo of Pope John Paul II. Above that, and at least twice its size, hangs a portrait of Frank Sinatra. The proportion and placement of those images, noted some years ago at dinner prior to the premiere of the Windy City-set Blink, practically begged for a cinematic parallel. So I submit that if Citizen Kane is modern cinema’s venerable father, Jaws is its chairman of the board. (Blink, incidentally, would sort of be film’s Danny Aiello.)
Although more calculatedly progressive than the tenure of the second-longest reigning pontiff, Orson Welles’s 1941 film debut remains globally revered and influential, and it grows ever closer to canonization with the passage of time. Jaws, on the other hand, is brash, rhythmic and populist; immediately and broadly impactful upon its 1975 release, it has since polarized those who worship at the altar of cinema, with apostates arguing the tale of an overgrown killer shark and the men who pursue it helped usher in an era of simplistic summer fare that’s all style and no substance (or, in the case of Michael Bay’s oeuvre, neither).
Jaws strikes like its titular great white shark, ambushing viewers in the opening scene in which a woman goes for nighttime swim off the shore of Amity Island, a tourist destination amping up for a money-making Fourth of July weekend, and is pulled screaming into the depths. When portions of her wash up the next day, the coroner first deems the cause of death as shark attack but changes his story to boating accident after pressure from the mayor (a wonderfully weasely Murray Hamilton), who would rather serve the killer shark “a smorgasbord” than frighten away tourism revenue.
Steven Spielberg’s second feature film, Jaws is the work of a blossoming master craftsman as opposed to an artist, and that’s not meant as criticism; Jesus got his start as a carpenter. Jaws, like Sinatra, borrows from its predecessors (the Hitchcock-inspired tracking zoom of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody witnessing the geyser of blood as the shark claims its second victim) while employing some unique tricks of its own (creating a sense of dread by dropping the camera below the water line, employing a shark’s-eye view and not revealing the creature until late in the film—bits of inspired filmmaking abetted by the fact that the mechanical sharks kept malfunctioning). Also like Sinatra, Jaws left an indelible cultural stamp: scaring people into the seemingly common-sense belief that the ocean is not a giant swimming pool.
Then a hungry young filmmaker bursting with confidence, creativity and daring, Spielberg has never since exhibited the gleeful killer instinct he demonstrates in Jaws’ first act, which unapologetically claims the cinematic lives of a child and a dog (to that point pretty much taboo for major studio releases) and features an armrest-gripping scene wherein two would-be shark hunters seeking a reward attempt to hook the killer fish with a “holiday roast” (the shark takes the bait … and the dock from which the men cast it).
After his own son has a close brush with the shark, the ocean-fearing Brody (“He hates the water,” his wife explains at one point, “there’s a clinical name for it…” “Drowning,” Brody interrupts) joins forces with Richard Dreyfuss’ petulant shark expert Hooper and Robert Shaw’s salty fisherman Quint to track and kill the beast.
The remainder of Jaws plays out on the open ocean aboard Quint’s modest vessel, the Orca (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” deadpans Brody when the massive shark makes its first appearance). While the monster remains little-seen, its menacing presence is constant in the form of yellow flotation barrels with which the men try—unsuccessfully—to bring the beast to the surface and the rocking and creaking of the Orca as the shark bangs away at the ship.
This stretch of the film is a triumph of conception and editing, and it makes effective use of Bill Butler’s photography to create a sense of claustrophobia on the boat while depicting its vulnerability and isolation on the vast sea (Butler also worked on such ’70s greats as The Conversation and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and he would go on to employ some of Jaws’ visual gimmicks in the enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek Anaconda).
For all that is rightfully made of the dynamic filmmaking on display, too little is said of the movie’s dialogue, which is spare, direct and funny, and which seems to be one of the rare cases of too many cooks not spoiling the broth. Although the screenplay is credited to Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, and Carl Gottlieb, who would go on to write a fine making-of account of the film’s production, award-winning playwright Howard Sackler, Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Milius, Shaw and Spielberg all contributed to the script.
Perhaps the film’s greatest and most referenced segment, the scene in which Brody, Hooper and Quint sit in the Orca’s cabin sharing drinks and swapping scar stories (and to which Kevin Smith pays hilariously vulgar homage in Chasing Amy), is also its most controversial in terms of authorship. The scene climaxes with Quint describing the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II; with chilling detail, he relates how sharks picked off his fellow surviving crew members one by one as they floated, awaiting rescue: “The thing about a shark—he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes after you, he doesn’t seem to be living until he bites you and those black eyes roll over white.”
Milius, of Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn fame, has long claimed primary credit, but in his book The Jaws Log, Gottlieb attributes the scene largely to Shaw, himself an accomplished novelist and playwright (Shaw remained above the fray, dying in 1978). Regardless, it is a nuanced scene in a film that cares more about its characters than most summer blockbusters, of which many cinephiles bemoan Jaws being the first.
But Jaws, like Sinatra at his best, transcends genre. Janet Leigh may have been terrified of taking a shower after Psycho, but damn near everyone who has seen Jaws has second thoughts before wading into the ocean. Sinatra said one of his greatest influences as a singer was how Tommy Dorsey played trombone: “It was my idea to make my voice work in the same way as a trombone or violin—not sounding like them, but ‘playing’ the voice like those instruments.”
Few movies play their metaphorical instruments—or their audiences—as effectively as Jaws. Even fewer can hang alongside Citizen Kane without first genuflecting.