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35 years ago today a movie opened that changed the motion picture business. Plagued by numerous difficulties during its production including going over its shooting timeline by 100 days, a ballooning budget and a mechanical shark that broke down more often than being operational, Jaws went on to become the highest-grossing movie of 1975 and eventually all-time (a record that was surpassed two years later by Star Wars.)
Directed by a 28-year-old second-time feature filmmaker named Steven Spielberg, Jaws was the first movie to be given a wide release in 464 theaters and was the first movie to break the $100 million dollar barrier in box office ticket sales before going on to end its run with $470 million dollars worldwide. Today, when movies like Avatar can earn $740 million dollars in North America alone, the box office gross for Jaws sounds alright but not exceptional. Think again: if you adjusted the $470m that Jaws took back in 1975 and adjusted it for inflation it works out to $1.9 billion dollars in 2010.
Today the importance of Jaws on modern day mainstream cinema is easily recognized. The stunning success of the movie ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster and changed the way studios market their movies forever. Before Jaws a studio would roll out a film in a limited release pattern, slowly expanding the number of prints and cities the movie played in as word of mouth spread. Jaws was the first movie to do away with that and instead launch on a major marketing push. Husbands and wives spread the story of seeing it among their friends and family members, and kids listening on the stairs to their parents words could only imagine what it would be like to see a movie that sounded this terrifying.
The Peter Benchley novel of the same name had done a good share of getting word out about the story. The brilliance of Benchley's idea is that Jaws is a monster movie that could happen in real-life; a 30-foot-great white shark somehow finding its way off the coast of New England wasn't that far removed from the reality of everyday life. Add the unsettling fact that once you're in the water, your mind can easily start to run away with what may be lurking beneath your feet and may be rushing up rapidly to devour you in its mouth. That idea, already a kernel of fear in your mind, was only magnified by the genius work of the artist responsible for Benchley's novel's cover art and the source for the poster design of the movie. When Roger Kastel sketched his idea of a lone woman swimming on the surface of the ocean, unaware of the living mouth that is seconds away from ending her life rushing up from the depths below her, he couldn't have realized that he was creating such an iconic image that would burn itself into the minds of millions.
While Benchley's story served its purpose as excellent material for a thriller, it was the genius of two other people that helped turn Jaws into a transformational event. John Williams was the composer hired to create the score for Spielberg's film, and he was tasked with coming up with a theme that drove the point of view of the shark home to the viewer. By alternating between E and F notes Williams devised a way to communicate the relentless, unstoppable force of nature of the shark as well as inform the audience that it was approaching, a sight unseen beneath the waves. In the 30th anniversary DVD Spielberg acknowledges that without Williams signature piece of music he feels that Jaws would only have been half as successful as it turned out to be.
And without the storytelling framework and never-give-up work ethic of the young Spielberg directing Jaws, the film could have turned out to be a minor footnote in movie history. In Jaws you're able to see so much of the unique talent that Spielberg brings to moving pictures. So much has been written about the way Spielberg handled his adversity, facing the mounting pressure of Universal and the constant breakdowns of Bruce the mechanical shark, and how he channeled it into the movie. All of that work in making Jaws a true horror masterpiece is there but if there's a single scene I have to pick that showcases Spielberg's true gift it's this, a moment where Roy Scheider's Chief Brody sits at the dinner table with his young son:
This unexpected and beautifully executed emotional moment doesn't just come to us in a monster movie, it's the bookend to the scene that follows immediately before in which a grieving mother slaps Brody across his face and accuses him of being the cause of the death of her young son. Subconsciously your mind transfers the horror of one parent losing their child to the shark to that of Brody, faced with the responsibility of protecting people and being father to his own young boy. Spielberg's best work is done at this sub-level, and here in Jaws it's brilliantly on display throughout the movie.
I might single out Universal's marketing, John Williams' theme and Steven Spielberg's direction as my three arrows of genius but by no means do I wish to do a disservice to the rest of the movie. Roy Scheider as Brody, Robert Shaw as Quint, the crusty sailor-for-hire that captains the Orca and Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper, the ichthyologist/scientist of the group, are at the core of the journey that we go on. Supporting players like Lorraine Gary as Brody's wife and Murray Hamilton as the mayor of the beleaguered Amity Island also anchor the film so we believe in its' reality. Benchley, Carl Gottlieb and and uncredited Howard Sackler deliver a tight three-act structure peppered with immortal lines like, "We're gonna need a bigger boat," and Quint's famous speech about surviving the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
Jaws is now defined as the quintessential summertime movie, a paragon of marketing and entertainment producing exceptional results. But more than that, Jaws is a film that still holds up just as well as it did upon my first viewing of it 35 years ago. With my head thrust between the two front seats of my parents Pontiac, staring at the drive-in screen and watching the movie unfold in front of me, Jaws plays just as well for a five-year-old as it does for this 40-year-old. And at the moment when the shark pops out of the water as Chief Brody is throwing chum into the sea, my father involuntarily launched his bucket of buttered popcorn into the air of the car from where it had been resting on his knee. And just like that, a scary moment suddenly turned into comedy. I'll never get over the magic that this film has on me. Just imagine where the movie industry would be today had Jaws not happened.