How Steven Spielberg’s Jaws changed cinema

Jaws is 43 years old but as potent as ever. Ahead of its screening with a live orchestra at Edinburgh International Film Festival, we sing the praises of this Spielberg classic

Feature by John Bleasdale | 13 Jun 2018
  • EIFF and RSNO team up for Jaws in concert

Der-dumm, der-dumm, dumm-dumm, dumm-dumm, dumm-dumm, dumm. John Williams' score for Jaws is the aural equivalent of iconic... earconic? If you're attending the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year, you will have the opportunity to hear the most infamous F to F sharp, the grinding heartbeat of an ancient and malevolent heart, as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra perform the score during a live screening.

Jaws marked me as a young viewer. I still go swimming but I can never get the shark’s POV out of my head if I stray out of my depth. But what makes Steven Spielberg’s shark movie such a classic?

Adaptation and improvisation: Taking Jaws from page to screen

Like many fantastic films – The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings – Jaws was based on a mediocre book (and yes, Tom Bombadil, Lord of the Rings is a mediocre book). Peter Benchley’s 1974 potboiler is airport novel fare, Peyton Place with teeth. Spielberg, along with scriptwriter pal Carl Gottlieb, jettisoned the soapier elements – Matt Hooper’s affair with Chief Brody’s wife – and added significant chunks of humour.

The malfunctioning mechanical shark also meant that the cast had the opportunity to make their roles fuller. The best example of this is the famous USS Indianapolis monologue Quint (Robert Shaw) delivers, suggested by Howard Sackler, who wrote an early draft, and John Milius before being rewritten by actor-playwright Shaw. Despite the many writers contributing, the most famous line of the movie – “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” – was ad libbed by Roy Scheider on set. Delays also meant Richard Dreyfuss (playing Hooper) had time to get on Shaw’s nerves, creating the frisson that makes the Orca scenes so compelling.

Hitchcock's influence, and post-Watergate paranoia

Spielberg was clearly influenced in his third movie by Hitchcock. Jaws resembles The Birds in its ‘revenge of nature’ narrative and nabbed the famous dolly zoom shot on the beach from Vertigo, but Psycho was the important point of reference. First, the Williams score created the most famous horror soundtrack since Bernard Hermann’s shower scene – from the opposite end of the string register. But also both films start out as apparently one type of film only to switch to another genre halfway through. The first half is a disaster movie. A growing threat becomes increasingly obvious to a small group of heroes, though their warnings are met with indifference by a venal public and hostility by corrupt politicians. Post-Watergate paranoia writ large.

According to the calculus of the genre, Mayor Larry Vaughn – “My kids were on that beach too” – should at some point get his bloody comeuppance, but although Spielberg sets up the tourist town of Amity brilliantly (just watch that council meeting that Quint interrupts) the second half abandons all that and heads out to sea never to look back. Just as Quint smashes the radio, it’s as if the film itself wants nothing to do with all those wider concerns, preferring to isolate the three men in the Orca to face their increasingly obsessed foe alone.

The first summer blockbuster

Jaws invented the summer blockbuster. Instead of opening in big cities and building buzz before rolling out across the country, Jaws opened wide on hundreds of screens on the same day. An iconic poster and a literally snappy title helped make Jaws the first high concept event movie. And yet the film had no stars and could point to no previous big hitters in the same genre.

Despite some best-forgotten sequels, Jaws remains as fresh today as blood in the water: an effective and original thriller as terrifyingly memorable as John Williams’ throbbing score.

Jaws – In Concert, Presented by EIFF and the RSNO, 22 Jun, Festival Theatre. Tickets and more info here:

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