It’s peaceful. The water is calm. It would be a perfectly innocent moment if not for the naked woman, and the terror beneath the surface that is about to ruin her midnight swim.
The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece Jaws has become one of the most terrifying and memorable moments in movie history. It ranks among Psycho’s shower scene and Taxi Driver’s “You talkin’ to me” speech as one of the most ripped-off and parodies sequences ever created. And yet it is so simple.
Everything about Jaws is simple, except for the filming of it. The production problems on Jaws have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. The mechanical shark wasn’t working, causing cast and crew to have little or nothing to do for days, sometimes completing as few as one or even zero shots a day. Problems like these usually spell doom for the production, but once every blue moon the resulting film becomes a classic; more than likely even better than it would have been had everything run smoothly.Casablanca was one such film; The Godfather another. Still, no film in movie history benefited from its difficulties more than Jaws.
Spielberg never intended Jaws to be a movie where you didn’t see the shark until more than halfway through the movie, but since the shark wasn’t working, the young hotshot director had to find more creative means of frightening his audience.
What he did was come up with other ways of announcing the shark’s presence. One of the methods he uses is to substitute other objects for the shark. One example of this is the scene where the two fishermen are attempting to catch the shark with a pot roast. We see the bait bob up and down and suddenly take off, taking half of the dock with it. What really provides the scene its chills is when the dock starts moving back towards the fishermen. It is only an inanimate object, but we’re still scared because we know what it represents.
Spielberg also uses this technique in the film’s brilliant second half. Three men: the police chief who’s afraid of the water (Roy Scheider), the wisecracking shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and the obsessed fisherman (Robert Shaw) are shark hunting aboard a tiny boat called the “Orca.” In order to tire the shark, causing it to surface, the men will shoot it with a harpoon that is attached to an air-filled barrel. The barrels function as a perfect substitute for the shark. Whenever we see the barrels, we know the shark is near. We know by which direction the barrels are heading, which way the shark is charging.
Perhaps the most important substitute for the shark is the brilliant theme score devised by legendary composer John Williams.
Duh-duh. Duh-duh. Duh-duh. Duh-duh. Duh-duh. Duh-duh. Duh-duh.
This theme is set up from the film’s opening sequence to represent the shark. We hear it just before the girl is attacked; same with the little boy. We don’t hear it during the prank involving the wooden fin, that’s why we know something is amiss. Halfway through the film Williams has conditioned us to think shark whenever we hear that theme. That is why the shark’s first appearance—just before Scheider’s brilliant ad-lib “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”—is so shocking, because it is not preceded by the theme.
Ingenious filmmaking techniques and music aren’t the only things that make Jaws so memorable, however. Give credit to Spielberg, screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, as well as the actors for creating three of Hollywood’s most memorable characters. In thrillers like this, the characters—especially nowadays—tend to be nothing but cardboard cutouts. Chief Brody, Matt Hooper and Quint, on the other hand, are well-drawn characters the audience can identify and sympathize with.
There is one particular scene that stands out as crucial to achieving this. After a long day of bickering, fighting and shark hunting, the three men share a relaxing moment below deck. They compare their many scars (“Mary Ellen Moffit. She broke by heart.”) and wind up singing “Show me the way to go home” together until the shark comes knocking.
This scene also features Robert Shaw’s brutally brilliant speech—which he wrote some of himself—about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Spielberg has said that this is his favorite part of the movie and I would have to second that.Delivered with such intensity by Robert Shaw, this speech is the bridge that brings the entire movie together. It is also a highlight of a Robert Shaw performance that I consider one for the ages. He has another great speech when we first meet Quint (screeching his fingernails down a blackboard) that is one of Hollywood’s greatest character introductions.
Unfortunately, like a lot of the best performances, Shaw’s work went overlooked by the Academy when it came to the Oscars in 1975; as did Spielberg, who failed to receive a Best Director nomination. The movie did however receive four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Sound, Film Editing and Score. It walked away winning all but Picture.
I love Jaws. I have the poster framed on my wall, I own a “This was no boating accident” T-Shirt and I even have the Jaws shark that sings “Mack the Knife.” Most importantly, I own the movie, which I will continue to watch over and over and over again. It’s a classic, it gets an A+.