Article published in The New Yorker
August, 14 2012
The Unassuming Greatness of "Jaws"
by Michael Sragow
In the behind-the-scenes documentaries that accompany the awe-inspiring restoration of "Jaws," Steven Spileberg says that the story of the making of the film reminds him of his youthful courage and stupidity. But seeing the movie anew will make most people think of his amazing talent.
"Jaws" is the work of a wunderkind who couldn't guess how wonderful his breakthrough blockbuster was going to be - listening to him talk about the agony of making the movie is like hearing Coppola complain about directing the first "Godfather."
At twenty-seven, Spielberg saw "Jaws" as a follow-up to his murderously effective TV-movie "Duel," about a monster truck pursuing a lone car-driver across the desert. In "Jaws," he thought, the shark would do the dirty work of the eighteen-wheeler. But as he went a hundred days over schedule, waiting for his mechanical shark to work and fighting the weather and the waves, his creative instincts kicked in and vaulted beyond the realm of the traditional creature feature. Spielberg relied on mesmerizing powers of suggestion for most of the film's horror (he doesn't give the audience a clear view of the shark for the first eighty minutes). With a cast ready to seize the day and the screenwriter-actor Carl Gottlieb, who'd honed his comedy-writing skills on scripts for "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Odd Couple," he imbued the story with a farce-streaked volatility that fit right into his packed hyper-realistic textures.
The result is an unassumingly great movie, overflowing with the pungent behavior of Americans in jeopardy and at play. Peter Benchley's best-seller gave Spielberg what Mario Puzo's book gave Coppola: a heavy-duty story peg (a Great White Shark marauding off the coast of a Northeastern beach town) and a trio of male archetypes: the hunter, Qunit (played in the film by Robert Shaw); the scientist, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss); and the responsible family man and police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who ultimately does whatever it takes to protect his citizens. Yet the movie's variety of feeling and its go-for-broke inventiveness come from Spielberg, who positions these characters - in terrifying and ticklish ways - between heroism and antiheroism.
If the only scenes you remember are the film's traumatic horrors, it's a revelation to savor how much summery flavour and warmth and satiric humor the director and his writer wring from the setup (Gottlieb, who also plays a small role as a newspaper editor, did the final, on-set version of the script by the seat of his pants). Thirty-seven years later, the composer John Williams's ominous ostinato and Spielberg's shots of the deep from the predator's perspective still conjure a bold, lyric terror. But equally evocative is the swift portrait of a pleasant little pickup at a youthful beach party: a girl leads and inebriated pursuer on a merry chase as she strips, on the run, for a moonlit plunge, then attracts a finned pursuer. As soon as Brody sees her washed-up remains, he knows that she served as a midnight snack for a shark. The mayor (Murray Hamilton) and his cronies panic over the potential loss of July 4th business - and Brody is an insecure outsider, a New York City cop who thought this job would be a positive change. (The book was set on "Amity, Long Island"; the movie takes place on New England's "Amity Island," actually Martha's Vineyard.) Only after three more fatalities does Brody close the beaches for good and take decisive action.
If the themes suggest Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," the mass confusion resembles a Preston Sturges small-town comedy, with all the smaller disturbances of man played for raucous and rueful laughs (and with dialogue overlapping the way it does in a Sturges movie). What a terrific actor Scheider could be! When Amity residents bother him about a broken fence or a parking red zone, he masters a slow burn in the hot sun. In the larger plot, he makes Brody's anguish over his political impotence palpable. And, with his wife (Lorraine Gary) and their sons, he's a tender domestic animal. One of the many signature Spielberg moments - it presages his work with kids in "Close Encounters" and "E.T." - comes when Brody's younger child, in unspoken sympathy, starts mimicking every one of the weary, sorrowful gestures the police chief makes over his uneaten dinner.
Contrary to popular belief, Universal did not invent the saturation ad campaign to promote "Jaws." Columbia staged an equally ambitious multimedia blitz for an earlier 1975 release, a Charles Bronson prison-escape movie called "Breakout," which opened with over a thousand prints across the country, compared to four hundred for "Jaws." But this movie delivered - not just with a few peak thrills, but with what used to be called "entertainment value."
When Hooper comes into town, a bearded, bespectacled shark expert from a Woods Hole-like institute, he's both a truth-teller and a jester - a merry mensch who's nothing like the smooth operator in the book. Dreyfuss has rarely gotten the credit he deserves for his skill at insinuating speedy comic rhythms into seemingly intractable material. Much of the film's humor comes from his powers of awareness - including his awareness of himself as an unlikely adventurer. And when Brody and Hooper partner up with Quint, Shaw's alcohol-fueled Ahab, the actors and Spielberg and Gottlieb really get some odd-trio rhythms going.
In the extras on the new edition, it's heartening to hear Spielberg and his fans (including buffs and directors as diverse as Bryan Singer, M. Night Shyamalan, Kevin Smith, and Eli Roth) take all the right lessons from this film's success. For one thing, they admire the way it soaked up the atmosphere of an actual town with the help of non-actors who react like real people rather than like models in a beach catalogue. Anyone who wants to know what it was like to vacation in a coastal town in the mid-seventies can start with "Jaws." It's somehow poignant to see normal-sized bodies of all ages (neither ripped nor morbidly obese) lolling on the sand while rock or classical music rolls in with the thin, endearing sound of transistor radios. For another, they appreciate the film's ingenuity - Spielberg himself says that if he'd had digital tools to make "Jaws," he could have found a lot of ways to ruin it. Post-"Jurassic Park"-era C.G.I. effects, with their premium on seamless naturalistic detail, have made too many moviegoers passive and unimaginative, accustomed to films that do all the work for them. (I've recently run into kids who refuse to suspend disbelief for "The Wizard of Oz.") But "Jaws" draws audiences in and keeps them actively involved by making them acutely conscious of aural and visual movements. The most nerve-shredding sequence comes when Spielberg puts us in Brody's beach chair as the town takes to the water and the cop strains to see any turbulence through the crowds.
When our protagonists go out to sea in Quint's weathered vessel, the Orca, Spielberg assumes a more Olympian point of view. That's when the film really does become an heir to "Moby Dick," conjuring a creature that is part marine biology, part Fate. The movie expands organically into an epic. And when we need to see the whole shark Spielberg reveals him completely, without clumsy cutaways. This director, at that time, was constitutionally incapable of cheating audiences. He didn't just give them what they wanted, he gave them what they didn't know they wanted: a witty workout for the senses and a feeling of exploding possibilities.
"Jaws" has gone down in history as the film that set the pattern for summer blockbusters. Let's hope this restoration advances another legacy. In production, the film threatened to become Spielberg's Folly. The unfinished movie remains a glistening example of an American filmmaker turning pulp fiction into pop art.
Find out more about Spielberg: A Retrospective