How ‘Jaws’ started out as a movie and became a pop culture phenomenon
Editor’s Note: The director Steven Spielberg turns 75 on Dec. 18. To mark that momentous occasion, the Forward is running a series of essays reassessing his films.
It’s the last weekend of August 1975, and my friends and I are excitedly flopping into our seats at the State Theater in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. We’ve all seen “Jaws” about four or five times this summer; but with school about to start next week, we figure there’s no better way to prepare for another year of reading, writing and arithmetic than enjoying one more round of cinematic shark attacks.
Besides, watching “Jaws” again allows us to further commit our favorite lines from the film to memory, since being able to offer toasts like “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women” will surely come in handy during our first few weeks in Fourth Grade. It also enables us to more fully appreciate the film’s grislier moments—the severed leg that floats to the ocean floor with a tennis shoe still on its foot draws the biggest cheers from our crew — and possibly settle some arguments we’ve been having about the movie. For instance, my friend Peter has insisted for weeks that you can actually see the just-swallowed remains of Robert Shaw’s Captain Quint flying into the air when the shark explodes at the film’s climax, though today most of us leave the theater still unconvinced of this.
Today’s screening also raises important new questions.
“Mom,” Peter asks when his mother picks us up after the film in their family’s sweet new AMC Pacer, “Why does blood come out of Quint’s mouth when the shark bites his stomach?”
“It’s because he’s having internal bleeding, honey,” she replies, her matter-of-fact explanation triggering an excited chorus of “Cooool!” from those of us packed into the Pacer’s terrarium-like cargo space. At dinner tonight, we will all bring up the subject of internal bleeding with our own respective (and generally less than receptive) parents.
“Jaws” was an absolute phenomenon in the summer of 1975, and not just among gore-obsessed 9-year-old boys looking for a next-level gross-out. Released June 20, the film almost immediately set records at the box office, racking up previously unheard-of ticket sales during its first weekend of release, first 10 days of release, and beyond. Made for $9 million (which was, to the initial dismay of Universal Pictures, more than twice its original budget), “Jaws” earned back over 11 times that amount during its first two months in the theaters.
The film’s success was apparent well beyond the box office. Bookstores, supermarkets and even convenience stores featured lavish point-of-purchase displays of the best-selling Peter Benchley novel that the film was based upon, and other books and magazines about sharks seemed to be selling almost as fast as they could be printed. Ditto for t-shirts emblazoned with the film’s poster. “Mr. Jaws,” a novelty record by Dickie Goodman, reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. (I wasn’t buying records yet, but several of my friends certainly contributed to the single’s chart success.)
But there was a darker side to Jawsmania, as well: beach attendance was reportedly way down across the country that summer, and shark sightings were up significantly — people were seeing dorsal fins everywhere, even in bodies of water where no shark could possibly exist.
Just as “Psycho” had spooked countless viewers out of showering, “Jaws” made Americans seriously reconsider the lure of the ocean. Few if any previous man-versus-monster films — which was how “Jaws” was marketed (and which it was, at least on a very basic level) had ever gotten under the skin of the general populace to that degree, or triggered fears so primal and deep-seated that most of us hadn’t even realized that we still carried them.
There are many reasons why “Jaws” struck such a deep nerve at the time of its release — and why it continues to do so nearly five decades later — and most of them are due to the vision, the skill and even the mistakes of Steven Spielberg, a director who in 1975 was still largely unknown to the moviegoing public. Interviewed for the 1997 BBC documentary “In The Teeth of Jaws,” Spielberg said, “When I think of Jaws, I think of courage and stupidity — and I think of both of those things existing underwater.” Spielberg should know; he brought both of those things, plus a heavily Hitchcock-influenced approach to filmmaking, to the party.
Spielberg’s first courageous act was to insist, despite his relative inexperience as a director, that Benchley’s best-selling novel be radically gutted for the film; he recognized that the book’s power lay not in its rambling first two acts (which included a lurid but tedious affair between the police chief’s wife and the visiting marine biologist) but in the shark hunt of the third. He also insisted upon injecting some humor into the script, which was achieved not only by bringing in his friend Carl Gottlieb to punch up Benchley’s original screenplay, but also by letting his actors improvise.
