• Steven Spielberg (29 years old in 1975) went into Jaws as a promising young filmmaker and emerged as a wunderkind with a masterpiece under his belt. Jaws also smashed box office records and Spielberg became a one man movie industry movement.

It opens with a short little horror film of two teenagers at a beach party. The sequence is largely without dialogue, it introduces John Williams’ brilliantly simple score, and has some lovely photography with dusk arriving on the water.

Roy Scheider plays Brody- the chief of police in Amity Island. Brody is a former NYPD cop (leaning into Scheider’s past in The French Connection from 1971).

  • Spielberg directs the hell out of the sequence on the beach from roughly the 14-19 minute mark. There is a three-pronged editing splice as passersbys cross in front of Brody as he tries to keep his eyes on the water. After that, there is the famed split diopter (the film has more but this one is used in textbooks as Brody is listening to the man in front of his face, but his attention is clearly on the water). The marvelous dolly zoom (cinema’s greatest- along with Vertigo) is at the 18-minute mark.

Spielberg pulls no punches early – a stylistic tour de force

the split diopter and dolly zoom nearly back to back

  • It is a brilliant four character moral drama featuring the aforementioned Brody, Robert Shaw’s Quint, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss as the sort of intellectual, white collar bearded Spielberg surrogate—and I can’t believe he’s only 28 here- he could pass for 45) and Murray Hamilton’s Mayor Vaughn. Yes, the second act turns into the Ahab/Moby Dick (Shaw’s Quint with a death wish) well oiled narrative machine that we all know and love- but the first half of the film is a shrewd study on small town politics.
  • Robert Shaw has a masterful character introduction at the 20-minute mark with the nails on the chalkboard and Spielberg’s camera sliding up to him from across the room as the noisy room hushes to hear what he has to say. The Spielbergian instincts are uncanny. He hides the mechanical shark throughout most of the film (using the dock attached, or barrels to create fear on top of the water and a POV camera under the water). Shooting on the open water is not easy— even if you’re over 30 years old—and Spielberg chooses not to shoot this film with the fake backdrop of a sea (which would have killed the film- again- good instincts). It is roughly 80 minutes into the movie before seeing the full shark- but just like The Birds (another Hitchcock mention on this page) it is a wonderful foreword.
  • Dreyfuss’ Hooper is introduced another 10 minutes after Shaw’s Quint.
  • The most intimate moments are strong as the most adventurous. There is a touching scene of Brody’s youngest son Sean mimicking his father—“Give us a kiss” and when the boy asks why—Brody says “Cause I need it” as he drowns himself in drink, racked with guilt.
  • The little jump scare at Ben Gardner’s boat may be the only flaw or miss in the film. The film does not need this– it feels cheap.
  • There is, of course, a tremendous amount of writing on Jaws, but I have not read anyone compliment Spielberg on beautiful character blocking and positioning within the wide 2.39 : 1 frame. Spielberg, quite often, lets the characters move, poised in the frame, without cutting. He creates a triangulation like Kurosawa would -regularly early with Dreyfuss/Hamilton/Scheider or, later in the film, with Dreyfuss/Shaw/Scheider- even if it falls short of say The Bad Sleep Well (1960) or High and Low (1963) in this regard. One such sequence (a stellar one) is the low angle long take in front of the Amity Island billboard. Spielberg habitually uses the long take in lieu of cutting (the shot on the ferry is done largely in one long take).

Another inspired set up is Spielberg shooting the Orca (name of Quint’s boat) taking to sea through the shark skeleton and window—Spielberg even thought to remove one of the teeth to make the view better.

There is another solid shot of Shaw at the end of the boat. Later, Scheider’s Brody has the transcendent “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line.

A composition of Shaw in the foreground left sitting, Scheider in the middle/middle standing, and Dreyfuss in the background right on the second level—again- Kurosawa would be proud.

The narrative rolls like few have in the history of cinema. Dreyfuss’ Hooper and Shaw’s Quint have the white collar vs. blue collar banter, then comparing scars. This transitions into the USS Indianapolis which is certainly one of the greatest monologues in cinema history. Taste of Cinema agrees with me (always a great resource) http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2016/the-20-best-movie-monologues-of-all-time/  . Shaw had been terrific before, but this puts him on another level. This monologue is not the end of the scene though, the scene evolves into the charming “Show Me the Way to Go Home” sing along.

  • Spielberg uses another split (the depth of field focus throughout is impressive) with Dreyfuss front right, Shaw in the back left after the shark attacks the boat. The story is so engaging it may take a few viewings to appreciate the blocking- the heads in the frame. There is another when Shaw’s Quint finally asks Dreyfuss’ Hooper for help.
  • Spielberg lands it all gracefully with the “Smile, you son of a bitch” climax and eventually the Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart going off together sort of finale with Brody and Hooper paddling towards shore together
  • A masterpiece