The peaceful community of Amity island is being terrorised. There is something in the sea that is attacking swimmers. They can no longer enjoy the sea and the sun as they used to, and the spreading fear is affecting the numbers of tourists that are normally attracted to this island. After many attempts the great white shark won't go away and sheriff Brody, with friends Hooper and Quint decide to go after the shark and kill it.
"No". There's a word Steven Spielberg probably hasn't heard in a while. Back in 1974, though, it was a different story. Back in 1974, Steven Spielberg had yet to make Jaws. He'd seen the galley proofs of Peter Benchley's bestseller on producer David Brown's desk. "What's this about?" he remembers thinking, "a porno dentist?" Not quite. But although the transcript could hardly be described as high art, Spielberg was sold.
Having recently moved to Malibu, where he had taken to staring out to sea for hours at a time, the concept tapped into his psyche. As he himself says, "I read it and felt that I had been attacked. It terrified me, and I wanted to strike back." Zanuck and Brown turned him down nonetheless. Only when their first choice, Dick Richards (who had caused concern by continually referring to "the whale"), wavered did they call Spielberg back.
And although by this stage he had convinced himself the project wasn't for him, legend has it that on arriving at the producers' office to find them wearing the Jaws sweatshirts he'd had commissioned after that first fateful read (to convince them he was the man for the job) he rescinded. "We shamed him," Zanuck said, "into staying on." Whatever its genesis, Jaws was Spielberg's breakthrough. The first summer blockbuster, it was also the first to ever break the $100 million mark (worldwide it exceeded five times that) and single-handedly caused a downturn in the package holiday trade. "For years he just scared us," commented his sister Anne after an early screening. "Now he gets to scare the masses."
And didn't he just. The head popping out of the boat (re-shot from a different angle when preview audiences didn't jump enough), the moment the shark's head conies bursting through the surface, the first attack, by an unseen predator — our primal fears are tweaked incessantly. This last factor, the unseen element, is crucial. For despite a 27-year old Spielberg publicly asserting that, "I watch hundreds of old movies but I haven't learned that much from them," there was undoubtedly one lesson he took on board. And where better to study than the school of Alfred Hitchcock?
"A bomb is under the the table, and it explodes: that is surprise", the auteur famously observed. "A bomb is under the table, but it does not explode", that is suspense.
Spielberg's decision to follow suit, not unleashing his demon for over an hour — although there is the argument that endless technical difficulties with Bruce (the nickname, based on that of his attorney, he gave Robert Mattey's mechanical sharks) one, two and three contributed to the process — pays off handsomely.
Some say, however, that Jaws is essentially Duel 2. Certainly there are similarities (mirrored by Spielberg employing the same dinosaur sound effect for the deaths of truck then shark), but this later work thrives in the defter touches that pepper its perfect three-act chronology. The famous reverse zoom; Brody looking through the shark book; the confrontation between him and Mrs Kintner; the use of fences on land, in comparison with empty horizons at sea, to convey our protagonists' isolation; the use of the colour yellow (the lilo, the barrels, the torch) and the primary visual stimulus, to suggest impending danger.
If the cast also gels seamlessly, such harmony didn't come without a struggle. Zanuck wanted Charlton Heston as Brody ("What?" shrieked Spielberg. "Moses? You want Moses? Everybody'll know he'll win!") and Sterling Hayden as Quint. Spielberg's ideal for the role was Lee Marvin, and thought Jon Voight spot-on for Hooper. Benchley meanwhile (who, it has to be said, had been awkward throughout, having seen his three original drafts radically re-written), frankly, wanted shooting for his egotistical dream troika of Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.
And if the equally problematic Dreyfuss, who complained constantly that he'd, "rather watch this movie than shoot it," took some convincing, it's unthinkable that the final result — including cameos from Spielberg (the voice on Quint's radio) and Benchley (a reporter), as well as sublime turns from Gary and Hamilton in support — could have been any more masterful. Add to that the timeless script, by Howard Sackler, Carl Gottlieb and John Milius (said to be largely responsible for the Indianapolis monologue, though Shaw's input is acknowledged); John Williams' score (even though Spielberg laughed on first hearing it), and the equation is complete.
An equation all the more impressive considering that both bigger budgets and time frames were needed in the wake of a disastrous shoot, nicknamed "Flaws" by its crew, in Martha's Vineyard.
Zanuck and Brown's suggestion of, "We'll get a trained one!" hardly helped solve the shark issues, Gottlieb and Spielberg were nearly killed in seafaring accidents and a sinking Orca had expensive consequences, despite the director's reputed order to: "Fuck the actors! Save the sound department!" Rendering Spielberg's vow on wrapping what arguably remains his finest moment, perhaps not altogether surprising. "My next picture will be on dry land," he said solemnly. "There won't even be a bathroom scene."
Rightly lauded, Jaws has lost none of its power to terrify. A film of immense, visceral and psychological power.