Everyone thinks they know “Jaws” if they have ever stopped foot in water, be it a swimming pool or an ocean. There is always that joker who starts to hum two notes that speak volumes for the generations that grew up after 1975, inducing a sense of dread. John Williams’ iconic theme for “Jaws” has become synonymous with the menace of a shark attack, and it is remarkable to see how a simple theme can still be so evocative over three decades later.
However, to characterize an entire film by something so small is vastly unfair to the filmmaking expertise that provided the canvas for Williams to compose a masterstroke. Jaws derives its terror from places other than its non-diegetic soundtrack, namely the expert direction of Steven Spielberg. Watching his film in the present day might seem like an exercise in futility given how banal the plot seems to have become, yet it actually still plays quite well.
In an age saturated with horror films that substitute gore for thrills, Jaws scares all the more because Spielberg refuses to take the easy way out. While there is plenty of blood to still freak out the faint at heart, Spielberg opts for a much more deliberate, methodical approach that recalls Hitchcock more than it does Saw. Once the shark’s theme cues up, it is inevitable that someone is about to die … but Spielberg never lets the audience know when they are going to die until the Great White sinks its fangs into their flesh. He does not even reveal the shark in its entirety almost until the climax, slowly providing clues as to just how big the beast really is. His precision pays dividends, just as it did for Hitchcock and just as it still does for directors willing to take the time to get it right, such as J.J. Abrams in “Super 8.”
Although the shark may be the most recognizable part of Jaws, the attacks really only punctuate the domestic drama occurring ashore on the island of Amity. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a cop from the city taking refuge in what he thought would be the quiescence of a small town, is tasked with maintaining order and calm when the massacres create massive unrest. The mayor tells him to do whatever it takes to keep the people safe, short of closing the beaches and running their summer’s economy. They hire scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help catch the beast, but it ultimately requires the expertise of marginalized seaman Quint (Robert Shaw), himself a shark attack survivor. The three men come from vastly different backgrounds, but their unlikely camaraderie provides a refreshingly human aspect to a movie otherwise defined by the atrocities of nature.
While it may be easy to think of Jaws as little more than just the two notes of terror, it is worth a first watch or rewatch to let the true horror and humanity shine through.