It's widely-accepted conventional wisdom that Jaws was the first modern summer blockbuster. Coming out right smack dab in the middle of the auteur-driven 70's, June of 1975, Jaws was an enormous, inescapable hit, and is effectively the foundation upon which Steven Spielberg's career was built. It would be two more years before George Lucas created the still-followed template for the special effects-driven franchise film, and three more years after that before Michael Cimino put the final nail in the coffin of the auteur 70's with the disaster that was Heaven's Gate. But Jaws was a harbinger of a film, for good and for ill, a movie that delighted audiences and critics and also paved the way for the destruction of the weird, personal, studio-backed movies that those New Hollywood directors like Scorsese and De Palma and Hal Ashby were making during this period (filmmakers that Spielberg has never hidden his admiration for).
Given that context, what maybe stands out at first blush to me about Jaws is how unassuming it is. It has the one special effect, so it is technically a "special effects-driven blockbuster", but that effect sucks, and is in the film for a total of no more than about 10 minutes. Mostly what people do in Jaws is they talk about just what exactly they are going to do about this enormous shark that has taken over their beach, and then when they finally formulate a plan, those people talk about what they are doing, and why they're doing it. And then eventually the shark shows up, and they make their stand, and it's over.
Here is the briefest of plot summaries, because most people have seen this film, and I don't feel that I need to go blow by blow. A shark kills a girl on Amity Island, a summer destination off the New England coast. The new police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) suggests closing the beach until the shark is dealt with, but the politicians talk him out of it because they need summer dollars, and are afraid that once the tourists are scared away, they won't come back. So the beach stays open, and the shark kills a little boy. Brody (temporarily) manages to close the beach, and calls in, among others, a shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Some local yahoos claim to have killed the shark but Hooper convinces Brody that the shark they found isn't the same one that has killed two people already, and after one more person is killed by the shark, Brody hires a salty local shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) to take him and Hooper out on his boat, the Orca, where the three of them will take down the shark. It proves a significantly more difficult task than they anticipate, and the shark manages to eat Quint before Brody finally kills it.
There's a bit of nuance that I've left out but honestly the story is fairly streamlined (with one exception, which I'll get to) and that plot summary pretty accurately sums up what happens. The stakes are set up efficiently (Brody's concern for public safety is overridden by the short-sighted avarice of the town mucky-mucks, until they have no choice but to listen to him), and the story really hinges on, at most, five characters (Brody, Hooper and Quint, plus Brody's wife and the town mayor). Six if you count the shark. The danger that the shark poses to the community, both in terms of safety and in terms of the economic impact, is easily understood.
Where the exception to the streamlined nature of the story lies is in the back part of the second act, when the film goes a little flabby. In Duel, most of the film's surprises had been deployed by the end of the first act, so there wasn't much left for Spielberg to do but repeat himself, in slightly different ways, as the film chugged along towards its climax. Jaws is significantly better paced, and it opens up and reveals itself to the audience in bits and pieces all throughout. But what that means is that, given how slight the bare bones of the story actually are (shark menaces population, shark is dealt with), the stall before the third-act shark hunt goes on just slightly too long - specifically, it goes on exactly one kill too long. The girl who is killed at the beginning, that sets up the entire plot of the film. The little boy who is killed after the town higher-ups refuse to close the beach, that sets up the central conflict of the film, and what the stakes for everyone are. The third kill, the man who is eaten by the shark (in lieu of Brody's own son, who was also in its vicinity at the time)? Well, it gives Brody a direct connection to the danger that the shark possesses, I guess. But Brody was already on board with that danger. And more importantly, we were already on board with that danger. The little boy's death proved how short-sighted the mayor and his cronies were acting. The third death feels like an unnecessary button, an answer to a question that no one was asking any more.
The crux of the movie rests in that third act trip that Brody, Hooper and Quint take in pursuit of the fish. First, I should remind anyone who was half (or less) paying attention that the last time I saw Robert Shaw was way, way back here, where he played the brooding Soviet menace. It's not a particularly memorable villain turn, and most people probably don't even remember that he played a Bond villain. Shaw has two moments in Jaws that are iconic, which is two more than most film characters get - his introduction, where he interrupts a meeting by scraping his fingernails across a chalkboard and proceeds to tell the townspeople that he'll catch the shark if they pay him his fee, and the story that he tells about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis:
It occurs to me that the boat trip represents three distinct styles of acting (and if it doesn't, just go with me for a minute). You have Richard Dreyfuss' twitchy Method weirdness. You've got Shaw's old Hollywood scenery chewing. And then you have Roy Scheider's lived-in naturalism. Perhaps the adjectives I've used give some indication of where I'm going with this - more than anything else, Jaws really made me appreciate just how good and interesting (and probably underappreciated) of an actor Scheider is. He carries the movie from beginning to end, and even when a couple of hams like Dreyfuss and Shaw show up to steal it away from him, he is always there, the solid anchor embedded in the sea floor, keeping the whole thing from spinning out of control. There's a scene after Hooper has come to the island, when he comes over to have dinner with the Brody's. Dreyfuss is talking to Lorraine Gary (who plays Mrs. Brody) and Scheider, telling them some story while they look on in quiet attention, and the entire time he was talking my eye was drawn inexorably to Scheider, casually opening and pouring a bottle of wine as Dreyfuss speaks. That's a movie star. Given no lines, he was still doing more interesting things than his costar.
