In the spring of 1974 a young director, with only a single theatrical film release to his name, travelled to the island of Martha’s Vineyard to begin principle photography upon his new film. The film was based on a fictitious book which had been released only two months prior by a writer whose previous credits were poorly received works of non-fiction. The young director, Steven Spielberg, the writer Peter Benchley and the film of course was the genesis of the summer blockbuster Jaws.
June 20th sees the 45th anniversary of Jaws, a film which at almost half a century, still captivates audiences today, a taut thriller which gained its success from exceptional direction, layered characters, great action and a little bit of good fortune brought about by some bad luck.
Jaws is my favourite film. As a child I found it exciting yet terrifying, and like many, it made me somewhat apprehensive of going into the water. As I got older I began to appreciate the beautifully crafted characters, and not just the three main protagonists but the residents of the fictional Amity Island, who with barely a few lines, make the town seem inhabited and believable, the major Larry Vaughan in particular stands out as a torn, troubled elected official just trying to “act in the town’s best interests”.
Much has been said about the troubles which plagued the shoot and the young 26-year-old director was on the cusp of becoming fired by the studio on numerous occasions, due mainly in part to an ever-increasing shooting schedule and expanding budget increase. However, the failure of the animatronic shark is what presented the opportunity to Steven Spielberg to create the Alfred Hitchcock style of dread and apprehension by creating a fear of what can’t be seen. Throughout filming, the use of a dorsal fin and John Williams haunting score as a substitute for a working full-size animatronic shark, and it’s this style of filmmaking which has been replicated across numerous thrillers and horrors we have seen since.
The film has two very distinct acts, with many people having a preference for the second act, and at the time of release critics panned the first act for being slow and uneventful. For myself, however, I prefer the first act. It does such a great job of establishing the characters and their motivations, creating a believable world, inviting us to inhabit with the townsfolk. It also highlights to us, as is very evident within today’s current COVID-19 pandemic, that sometimes those in charge, the decision-makers within society, make decisions not based on wellbeing, but upon ones of an economic priority.
I could go on to talk about the actors and that particular speech onboard the Orca, although it has been addressed many times over the years. I could mention that the book, whilst in many respects is similar, contains terribly unlikable characters (it was fortuitous that the affair from the novel was removed), but rather than cover old ground I suggest that if you have never seen Jaws then go watch it. If you haven’t seen it in years then treat yourself to a repeated viewing and if you have watched it recently or indeed purchased the newly released 4k remaster then go and watch it again, because like a wristwatch, Jaws appreciates with time.