Author's Note: Hello, and welcome to (Re)visiting A Classic, a new weekly segment where a 20-something movie dork gives his opinions on old movies he's never seen before.
By 1975, then new-comer Steven Spielberg had already directed two well-received films. The first was "Duel," a TV movie about a man pursued by a homicidal truck. The second was "The Sugarland Express," a crime drama about a criminal couple stealing their baby from his foster home. Despite these two moderate successes, Spielberg was not the first choice to direct the adaptation of Peter Benchley's marine thriller novel. It was only after dropping two other directors that Universal executives Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown offered the job to the 26-year-old amateur. The film became a smashing success and a cultural landmark. Not only did it put Spielberg on the map as one of Hollywood's great new directors, but it also had huge effects on the film industry. "Jaws" became a benchmark for film advertising, being one of the first films to be advertised through heavy rotation of ads on television rather than being supported by word-of-mouth. While it is considered one of the best films of all time, I have not seen it until this point. Looking at it with a pair of fresh, gen-z eyes does this Hitchcockian classic stand the test of time?
After a series of horrific shark attacks, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Schieder), oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) seek to slay the marine behemoth. That's pretty much it and even the actual hunt doesn't start until 2/3 of the way through.
"Jaws" is often lauded for its superb tension, but the equally excellent storytelling is often overlooked. The movie doesn't feel or even look like your average thriller or horror film, with dark lighting and morally grey characters who are constantly pouting. Instead, these seem like average people put into a tense situation. They have families, social lives, well-rounded personalities and concerns outside the giant shark. The terror not only comes from the carnivorous monstrosity, but also that we like these characters and don't want to see them get eaten.
However, the tension Spielberg emulates on a technical level is, of course, sublime. The slow cinematography, the deathly silence broken by John Williams' instantly unnerving score, the underwater shots from the POV of the shark silently gliding towards its prey. All of it comes together under the director's masterful hand. However, none of these would work without the glue that holds them together: good pacing. The key with tension is to not give the audience what they already know is coming. If the people watching already know somebody is going to get eaten by the shark, then the answers you must withhold from them are "Who?" and "When?" Drag out the inevitable, don't let it happen too quickly. Tease the audience with multiple possible victims, have the POV shots lazily float between shots of prey. This lets the audience wind themselves up, not knowing who will be shark food and when.
The premise is also a great help in scaring the audience. Even though swimming in the ocean is an activity largely devoid of terror, we still have this idea of "monsters from the deep," something grabbing at your foot from somewhere that you can't see. Every brush of seaweed gives an image of a tentacle, stepping on a sponge makes you picture a jellyfish. "Jaws" plays on that primal idea and tells you that you were right to fear what you couldn't see.
Let's talk for a moment about one of Spielberg's technical achievements that isn't often discussed: his oners, or long takes. Often when a director does a long take, it is with the purpose of drawing attention to itself. It says, "Hey, isn't it so cool and artsy that I'm doing this ridiculously long sequence in a single take?" And while these kinds of shots are impressive, they're often unnecessary and can take away from some cinematic opportunities. Spielberg's oners are simple and not often showy. The long take isn't there to show off, it's there to just do its job. It's not too long, so it doesn't draw attention. The background is often shifting so the audience doesn't get bored of looking at the same thing. And the camera movement naturally reveals the scene instead of feeling like the cameraman is just hitting his cues.
I would talk about how fake the shark looks, but it's honestly not that distracting. It has a weird charm to it and they had to show the shark at some point anyway.
"Jaws" is an anxious delight. It's one of those films where no one aspect particularly stands out because everything seamlessly comes together into one cohesive whole. Watch it if you haven't already.