All it took were three mechanical sharks and a two-note tuba chorus. In the summer of 1975, the fish had the oceans to themselves.
Coming back from vacation late in July, I expected everyone in New York to be talking about the impending bankruptcy of the city, symbolized by the hills of black plastic garbage bags that line the less affluent streets. I was right about that, but what I hadn’t expected was that, in the second breath, my friends would tell me what sum of money they would not accept to set foot in salt water this summer. All of them, it seemed, had been to see Jaws—not surprising, since the film was, and still is, playing to packed houses in thirteen theatres of the five boroughs, plus dozens more in the nearby suburbs, and they were in a mild state of shock from having watched a 25-foot great white shark dismember bathers in waist-deep New England playground waters. Never mind that holiday crowds by the millions dunk themselves in the Atlantic summer after summer without losing so much as a toe—my friends had seen the fanged horror at his ghastly meals, or thought they had, which comes to the same thing.
Cinematic horror is not my dish—I have not, for instance, seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (partly because I own a chain saw), which played in New York some months ago and is now, I learn from a publicity release, “packing them in at drive-ins around the country.” But Jaws appeared to be a phenomenon of considerable size, and I decided to screw up my courage and go.
It wasn’t as taxing as I’d feared. For one thing, the munching scenes occupy a very small part of the picture—in all, maybe five minutes of roiling, bloody water—and for another, when you really get to see the dreadful beast, it looks very much like a marvelous piece of mechanical hocus-pocus (so marvelous, in fact, that building and operating it was the major cost of a very expensive movie). Underwater shots of pale legs dangling in the water add some moments of acute tension, and that’s almost the total bill, as far as horror goes. And aside from horror, Jaws is a well-constructed family entertainment film, Carl Gottlieb having trimmed and accelerated Peter Benchley’s reportedly rather steamy novel into a script that employs two of Hollywood’s most ingratiating formulas. The first of these is the High Noon confrontation, in which the honest cop battles it out single-handed with the venal town fathers. In this case Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) pits himself against Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), a man of little scruple and less foresight who, shark or no shark, refuses to close the beaches of Amity, a fictitious town on Martha’s Vineyard, when the Fourth of July weekend is at hand and the crowds are already streaming off the Wood’s Hole ferry. Of course, the great fish strikes again and Vaughn becomes known on national TV as the Mayor of Shark City.
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The other theme is that of the brave posse that swears to destroy the outlaw or die in the attempt. As always when this business is well managed, the avengers are a picturesque and varied lot, chosen so that everyone in the audience can identify with at least one of them. In addition to Chief Brody, a gentle, ex-New York cop who has the interesting peculiarity that he is terrified of the sea, the men on the hunting boat are Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw). Dreyfuss (recently of American Graffiti and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) plays a wealthy young ichthyologist whose appearance of full-bearded and somewhat didactic innocence covers a brave, peppery and often humorous personality. Shaw, his British speech erased, by an almost impenetrable New England salt-pork accent, is a shark killer by trade, partly for the money in it, but mainly to even the score for his shipmates who, during World War II, were devoured alive while awaiting rescue in the South China Sea. He it is who is consumed feet first, inch by inch, to make a kind of Moby Dick conclusion for the film.
All of this is exceedingly well directed by Steven Spielberg (Sugarland Express), a young director who handles crowds with authority, has a sharp sense of timing, knows how to capitalize on the endearing eccentricities of his characters and demands a perfection of workmanship that carries through to the last ashtray and paper cup. In particular, his staging of the hunt for, battle with, and very narrow victory over the shark is as good belly entertainment as the screen ever attains.
But basically, Jaws is an excellent routine movie, the sort normally made on a moderate budget and aimed at the neighborhood houses. All the big money was spent to provide the brief flashes of horror, and was gambled on the hunch that those moments—the dismembered leg sinking to the sandy bottom, the dead face in the porthole window, the fragments of a lovely girl spread out on a morgue table, the disappearance of the screaming Quint down the monster’s throat—would be, as it were, bread east upon the waters. And so it is proving; Jaws will be one of the historic bonanza films.
This can be made the occasion for a good deal of tut-tutting, the response to the film being offered as proof that ours is a sadly debased society which, in the absence of creative values or the opportunity for enriching goals, hungers after degrading sensation. It may be so, but in that case we are not without precedents. The Romans liked their entertainment bloody, and if that be, dismissed as more evidence that vulgar times generate vulgar tastes, recall that Shakespeare resorted to instruments of torture in competition with the bearbaiting and somewhat prolonged public executions of his time. In fact, there has probably never been a time when impressive crowds could not be gathered to view pain or copulation—they are the twin dominant forms of voyeurism—to the extent that the authorities permitted. Until recently, our authorities would permit very little, so there is a large market of those who have built up no immunity to the staging of such matters. Witness the inordinate amount of excitement engendered by Last Tango in Paris, a conventional enough bit of rueful sentiment enhanced by several very brief scenes of outré eroticism. There will be imitations of Jaws, as there were imitations of Last Tango and The Exorcist; they will be less successful and will find their level in the shabbier houses, as the public by and large discovers the monotony in shock.
Of course, Jaws is a kind of pornography, in that it contrives illusions of torment that are entirely unnecessary to its narrative purpose. But pornography, of whatever sort, has the built-in weakness that it manipulates people—the characters and the audience—for the profit of the manufacturer and, after the first screams and gasps have had their turn, this proves to be rather uninteresting to anyone but the manufacturer. It is what people do, not what is done to them, that makes even the most popular theatre seductive.
Which is not to say that the new permissiveness has no lasting effects. The limits of what is acceptable have been extended and the coiners of fiction, when they feel the necessity, can make explicit what hitherto they have had to handle by innuendo. On balance, that seems to me not unhealthy—innuendo being a rather crawly device—but I will be surprised if it often proves essential, or for long profitable, to startle the audience out of its wits in order to gain its respectful attention. Grand Guignol proved to be a limited resource and Deep Throat is now the code name for a supernumerary in the Watergate affair.