I've always found sharks fascinating as well as terrifying. When I was a kid, I loved going to the aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha to see the Blacktip and Hammerhead sharks. The Hammerheads were by far my favorite. To this day, Mako sharks still terrify me, and I can't even look at a picture of one without shuddering. But again, they're fascinating, and I always have a hard time tearing my gaze away when I see a shark. I'll admit being a midwesterner who's only ever seen the ocean once makes being afraid of them a little silly, but perhaps I have Hollywood to thank for that a little bit.
In 1974, Peter Benchley published a bestselling novel about a killer shark terrorizing a beach resort community. Before the book was even published, Universal bought the film rights, and a young Steven Spielberg was brought in to give cinematic life to Benchley's novel. Let's suit up and dive right into 1975's Jaws.
The film opens with a beach bonfire party. A young man and woman slip away to go skinny dipping a short distance away. While the man collapses drunkenly and passes out on the beach, the woman swims out alone. Something beneath the water attacks her and drags her under. Oblivious to her screams, the man sleeps through the attack. The next morning, the girl is reported missing, but the police soon find her, or at least what's left of her. Police Chief Brody orders the beach closed, but he is overruled by the mayor, who fears the negative publicity would ruin the local economy by scaring off tourists. When a second victim is attacked in broad daylight, not even the mayor can deny the truth. There's a killer shark loose in their waters.
When a reward is offered for the shark's death, fishermen and and amateur bounty hunters swarm the town and its waters. A Tiger shark is captured, but a shark specialist named Hooper concludes that this is not the killer shark they're looking for. His concerns fall on deaf ears, and the beach is reopened for the Fourth of July. After a third attack, Chief Brody contacts a local fisherman and shark hunter named Quint to track and kill the beast. Brody and Hooper accompany Quint, who laughs at Hooper's high-tech gadgets and over-preparedness, but none of them are truly prepared for what lurks in those bloody waters off Amity Island.
Through a combination of brilliant casting and directing, Jaws is an undeniable masterpiece of suspense and terror, being the highest-grossing film ever at the time of its release. The cast, rather than the shark itself, is what makes this film shine, however. One of the best scenes ever committed to film is the scene where Quint and Hooper drunkenly compare scars, which ends in a chilling monologue by Quint, who delivers an eye-witness account of the demise of the USS Indianapolis which never fails to make my skin crawl.
Due to mechanical issues, Spielberg made the wise decision to show the shark on screen as little as possible and rely instead upon the mere suggestion of its presence. John William's minimalist score accomplishes this goal beautifully. This works to the film's advantage, because many of the scenes where we do see the shark are are comically bad, particularly the shots of the shark leaping out of the water and onto the boat.
Considering the technology available in 1975, however, it was a noble effort, and audiences at the time certainly didn't seem to mind. Despite these limitations, Spielberg pulled off what many considered to be impossible. Even the producers who bought the rights to the story have admitted if they'd read the book twice they would have abandoned Jaws as an impossible task. But thankfully, they didn't.
I don't need to tell you that Jaws is a classic. That goes without saying. If you've never seen it before, do yourself a favor and correct that now.