Steven Spielberg is the most overrated film director in history. In the public imagination, he is the greatest filmmaker of all time. Only Alfred Hitchcock even approaches his level of fame, and Hitchcock also got there by appearing on-screen far more often than most film directors, not only with his famed cameos but with his popular series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Purely as a filmmaker, Spielberg’s reputation with the public is clearly unmatched.
However, there is a reason for that reputation. His early career was a laundry list of fantastic commercial successes, and some of them were artistic triumphs as well. It included such successes as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA 1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA 1981), and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (USA 1982). And of course, it began with Jaws.
Jaws is, in a way, a difficult film to review. Not only has it been out for 43 years, but it’s difficult to find anyone whose age is into double-digits who hasn’t already watched it. I have probably watched the film 20 times myself, but I still thought it would be worthwhile to review. If nothing else, I think it serves as a good reminder, after his last embarrassment, why Spielberg is held in such high esteem with the public. It’s also interesting to view in the current political climate, in some ways appearing prescient while in others seeming quaintly anachronistic.
Fundamentally, Jaws is a horror film. More specifically, it’s a monster film, in the tradition of Frankenstein (James Whale, USA 1931). Those monster films were always allegories for current political situations, and Jaws is no different. The film opens with a sequence giving us the shark, a threat from the ocean that invades through the island’s unprotected borders. (Any guesses as to what it represents yet? It’s not subtle.) It then sets up all of the forces competing over how to address the threat, explaining what arm of society each of the principal characters represents.
Brody, representing the government, springs into action, but is thwarted by Mayor Vaughn, representing business. Realizing that he needs help, Brody calls in Hooper, representing science. Science and the government therefore ally against the incoming threat while business continues not to accept its existence. When that alliance doesn’t stop the threat, business finally has to capitulate, and of course it uses what business always uses: the working class (represented here by Quint, with all of his crassness and violent hatred). The working class decides that violence is the way to end the threat, and (despite some disagreements as to methodology) science and the government join in. Once the working class’s traditional methods fail, science gets a try. Once science fails, the government figures out a way to use tools from both (Quint’s gun and Hooper’s air canister) to slay the beast.
It’s a compelling enough and simple enough story that the film works on both a surface and a metaphorical level, and there are clues throughout the dialogue as to the metaphorical roles the characters play. For example, Hooper says to Quint at one point, “Spare me the working class hero nonsense.” And we are told that Hooper is rich for no story reason, just so that we know he is not part of the working class. It’s good allegorical writing that’s carried out well.
Interestingly, Spielberg has yet to develop his signature visual style in his masterpiece film, working with cinematographer Bill Butler (who was the cinematographer on a ton of hit movies over about a 15-year stretch around this one), and instead the film is far less flashy. It doesn’t have the lens flares, spotlights, and high-contrast lighting that would grow to characterize much of his work. And yet it is filled with quietly rich camerawork, from the low-angled cameras making the audience feel like it’s on the water and won’t be able to move to the so-called “Jaws shot” when Brody first sees the shark out of the water (which feels weird and disorienting but doesn’t actually move that much). He has a good understanding of light and a very strong sense of composition that work well for horror (John Carpenter would probably have made many similar choices). However, the real visual star of the film is the editing. Spielberg and Verna Fields (ironically in her last film work before going into studio management) gave the film a much faster-paced editing style than the norm of the time, which keeps it feeling fresh and helps make the film feel like it’s continuing to move even when not much is happening.
The acting is universally great. Robert Shaw has the showiest part, and he makes the most of it, playing up all of Quint’s eccentricities to the point that Strother Martin would never agree with Brody’s characterization of him as merely “colorful.” Richard Dreyfuss is great, adding some real dimension to a character that probably read as a blank canvas. However, perhaps the best work in the film is really done by Roy Scheider. Just making up “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” would be enough to make it a great performance, but he also does such a great job of giving us insight into someone who doesn’t want everyone to know what he’s thinking that the audience comes away knowing more about Brody than screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley likely ever did. And really, even the smaller parts are very well done.
Of course, the reason the editing is only the visual star of the film is that John Williams’s score is astonishing–one of the highlights of sonic film history. There isn’t much to say–it’s just a fantastic score.
Overall, Jaws is a masterpiece. It’s every bit the film that it’s perceived to be. Spielberg is overrated, but he’s also very good, and this film is his finest work. Everything about it is well done, and it makes its point, that the government must use tools from such disparate sources as the working class and science to solve problems. It doesn’t really offer a conclusion to its specific metaphor–I don’t have any clue what the equivalent of shoving an oxygen tank into immigrations mouth and shooting it would be–but it does offer a method of solving problems and a suggestion of cooperation that would be a running thread through much of Spielberg’s work.
- “They’re from all over the place–Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey.” That’s “all over the place.” It’s a line that’s easy to miss but actually reveals a lot about the island. It’s such an insular place with visitors only from nearby that to the islanders only the nearby shore is really seen as a part of the same world.
- People who think that the internet created trolls: look at the kids with the shark fin and the vandals in Amity–those people were around in 1975, too. And yes this is fiction but no one has ever said, “Oh that’s crazy no one would do that!”
- The view of science the film pushes is a little strange. Ultimately, it’s a tool from science that the government uses to slay the threat. However, science isn’t there for it–it only provided the tool not the use of it. It also was repeatedly self-interested over the working class’s attempts to destroy the threat, spending time to tie a tracker to the shark when the working class was ready to make its first attempt on it. The working class and science are both also regularly drawn in to petty debates instead of paying attention to the problem at hand that they should be working together to solve. And then of course science has to hide from the threat during the ultimate confrontation, only arising after it is vanquished. I’m not sure it’s more of a positive or a negative view of science, but it is a rather complex view of its place in society that Spielberg seems to be promoting.
- There are also some interesting little moments once one accepts the political metaphor, like Quint starting a fire and then asking Brody to put it out–the working class starts its own fire but expects the government to put it out.
- Peter Benchley famously hated the shark eating Quint. It’s understandable, as it means a lot for the underlying symbolism. If instead Quint dies by drowning (as in the novel), the working class is not so much killed by immigration as it is left to drown by a government incapable of protecting it. And Quint’s death scene is actually the worst part of the film–it looks very fake and continues far too long.
- Many have commented that Mayor Vaughn is psychotically devoted to keeping the beaches open. In the book, it is because of mafia pressure in a convoluted real estate scheme, and Benchley apparently wanted to keep that in the film out of fear that audiences would respond in exactly that way. I don’t think it’s necessary to have further motivation. He’s the mayor of a little resort town, and we saw the way people reacted to closing the beaches for 24 hours–one even shouts, “24 hours is like three weeks!” and not one says, “Oh yeah that’s fair–we want it to be safe!” The only person in that meeting who cares about safety is Brody.
- One really weird part of the plot: What are the odds that, when this place has apparently been safe for so long that no one has any concern about sharks beforehand, two sharks capable of eating people show up right at the same time? Hooper calls the tiger shark “a man eater,” and it just happened to show up at the same time that The Shark did? I suppose it is supposed to be attracted by the efforts to catch the other shark, but it’s still rather odd.
- This film did not invent the Jaws shot. It was used heavily in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958) much earlier.