Jaws is a 1975 American horror thriller directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name. The prototypical summer, blockbuster its release is regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history.
In the story, a giant man-eating great white shark attacks beach goers on Amity Island, a fictional summer resort town, prompting the local police chief to hunt it with the help of a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter.
The film stars Roy Scheider (The Curse of the Living Corpse) as police chief Martin Brody, Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper, Robert Shaw (A Reflection of Fear) as shark hunter Quint, Murray Hamilton as the mayor of Amity Island, and Lorraine Gary as Brody’s wife, Ellen. The screenplay is credited to both Benchley, who wrote the first drafts, and actor-writer Carl Gottlieb, who rewrote the script during principal photography.
Shot mostly on location on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the film had a troubled production, going over budget and past schedule. As the art department’s mechanical sharks suffered many malfunctions, Spielberg decided to mostly suggest the animal’s presence, employing an ominous, minimalistic theme created by composer John Williams to indicate the shark’s impending appearances. Spielberg and others have compared this suggestive approach to that of classic thriller director Alfred Hitchcock.
Universal Pictures gave the film what was then an exceptionally wide release for a major studio picture, over 450 screens, accompanied by an extensive marketing campaign with a heavy emphasis on television spots and tie-in merchandise.
Generally well-received by critics, Jaws became the highest-grossing film in history at the time. It won several awards for its soundtrack and editing, and it is often cited as one of the greatest films of all time. Along with 1977’s Star Wars, Jaws was pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which revolves around blockbuster action and adventure pictures with simple “high-concept” premises that are released in the summer at thousands of theaters and supported by heavy advertising. It was followed by three inferior sequels, none with the participation of Spielberg or Benchley, and many imitative thrillers.
“The characterisation is precise and acutely observed (it’s one of the great guys-on-a-mission flicks), the dialogue is witty and wise, and the plot fits together like a finely crafted watch. The performances – not just leads, but the kids, townsfolk and the grief-stricken mother too – are impeccable. Best of all is Steven Spielberg’s direction…” Tom Huddleston, Time Out
“Jaws is too gruesome for children, and likely to turn the stomach of the impressionable at any age. … It is a coarse-grained and exploitative work which depends on excess for its impact. Ashore it is a bore, awkwardly staged and lumpily written.”Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1975
“Spielberg is blessed with a talent that is absurdly absent from most American filmmakers these days: this man actually knows how to tell a story on screen. … It speaks well of this director’s gifts that some of the most frightening sequences in Jaws are those where we don’t even see the shark.” Frank Rich, New Times magazine
” …despite genuinely suspenseful and frightening sequences, it is a slackly narrated and sometimes flatly handled thriller with an over-abundance of dialogue and, when it finally appears, a pretty unconvincing monster.” James Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide
Jaws – BFI Classics by Antonia Quirke, British Film Institute, UK, 2002 – available from Amazon.co.uk
Pre-release promo poster: