I don't think that there are many people who can go swimming, that little bit further out than they intended, look down into that deep blue, seemingly endless ocean - no matter where they are in the world - and not think about what might be down there lurking in the dark. Of course it's only natural to be curious - even afraid - but a great deal if it is thanks to this early Spielberg masterpiece about a great white shark.
Amity is a small island town that thrives on tourism. People come from all around to play on the golden-sanded beach by the simmering blue ocean as the sun beats down. Everything appears to be idyllic - so much so that New York cop Martin Brody decides to take up a position there as Chief of Police. One day, however, the bliss is shattered by the discovery of a young girl's body, mutilated and washed up on the shore. The Chief immediately wants to go into action, suspecting a shark attack and intent on closing the beaches, but the smarmy Mayor - afraid of scaring off all those spendthrift tourists - insists that they write it off as a 'boating accident' and let life go back to normal before the July 4th celebrations commence. Of course the Mayor isn't quite so reluctant after a second attack leaves the town reeling, enlisting hunters from all around to find and catch the shark which now has a bounty on its head. When they catch a shark, it seems that the threat has been once again dispelled, but did they catch the right shark or is it still out there waiting under the deep blue sea?
I love classic 'old school' Spielberg. Sure War of the Worlds was decent enough and I thoroughly enjoyed Minority Report, but I miss his old approach to filmmaking. Back when he did not have the budget for glossy effects and was all too keen on making things look as good as they possibly using his skills of improvisation. Duel was the first of his breed of initial low budget suspense movies but Jaws marks possible his best example of camerawork and improvisation over effects. After all, we're talking about a shark movie where we don't see the actual shark until over halfway through the movie and yet he is so skilled in his storytelling that a body thrashing around in the ocean simply must be trapped in the jaws of the beast, a few planks of wood or some barrels drifting over-fast in your direction must be being driven by the underwater monster. Also, it's not just the way he gets around the restrictions of his shark effects budget that gain my respect, but the way he takes loving care with every single shot, clearly adept at utilising the breadth of his widescreen aspect ratio to its fullest extent whilst at the same time paying attention to the characters in focus - giving point of view and reaction shots just when they are needed. He shocks the viewer when you least expect it, as all good Hitchcock-ian masters do. Back in the good old days, Spielberg was hungry - a young newcomer desperate to prove himself in a shark-infested industry - and boy did he prove himself here, creating an indisputable masterpiece that is worthy of a place in anybody's DVD collection.
Aside from a tremendous score by John Williams (taking exception to his occasional trumpet-oriented sequences of undue frivolity), Spielberg's choice of cast made all the difference to this production. The highly underrated Roy Scheider - fresh from partnering Gene Hackman in the French Connection - was put on the map by his lead performance as the stoic Chief Brody, a walking contradiction considering his choice to live on an island despite an aversion to water. He is perfectly suited to the role of highly tense hero, desperate to prevent any loss of life in his town despite the political handicaps inflicted upon him from above. It was a role he reprised in the only watchable Jaws sequel, Jaws 2, although he also took similar parts in movies like Blue Thunder and The Last Embrace. The only character who seems to offer him any kind of support (apart from his loving but concerned wife) is rich-kid oceanographer Matt Hooper, who studies sharks for a living. The two of them stand a good chance of finding the beast, but need the help of a hunter who goes by the name of Quint to finish the job. Enter Robert Shaw, on scene-stealing top form as the shark-hunter with a particularly memorable terrifying tale to tell about his sharking experience. The three of them work fantastically together, changing the whole tack of the movie midway through by juggling their roles between hunters and hunted in a bid to stop this great white. All in all it's a fantastic movie with a solid, unforgettable story, a superb cast at the top of their game and picture-perfect direction from an indisputable genius behind the camera. A masterpiece.