Summer Sight and Sound: “Jaws” at 40

By: Daniel Reynolds

Once a decade, starting in 1952, the British Film Institute publishes their Sight and Sound Poll to document the top ten films of all time. It’s an august list, decided by a select group of film critics, which acknowledges some of the finest films ever made. It also notes the shifting tastes of the film intelligentsia over the years. As you’d expect, a look at past lists reveals a pronounced academic taste that doesn’t make room for much popular sentiment. In short, the Sight and Sound Poll doesn’t account for the money.

Forty years ago today, the world’s first summer blockbuster was released. On June 1, 1975, Jaws opened wide in theatres and it’s not entirely hyperbolic to say things changed forever. While the Sight and Sound people will tell you that film is an artistic venture (which is true), movies are also designed to make money. And in the summer of 1975, seemingly out of nowhere, Jaws did just that. It’s $260 million total (in 1975 dollars) puts it seventh all time in inflation-adjusted revenue (number one remains that old war horse Gone with the Wind). It easily became the top summer movie of all time (quickly supplanted by Star Wars two years later). And while the idea of the “blockbuster” had been floating around for years, the term found its first real application in that summer of ’75. Jaws wrote the book on summer blockbusters and re-jigged the movie game to forever plan for the lucrative bounty of the mid-year months.

jaws title

What’s remarkable now about Jaws is how it appears to have stumbled into its winning formula. Today a summer blockbuster is easy to identify — think big budget, explosive use of CGI, and the presence of familiar big name actors. The marketing campaigns for these films are so familiar now they just wash over us; we take it for granted. For Jaws, there was no road map to follow. There was just Peter Benchley’s best-selling book about a shark, a trio of semi-known actors and a young director, Steven Spielberg, trying to make his second feature film a success. (We’re not counting the TV stuff he did, including Duel, which very much informed the pacing and structure of Jaws.) So what happened? Why did this movie spark an explosion?

It begins with the book. It doesn’t take going back to the aforementioned Gone with the Wind to note that film has often looked to novels for inspiration. Using a popular story people already know helps draw attention and by the time of the film’s release, “Jaws” had already sold over five million copies. It’s not hard to understand why; the appeal lay in the premise: three men set out to kill a shark terrorizing a small town. It’s an elemental hook that sells. (It doesn’t matter that reviews of the book were generally poor.) The second component is the cast, and Jaws runs quite the gamut. At one end there is young Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Hooper. He was 28 at the time and had done mostly TV at that point. Still, he had his aggressively nebbish, condescending screen presence down. On the other end is Robert Shaw as Captain Quint, nearing the end of his career (and life; he died in 1978). He’s there to provide gravitas and unruly energy — and, as the plot expands, to fill the Captain Ahab role of this nautical adventure. And finally, in the middle of it all, is classic everyman Roy Scheider as Sheriff Brody. If you look at Scheider’s filmography, you’ll see a bright light who never outshone the classic pictures he was in. He was the lead in Jaws but spent most of his career as a second banana, the guy behind the guy. Along with Dreyfus and Shaw, Scheider was not a major box office draw, but all three knew how to help carry a film.

Finally, we get to the director: Spielberg. It’s easy to say now that his genius was obvious in 1975, but really, who knew? Jaws was beset by production problems; there were shooting delays and the budget ballooned (55 scheduled days turned into 159, $4 million spent turned into $9 million). The mechanical sharks built to terrorize the town never quite worked right at first. And while Spielberg is given tons of credit for keeping the leviathan out of sight for much of the film, one wonders what would have happened had the technology of the time been more agreeable. The rose-coloured tinge of “artistic prudence” sounds much better than “shit didn’t work,” but it forced Spielberg to adapt. While special effects have largely driven the expanding worlds of the summer movie blockbuster, the suggestion of something special had, and still has, room to wow people. Spielberg gradually came to understand he was making a film about primal fear (of the unknown depths, not a specific monster). And, as would play out throughout his career, he knew how to leverage that fear as a direct threat to children and family. It’s why the slow burn first hour of Jaws, with the dead Kintner boy and Brody’s family settling in, is so effective. By the time the shark finally does rear its head, we are fully engaged. We know the stakes.

