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.