So eventually the shark shows up, and....it looks like shit. There's no other way around that fact. I actually wrote, "the shark really looks real enough" at one point, before it had appeared above the water in any capacity. When it's still underwater, attached to whatever rig it's attached to in order to get it to move, it looks real, and scary. Brody has that famous moment when he's chumming the water and the shark just appears out of nowhere, all gaping maw and black eyes, scaring the shit out of him. There, it looks great. By the end, when it's sweeping its head back and forth across the deck of the broken ship, trying to eat Quint and Brody, it's an ugly grey puppet. That has the unfortunate effect of sucking some of the terror out of the film's climax, and is at least a counter-argument to the idea that practical effects are always preferable to CGI (a counter-argument to that is that if it was a CGI shark, it might look even worse.) Despite this, I think the ending is well set up, with Quint sliding into the monster's jaws, screaming the whole way down, and Brody, alone (because Hooper has been forced to hide under the water after the world's most ill-advised plan involving a shark cage), improvising, and successfully carrying out, a plan to destroy it. And when the monster is killed, it's a triumphant moment, much more so than the fizzle at the end of Duel, with the shark going up in an explosion of fishy viscera.
All of the good parts of Duel are also good here, and the pacing of this film is significantly better than that earlier one. Spielberg takes his foot off the gas a little too much - there is an even tighter (and scarier) thriller to be made of this material, but he's a sentimental type, and he gives the film over just a little too much to Brody's wet noodle of a family. I land on this being a very good film rather than a great one, but someone could convince me that I'm being too harsh towards it. It's really good, and Spielberg crafts a real story out of a fairly thin premise (which, granted, was also a bestselling book, but it's still a slight premise for a big-budget feature film.)
A few bullet points:
Amity Island follows in the long tradition of Spielbergian Anytowns - there's a bare hint of local color, but mostly it's just a generic Seaside Resort, the kind that families the world over go on vacation. For all of his talents as a filmmaker, Spielberg is simply not that good at creating the sense of a real, lived-in space. He traffics in emotional warmth (to a fault sometimes), and yet his films can still feel a little cold because his settings so often feel like less than real places.
Dreyfuss goes way, way bigger than necessary in his second scene, when he views and comments on the remains of the first victim. I kind of just don't like Richard Dreyfuss very much, I have to admit.
When Dreyfuss and Scheider encounter the chewed-up fishing boat in the middle of the night, John Williams' music is really nicely subtle and creepy. Reminds me of Howard Shore's score for The Silence of the Lambs, which I guess would be more accurately phrased as, Shore's Silence of the Lambs score reminds me of Williams' Jaws score.
I knew the severed head was coming and it still gave me a jolt. That's a quality scare.
When we get back to Quint at the beginning of the second half, he is a lot less taciturn than he originally appeared to be, when we met him at the meeting in the first act. His constant stream of chatter starts to get a little irritating.
This one is for a very, very select audience, but Quint sounds a bit like Rob Mariano, the way he talks with his teeth. If you don't know who Rob Mariano is, you have made wise life choices thus far.
The "put Hooper in a shark cage" plan may have been the most ill-advised thing any film characters have ever done. It goes bad immediately. There is, from its inception, a zero percent chance for it to succeed in any way.
Brody pretty much kills the shark entirely by himself. Granted that by the end of the film he's the only one left in the boat, but most of the things that Quint and Hooper do on the way there adds up to jack shit when push comes to shove and the shark has to be killed. Hooper is hiding underwater, Quint is dead, and Brody formulates and executes a plan that has nothing to do with either of the other two or their planning.
The film sort of just...ends. Brody and Hooper swim back to the island, they banter for a little bit, and then Spielberg cuts to a shot of the island as the credits come up, no music, nothing. Duel ended in a similar way. I don't know if that's a particularly Spielbergian way to end a movie, but it's kind of jarring.