Looking back, it is hard to imagine the 1975 film entitled "Jaws" being anything other than a complete disappointment. Obviously, it wasn't, but to say that the picture flirted with catastrophe on more than one occasion would be an absolute understatement. I mean, here was a film that struggled mightily, each and every day, just to conjure up a few dailies to bring back to the editor for treatment. Of course, much of this lethargic and inept production tempo can be directly attributed to the mechanical beast, in which many scenes relied upon, and its inability to function in the water. (The latter being an undefeated adversary for any animatronic creation.)
Yet, many other aspects of this production seemed to be under pressure. For example, the script, which was originally adapted and written by the author of the novel, changed hands many times, and more often than not this would spell disaster. This is in addition to the heedless rating of the picture itself, as a film that showcases mangled bodies, floating limbs, and enough blood to make even an avid horror fan jump for joy certainly does not fit the mold of a PG label. How were parents not outraged, and why were they not seen picketing outside of the local theater? Well, it was a different time, and I assume parents nationwide were simply blown away by the aura of the film; an aura that can really only be accredited to one man, and one man only: Steven Spielberg. I believe it is safe to say that "Jaws" had outlived its numerous misfortunes.
For those of you who have lived under a rock for the last 40 years, here is a very brief plot summary:
Amity Island, a small beach-town the name of which literally translates to "friendship," is known for its tranquil location and for its annual fourth of July celebrations. It is surely the place one would want to spend their summer vacation--that is--until a monstrous twenty-five-foot shark begins to feed on the local population. A sense of panic and fear (along with several unfortunate and gruesome deaths) ultimately leads to action, as three men come together to fight the ferocious beast. There is the local police chief named Brody (Roy Scheider), a sea life expert in Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and a rugged and quite unwelcoming sea adventurer and shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw).
And that is pretty much the gist of a storyline that captivated audiences worldwide with its tense atmosphere and its fearful mood--both of which are undoubtedly captured in John Williams' rather apprehensive score. Now, it is worthy to note that "Jaws" essentially comes in two parts: The first half of the film centers primarily on bloodshed and the veiled killer while the latter portion transitions into what can be deemed a heartwarming adventure at sea, which clearly adopts a Moby Dick-esque mentality. (There are a number of moments in the second half of the picture that seem to be fueled by good humor and by somewhat of an ironic tone--as well as one endearing scene--in which our three protagonists discuss old war stories.) I've heard many individuals characterize "Jaws" as merely another entry into the horror genre, which begs the question: Have they seen the entire film? Or, did they only choose to remember scenes spurred by gore and terror? Unfortunately, we may never obtain an answer to these questions.
What makes "Jaws" so engaging is its impeccable use of character; an aspect of the picture that ultimately stems from more than one source and from its exquisitely written dialogue. Amity in itself is a wonderful execution of character as we get a feel for this quaint little town via small excerpts of conversation, which are usually spoken by the inhabitants themselves. (This can be seen in a handful of moments as one citizen claims, "Twenty-four hours is like three weeks," when told of the beaches' closing, and while another comments, "Not born here, not an islander," a remark which surely alludes to the unique temperament and classification of these individuals.) Even much of the fear aligned with these "attacks" on the local beach-goers can be attributed directly to the verisimilitude of the site at hand. It might appear to be just like your town and beachfront, which makes for an underrated psychological effect.
Nevertheless, when it comes to our three embodiments of character (meaning our central protagonists), we are brilliantly shown their disposition by way of their dialogue and actions. In fact, one can learn everything they want to know of Quint, the rugged veteran sailor, just by listening to his opening speech and by a list of needs he proposes once he becomes contracted to kill the great shark. This seamless sense of character development can be seen throughout as much of what we know about these men simply comes from their actions on-screen. (For instance, we know that chief Brody is somewhat of a goof, considering his inability to handle elementary tasks, and we designate Hooper as a strong and assertive being, even if he has nerdy outer appearance.) Of course, much of this superior showcasing of character can be credited to the three actors on-set--all of which are undoubtedly sincere and true in their motivations. Spielberg, in his early filming days, was known to forgo the glamorous choice when it came to casting his actors and actresses, and this is just a prime example of that notion; he wanted mysteriousness and sincerity when it came to his actors, and he got it. (Granted, Scheider did have a respectable role in "The French Connection," yet he was still relatively unknown at this time.)
When it comes to the success of "Jaws," a picture that comments on the power of nature and the thin and often frail distinction between man and beast, and to its universal acclaim, the name of Spielberg has to become a topic of conversation. His camera placement in this film is downright impressive as many of the scenes rely heavily on this positioning. Some scenes use foreground framing more than once--to not only frame a character--but to create a sense of depth. There's the trademark Spielberg indirect/subjective close-up on certain objects, as well as many directors interpretive points of view; the most notable of which seems to induce panic in the audience as it focuses on the struggling limbs of a fisherman who comes into contact with the fearless monster. What's more is the subjective viewpoint and underwater perspective of the shark, which is unquestionably useful, as he gazes on his next victim. (I fear that I am beginning to sound like an introductory film professor, yet I'm sure you get my point here.)
Every scene crafted under Spielberg's care has a purpose; much like every decision that was made during the filming of this picture. The fact that he purposely kept our antagonist hidden for the first horrifying attack, in an effort to build up toward a stunning reveal, tells me two things: Firstly, it tells me that Spielberg understands human emotion, and secondly, it alludes to his uncanny ability to give audiences what they want and to his ability to produce that warranted material in a manner that works. Yet, what stands out to me is the documented relationship between a young and inexperienced filmmaker, Spielberg, and his veteran editor, which was Verna Fields in this particular instance. And these are the types of relationships and connections that a product on-screen can never display. Steven Spielberg is arguably the most well-rounded director in the history of the cinema and much of this can be accredited to his modest and humble beginnings in the field. I'm sure the guidance of Verna and the working relationship between the two had a major impact on Spielberg's career and his film-making philosophy. It is truly a heartwarming thought to imagine a young and ambitious director conversing with such a kind and spirited editing personality. If only those cutting-rooms could talk.