I'm not going to waste my time arguing with a man who’s lining up to be a hot lunch.
Many of you might not be old enough to recall but Jaws effectively invented the concept of the summer movie as we know it today. Two years before Star Wars, it was the first film to really demonstrate the power of all those teenagers, recently freed from school, to generate an ass-load of money at the box office.
Of course, this was also before the modern marketing machine was fully geared up, so in order for a movie to become a mega-blockbuster, it depended on a lot of word-of-mouth to get people’s butts into the seats. In those days, it still required that the film not suck. Mission accomplished, I’d say.
This movie was based on a bestselling novel by Peter Benchley, but rather than ruining a good book, as Hollywood often does, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb and director Steven Spielberg took a mediocre novel and turned it into something better than it deserved to be. They ditched ridiculous subplots about Mrs. Brody’s affair with Matt Hooper and the mayor’s involvement with the mafia and just focused on what worked, namely a big old shark snacking on tourists off the coast of New England.
Then film opens with a shapely blonde college student (Susan Blacklinie) going for a moonlight skinny dip off the coast of Amity Island and, in a scene that Spielberg didn’t match for sheer, palpable terror until the opening of Saving Private Ryan, she meets a grisly fate at the business end of the shark. Seriously, thirty years later I still have a hard time watching that scene, even though it is not really the least bit gory or bloody.
The local police chief, transplanted New Yorker Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is dissuaded by the mayor (Murray Hamilton) from writing her death up as a shark attack for fear of scaring off the Fourth of July tourist trade. Brody brings in shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help him convince the town that they have a problem.
A few masticated tourists and locals later, however, the town is forced to admit is has a shark issue and brings in the crustiest of crusty old sea salts, professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill it. He, Brody and Hooper set off on Quint’s boat to catch themselves a Carcharodon carcharias.
Of course, part of the effectiveness of this movie comes from the fact that we never see the shark until almost the end of the movie and this was an accident. The mechanical shark they built for the movie never worked, forcing Spielberg to use various sleights of hand which significantly improved the film as a whole. When we finally do see the fake shark in broad daylight, it’s one of the few scenes that look less than convincing.
It doesn’t hurt that the three main characters, who are the only people on screen for the last third of the movie, are played by three highly skilled actors and supported by a script that snaps with great dialog and, for about the last forty minutes, non-stop tension. Scheider is solid as the audience’s surrogate, the average guy who’s scared out of his mind the whole time. Dreyfuss makes cocky, youthful arrogance seem charming while Shaw wraps his arms around every imaginable “Yankee sea captain” cliché and makes them his own. The veteran Irish actor steps up another level when his character recounts his harrowing experience aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II, which accounts for the character’s dislike for sharks.
It’s difficult to overestimate the movie’s impact on our popular culture. For the rest of 1975 and beyond, the U.S. had an insatiable appetite for anything remotely “sharky.” Even thirty years later, it has only abated somewhat to a low grade fever. Would the Discovery Channel be consistently scoring its best ratings year after year with “Shark Week” if it hadn’t been for Steven Spielberg’s first blockbuster?
Somehow, I doubt it.