Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is much more than history’s first modern-day summer blockbuster. The film cast a powerful spell over its fans, who repeatedly flocked en masse into theaters to share a heightened fear of water. Not since Alfred Hitchcock's 1960s film Psycho had movie audiences been so collectively affected by a film. While visual effects artist Bob Mattey's top-notch special effects initially drew in the crowds, the combination of the film’s main characters (and their moral complexities) and composer John Williams’s integral musical score are what has kept Jaws at the top of the lists of greatest films ever made.
Many have entered Jaws’s shark-infested waters countless times over the past four decades, yet audiences new and old continue to dive deep into this celebrated update of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick. For those who are revisiting the film, pay close attention to cinematographer Bill Butler’s jaw-dropping widescreen camera angles, often using a split focus diopter. This unique camera attachment produces two different focal points at once (nearsighted and farsighted), which would usually be out of focus for the audience. This inventive technique of multiple perspectives parallels the thematic allegories nestled deeply within novelist and screenwriter Peter Benchley’s script (co-written with Carl Gottlieb). Keen Jaws fans might also keep their eyes on Verna Fields’s Oscar-winning editing. Known as the “Mother Cutter” by many of the 1970s “New Hollywood” directors, Fields’s masterful editing skills are linked to every note of John Williams’s defining and Oscar-winning musical score. Pay close attention to how Williams “trains” the audience with an off-screen musical warning each time danger develops. This subconscious musical conditioning culminates unexpectedly in one of cinema’s best-kept climactic secrets.
First-time viewers ought not be fooled by the deceptively simple and steadfast plot of Jaws. Focus on the fictional New England town of Amity Island and the Mayor's shark-like morality of choosing tourism over the safety of his resorters. Next are the many interpretations of what the Great White Shark itself may represent, ranging from the atomic bomb (a shark is even shaped like a bomb) to the existential quest of one's own purpose in life. And finally Benchley and Gottlieb's script create deliberate and meaningful differences between the three main protagonists: For middle-aged Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), his fear of water is as important to note as his slightly troubled marriage; the scholarly enthusiasm of youthful oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is confronted for the first time on the rocky waves; and, perhaps most importantly, the battle scars and wartime stories of the snarled old shark-hunter, Captain Bartholomew Marion “Quint” (Robert Shaw) give Jaws its allegorical weight.—Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and curates/hosts the Bay Area’s MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS film series. He is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.org.
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