It's important to resist blaming Jaws for what it has wrought, and there's no question about it: this is a movie with a lot to answer for. Though it hit theaters in 1975, its release marked the beginning of the end of what we cinephiles think of as "the '70s"; in cinema, "the '70s" started in 1967, with the release of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, ambitious and complicated studio films that challenged audiences, electrified critics, and turned a tidy profit. For the next several years, it seemed like a workable blueprint, and because they were still recovering from the collapse of the studio system and frankly didn't know what the hell they were doing, the suits were willing to take risks on mid-level movies that would bring modest returns. Then Jaws happened, and they realized exactly how much money there was to be made.
Given a large, saturation release (as opposed to the slow, platformed rollout more common to studio pictures) and a heavy television ad buy (a rarity back when they were seen as competing media), Jaws became, for all intents and purposes, the first "summer blockbuster." Star Wars followed two summers later, and the paradigm was set: fewer mid-level movies, and more big-budget monsters. Spend more to make more. And if you want to make as much as possible, then your big movies have to appeal to the widest audience possible--which means dumbing them down. Welcome to the '80s, and '90s, and '00s, and now.
What's interesting about Jaws, though, is that it doesn't hold to that shift at all; revisiting it with even the cynicism of a summer 2012 moviegoer is a fool's errand, as the picture's crackerjack craftsmanship, iconic performances, and (yes) fierce intelligence render it utterly irresistible. This is Hollywood genre filmmaking at its finest, and blaming it for the shift in mainstream moviemaking is a clear-cut case of shooting the messenger.
Is there even a point in recapping the plot, as is customary at this point in a review? Jaws has become so firmly embedded in our pop culture consciousness that merely calling up moments, lines, or impressions vividly brings the movie back to the mind's eye. The opening attack, a punishment for sex and drugs that predates slasher movie trends. The Kintner boy's bloody raft washing up on the shore. "This is not a boating accident." Hooper's terrifying midnight dive. "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Quint's calm as he tells the story of the USS Indianapolis. "Smile, you sonofabitch."
We recall the sharp dialogue, the distinctive photography, John Williams's iconic score (a helpful signal as to when our shark is actually on the move), and the big scares. But there's a lot going on in Jaws, much more to unpack underneath its popcorn-movie exterior. There's the rape subtext of that opening attack, in which a vulnerable nude woman is abandoned by a drunken man who can't perform, only to be consumed by a more powerful and dangerous force. There are the Nixonian echoes (Tricky Dick resigned in August 1974, right in the middle of production) of the corrupt, smiling mayor of Amity, who ignores the warnings of the experts in pursuit of "summer dollars," later left to mumble and stammer "I was acting in the town's best interest..." (he might as well be kneeling with Kissinger there).
Most interesting is the film's reflection of subtle cultural shifts in the perception and manifestation of that elusive quality of "manliness." These were not new themes for Spielberg; his breakthrough film, the 1971 TV movie Duel (a film so effective it was expanded and released theatrically abroad), concerns a fussy, bespectacled suit-and-tie type who must prove his mettle by taking on an unseen tough guy behind the wheel of a massive 18-wheeler. In Jaws, we have three points on the masculinity curve: the growling, macho, beer can-crushing Quint on one end, the brainy, rich kid academic (and clear Spielberg surrogate) Hooper on the other, with mild Chief Brody somewhere on the spectrum between them. Quint is the traditional hero, something out of a Peckinpah picture, the old pro they go to get the job done, but he's not always treated with reverence; Hooper's wry comebacks and commentary on the boat frequently turn the tough guy into a straight man. And at the end of the day (spoiler of something that happens in a 36-year-old movie alert), Quint's brutishness and bluster aren't enough. He doesn't make it out alive, while the two revisionist "modern" men--strengthened, perhaps, by his machismo--do. Revenge of the nerds, indeed.
But that's all reading between the lines; the reason Jaws became Jaws is because it's first-rate filmmaking, pure and simple. The fleeting glimpses and sparing use of the shark may have been, as we all know now, the result of the unreliability of the mechanical sharks, but Spielberg was no dummy--his Hitchockian restraint (and reliance on that scary Williams music) is more terrifying than blunt exposure, and if you don't believe me, check out the cheeseball CG sharks of the relentlessly stupid Deep Blue Sea. The picture is a model of efficiency and precision--take, for example, the lazy yet menacing photography of the calm before that second shark attack. The sharp cuts of the kids in the water, the cuts in to Chief Brody timed to the blocking of the passerby, that famous reverse zoom: the whole sequence is like a master class in tension. Hitchcock famously said he liked to "play the audience like a piano," and Spielberg is doing the same thing here; Gardner's head in the hull is still a jump-out-of-your-seat moment (even from a viewer like this one, who's seen the movie literally dozens of times), and the last half hour is as relentless as that great white.
In a film as focused on technique and the delivery of scares, actors must take their moments as they can get them, but they all find and seize on the little character beats: the way Dreyfuss helps himself to dinner at the Brodys' table, the lived-in easiness of Lorraine Gary hopping on the swingset with her son, the way Schneider reacts to that slap in the face from the Kintner boy's mother, and the casualness with which Robert Shaw delivers those numbers at the end of the gripping Indianapolis monologue. Not a lot of actors would be brave enough to undersell and undertell that story--particularly when they're know they're going into a shark's mouth a couple of scenes later.
But that's why Jaws continues to hold up, in a way that its countless imitators and sequels and subsequent summer tentpole brethren never could: it is carefully constructed, energetically acted, and it doesn't presume it is playing to an audience of morons. The same could be said of the movie it displaced as Hollywood's biggest grosser, The Godfather--another adaptation of a trashy bestseller that transcended its lowbrow genre roots and, against all likelihood, transforms itself into an unexpected work of art.
"Jaws" makes its Blu-ray debut tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.