Brody believes we're going to need a bigger boat.

Brody believes we’re going to need a bigger boat.

Thinking of Jaws now conjures up a few concrete things — the famous John Williams score of course, a handful of lines (“We’re gonna need a bigger boat”, “Smile you son of a-“), and Shaw’s famous monologue. But it also, to me, recalls an unalloyed time. Forgive me if this sounds nostalgic, but Jaws did operate in a irony-desaturated time. It’s a B movie that takes itself seriously, that believes a shark really can terrorize one specific beach in one specific town. It never has its characters wink at the camera or acknowledge the absurdity of a shark pulling a boat into the ocean. It feels real. And while there would be sequels (three to be exact; the last one inspiring a great comedy bit), Jaws didn’t know it was about to change the film industry. Like the best films, it was fuelled by an innocent passion and an artistic flair that yearns to treat its audiences to an exhilarating story. It’ll never be mentioned by the Sight and Sound poll, and that’s an acceptable fate. In fact, many of those high-minded critics would probably say Jaws helped create a monster. It ushered in the blockbuster age that crushed the spirit of maverick 70’s filmmaking. And while that very well may be true, Jaws remains the very best version of that monster.

Look for Part Two of the “Summer Sight and Sound” series in early July on the biggest summer film of 1985: Back to the Future.

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4 responses to “Summer Sight and Sound: “Jaws” at 40

  1. Ah 1975. With your comments on Jaws you’re addressing a whole cohort of people still very much alive & kicking who can look back to that disco era with nostalgia & longing. Still, having seen the movie in the summer of 75, I find some of your takes presumptuous.
    All the actors were quite well established, so we knew we were going to see a great film because Richard Dreyfuss was bound to deliver. Don’t forget he’d already made The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz & American Graffiti, both works received with great acclaim. The tension between Shaw’s Quint, the old sea salt, & Dreyfuss’s Hooper as the young whipper-snapper know-it-all was a tiresome, old cliche’. But the word that was used by most critics of the era, and that you overlooked, was suspense. They beat that theme to death. The music helped as well.
    Also, you underestimate what Hollywood expected of Spielberg. He just didn’t come out of nowhere. He reminded me of Coppola who was given full reign in The Godfather and produced a masterpiece (twice).This was characteristic of the 70’s when directors were allowed more freedom that lead to financial as well as artistic success. Think of The French Connection as well.
    The mechanical shark was a big disappointment. It even look fake. You really had to call upon your imagination when the beast showed himself (herself). And the production crew had to contend with salt water affecting the shark’s moving parts. More problems.
    I also remember that every literate person I knew started reading shark books & becoming sea experts. People were urged to get even & eat a fish.

    • I’m just saying that Dreyfuss, Shaw and Scheider were not the biggest actors of the day. They were good but not huge stars! Dreyfuss’ career was just getting going (are you going to tell me Duddy Kravitz set the world on fire???), Scheider was a long time second lead. He was in a lot of famous movies, but was never quite the main guy (and same goes for Shaw.)

      And not to say that Spielberg was a nobody in 1974-75, but he certainly wasn’t the revered veteran director he is today. He was a young guy who’d made one theatrical film (Sugarland Express) and he had yet to establish his reputation. I know directors in the 70s were given more freedom, but it is interesting that Spielberg, in his way, sort of killed that freedom as studios sought to chance the big blockbuster bucks.

      And yes, I agree with you on the special effects. You definitely have to suspend your disbelief a bit.

      I suspect you did not need a lot of urging to eat fish.

  2. Pingback: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – (1921) – [Public Domain Movies] | mostly music·

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