Drunk naked lady ventures into water after dark. Shark eats drunk naked lady. Resort town goes nuts.
Police chief, oceanographer, and batshit crazy fisherman go after shark. They’re gonna need a bigger boat. Batshit crazy fisherman tells batshit crazy story about 700 sailors being eaten alive.
Shark attacks. Shark explodes. Roll credits.
The bare bones read like something Roger Corman might have made in six days. Exploitation trash. But Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense, and not exploitative at all.
Okay, maybe the dude’s head floating into the hole in the bottom of the boat is a little trashy. And the floating severed leg is pretty bad. But other than that, it’s not.
There’s a tension in Jaws between the primal fear of its central concept—there’s sharks in the water and they are waiting unseen to devour you—and the skill and polish with which its story is told. Steven Spielberg is in his infancy here as a director, but he’s already mastered storytelling tricks that will keep him at the top of his game for decades.
Consider the creativity with which so many shots are framed—a slow pan through mounted shark jaws out a window to find Quint’s (Robert Shaw) boat setting sail to catch the shark, or Brody (Roy Scheider) tossing chum into the water while the shark almost lazily rears his head in the upper left corner of the screen and freaks out the audience completely. It’s skillful filmmaking, but toward a higher goal—it lulls you into a sense of security that is shattered every time that fin pops up.
Shaw’s performance as Quint is (pardon the pun) a titanic effort, full of spit and rage and sadness. His first apperance, running his fingers down that chalkboard before a tracking shot across the side of a classroom finds him seated in the back, immediately kicks the film to another level. Here is a man so bullheaded, so infuriating, and so compelling that you are dying to see him go one-on-one against a great white shark, but hoping he might somehow survive the encounter. (Even after he uses a baseball bat to smash his ship’s only radio.)
Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, and especially Murray Hamilton as Amity’s mayor offer performances that have become iconic through the film’s impact on pop culture. They work in the service of a script that’s full of classic moments, but unconventional in its way; it’s easy to forget that the entire second half of the film features only three characters out on the ocean in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and of course, Bruce the shark.
(Spielberg supposedly named the robotic shark that “terrorized” his cast after his lawyer. Nearly thirty years later, Pixar would pay their own tribute to Spielberg’s suspense classic by naming their own great white character Bruce, voiced by Barry Humphries.)
Three characters, out on the ocean, in the middle of nowhere. An intimate group on a boat that is definitely too small, being pursued by nature’s greatest eating machine. You are laser focused on the witty and powerful details that fill the time (the USS Indianapolis, Quint’s lovely singing voice), but you really crave the sweet release of that damn shark showing up again, so you can scream and smack your seatmate on the arm.
As a brilliant popcorn flick, Jaws draws you in. It’s the terror beneath the ocean that makes it impossible to escape.