And while obeying the film’s producers’ edict that he cast known actors in the film’s major roles, Spielberg wisely avoided choosing big stars who might bring baggage with them from previous screen performances. Though Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss had all played key supporting parts in recent hits (Scheider in “The French Connection,” Shaw in “The Sting,” Dreyfuss in “American Graffiti”), they were all still anonymous (not to mention talented) enough to disappear into their “Jaws” characters.
On the stupidity side, Spielberg insisted upon shooting the film’s Atlantic Ocean scenes on the actual Atlantic Ocean — this despite the fact that Hollywood’s ocean scenes were typically filmed in lakes or miniaturized sets, and that Spielberg had no prior experience with shooting in or on the ocean. The resulting technical headaches strained the endurance (and patience) of the cast and crew, put the film well over budget, and inadvertently mirrored the single-mindedness and man versus nature hubris that drove Shaw’s Captain Quint to his eventual demise.
But instead of letting his quest for realism consume him a la Quint, Spielberg deftly adjusted, and used the challenges he faced to his advantage. Realizing that the hulking (and constantly malfunctioning) mechanical great white sharks created for the film wouldn’t fool anyone if they appeared onscreen for too long, Spielberg used the lessons learned from his obsessive study of Hitchcock films to maximize the suspense while minimizing the shark exposure. The eerily silent underwater shots from the shark’s point of view (accomplished via the use of a specially-devised rig that kept the camera stable amid the tide’s forceful ebb and flow), the frantic cries of the shark’s victims, the spurting blood (its horrifying intensity accentuated by Spielberg’s intentional exclusion of the color red from all costumes and sets), the severed limbs, the discovery of a fisherman’s rotted head in a shipwreck, the chaos of frightened beachgoers clumsily stampeding for their lives through waist-high water—all of these provided memorably jarring scares well before characters and audience alike ever got a good look at the shark.
John Williams’ oft-parodied two-note theme, which won him an Academy Award and earned him a #32 hit on the Billboard singles chart, further tormented the audience’s imagination.
Still, as genuinely frightening as the film is, it’s the actors — and Spielberg’s skill at drawing naturalistic performances from them — who make “Jaws” much more than just a monster movie. Sure, Shaw chews the scenery fabulously as the shark-obsessed old sea captain, but there’s real pain and anger behind his obsession, as is finally revealed by his drunken monologue about surviving the feeding frenzies that followed the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. (Some question remains as to who deserves the bulk of the credit for writing said monologue, one of the film’s most powerful scare-free moments, but most fingers point to Shaw himself.)
As oceanographer Matt Hooper, Dreyfuss comes on like Woody Allen in a wetsuit, his well-placed wiseass comments providing most of the film’s comic relief. And while Scheider’s Chief Brody is essentially the same sort of duty-hardened NYC cop the actor played in “The French Connection” and “The Seven-Ups,” here he’s truly a fish out of water — a seasick landlubber whose street smarts prove utterly worthless when confronted with a man-eating shark and a mayor and city council who want to downplay its existence.
Which brings us to another reason why Jaws resonated so deeply at the time of its release, and continues to do so to this day: Murray Hamilton’s sleazy Mayor Vaughn, who wants the shark attacks hushed up out of fear for the damage they’ll do to his beach town’s summer economy — and, presumably, what the lack of tourism dollars will do to chances for re-election. Reviewers at the time caught fragrant whiffs of Watergate in Mayor Vaughn’s cover-up, but his profits-before-safety attitude and mealy-mouthed reassurances will be equally recognizable to anyone who lived through the Trump administration’s feckless soft-pedaling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though decades of improved special effects have rendered the great white of “Jaws” somewhat less convincing than it was in 1975, the film is still best appreciated on the big screen, where Spielberg’s (perhaps grudging) appreciation for the ocean’s pitiless power really comes across.
On TV, the action feels flatter, and the camerawork less interesting; Quint’s USS Indianapolis monologue loses some of its incantatory force, and Spielberg’s intentionally washed-out color palette makes the film look more like a 70s cop show than a record-breaking blockbuster. But it remains a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and its plotlines and images continue to be analyzed to this day by critics who see all manner of symbolism and socio-political references hidden within — something you absolutely cannot say for any of the knock-off films like “Grizzly” or “The Deep” that immediately followed in its bloody wake.
I’m a fan of much of Spielberg’s work, but I’ve probably seen “Jaws” more times than I’ve seen all of his other films combined, and I’m still discovering new pleasures with every viewing. Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women, indeed.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.