There are no perfect films out there. There is always a little something that can be improved, whether it be a better delivery of a line, a shot just a little farther to the left or cutting a few seconds earlier. However, there are those movies that come very close and “JAWS” is one of them. I’m going to break down the ingredients that make “JAWS” still so memorable 45 years later.
First off for those that have never seen “JAWS”, or it’s been a long time, here is the summary: A young woman is killed by a great white shark off Amity Island. Chief Brody decides the best course of action is to close the beaches. The mayor and the town folk disagree and more attacks occur. Ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Quint, a local hardened shark fisherman, are brought in to help destroy the shark. Brody, Hooper and Quint go out to sea to face the shark and end the terror.
Ingredients for a blockbuster:
1 part conflict
1 part great screenplay
3 parts great acting
1 part great locations
1 part suspense/editing
1 part award winning music
1 part stellar directing
Now that we have the ingredients for a near perfect blockbuster, let’s take a deeper dive into each of these and why they work so well in this film.
Ingredient 1: Conflict
All movies have conflict. It is what drives the story forward. Human vs something is where all conflict lies. Let’s look at the different ones in “JAWS” – Human vs Society: Chief Brody wants to close the beaches because of the shark attacks, but the mayor and the town want to keep it open for financial reasons. Human vs Self: Chief Brody is afraid of the water (this can be Human vs Nature as well). His fear keeps him from entering the water during one of the early attacks. Human vs Human: Hooper and Quint have continuous conflicts with each other as do Quint and Brody and Brody and the mayor. Human vs Nature: All three men (Quint with the most personal vendetta) are all trying to stop to the shark. The conflicts ultimately end when the shark is destroyed.
Ingredient 2: The Screenplay (Carl Gottlieb)
“JAWS” is a direct A-B storyline. Unlike the book which includes Mafia ties and an torrid affair, “JAWS” is simply about stopping a killer shark. What makes this basic story work so well is the dialogue between the characters and as well as the moments when there is just silence, a good example being the scene where Chief Brody is drunk and despondent and his young son is imitating him. An argument can also be made that one of the best monologues ever in film is delivered by Robert Shaw as Quint during the Indianapolis speech. “Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’.”
Ingredient 3: Acting
The casting of JAWS is extraordinary. The three leads Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss play off of each other perfectly in the final act of the film. Scheider has to do much of the heavy lifting at the start and he is more than up for the task. It is, however, Quint’s Indianapolis speech that steals the show. Shaw explaining how sharks attacked his comrades after the sinking of the destroyer he was on during WWII is nothing short of perfect.
Ingredient 4: Locations
The choice of shooting on Martha’s Vineyard was a stroke of genius. The town feels perfect for the film. Spielberg made the choice of shooting out at sea instead of in a tank on a studio lot and it works. When the three men are in the middle of the ocean stranded, you feel you are with them. You can’t see anything in the distance. The havoc of shooting on the ocean may have been difficult, but the end justified the trials. It works perfectly.
Ingredient 5: Editing
Verna Fields (or “mother-cutter” as she was called on set) makes the pacing of the film near perfect. One of the best examples can be seen when a young Alex Kintner while floating on his raft is devoured by the shark. The cuts of the people crossing the camera in front of the action make the editing brilliant. Vera Fields would win an Academy Award for her editing work on “JAWS”.
Ingredient 6: Music
Whenever many go into the ocean there is a good chance the “JAWS” theme is playing games in their heads. This simplistic theme drives the entire film. The music is the shark and the deep tones take us into the depths of the ocean. Like the screeching music in “Pyscho”, the “JAWS” theme has remained in our collective psyche for decades. Composer John Williams won an Academy Award for his work on “JAWS”.
Ingredient 7: Steven Spielberg
Spielberg did not have a lot of experience under his belt when he was given the reigns to direct “JAWS”. Once on location the film became a nightmare that went over-schedule, over-budget, and the shark frankly didn’t work the majority of the time. Spielberg used this to his advantage and created ways for us to believe the shark was there even when it wasn’t. Spielberg brought in the best people to make a difficult film, and the results are there. “JAWS” cemented Spielberg’s role in cinema and he would go on to become one of the most successful filmmakers of all time.
Combine all seven ingredients and you have a mixture that created the biggest box-office success of all time. “JAWS” was the first film to cross the $100 million mark and set the standard for summer movies to come. Is “JAWS” a perfect film, no, but to me and millions of movie-goers, it comes damn close.