When interviewed for Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, Clive Barker commented that sometimes the best ideas of how to scare people are so seemingly obvious that we overlook them without realising. In hindsight it seems absurd that no-one ever considered making a horror film about sharks before. And after Steven Spielberg set the bar with Jaws, no-one would ever come close again.
Jaws is Spielberg doing what he does best: pure popcorn entertainment, with a school of memorable scenes, cracking dialogue and substance trickling through in amongst the thrills and spills. What seems on the surface to be a one-trick film drawn out over two hours gradually emerges as something which is not only scary but very well-made, with characters which are intelligently drawn and action scenes which communicate the themes rather than feeling like awkward set-pieces.
Like Star Wars after it, you could be forgiven for hating Jaws given the legacy it has left behind. Apart from the three inferior sequels and dozens of derivative knock-offs, it was the film which invented both the summer blockbuster and the high-concept movie -a film which you could sum up in 25 words or less, which would be translated by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer into the aggressive money-driven ethos of modern Hollywood.
Jaws has been blamed for everything from the death of New Hollywood to the infantilisation of mainstream cinema, and that's not to mention the recent criticism of conservationists about falling shark numbers. But whatever one's attitude to Spielberg in light of his subsequent career choices, it's at best guesswork and at worst sour grapes to argue that he intended any of these things to happen. Had he gone the path of his colleague George Lucas, and milked his hit for everything it had, only then would it be fair to pose such questions.
With this in mind we have to re-assess Jaws as nothing more than a piece of entertainment. And on that level, it's undeniably brilliant. In adapting Peter Benchley's potboiler, Spielberg quickly dispensed of the melodramatic subplots involving extramarital affairs and power struggles on Amity Island. On this occasion, it was best to quite literally cut to the chase, with the shark becoming the centrepiece and fear being the driving force.
Spielberg once described Jaws as an aquatic version of Duel, his made-for-TV film from four year earlier about a man being chased by a truck. The comparison is very close both in Spielberg's knack for creating tension and in the characterisation of the villain. Both the truck and the shark are irrational forces of nature: they have no backstory, no character origin and no discernable motivation other than a relentless desire to kill. As a further connection, the deaths of both truck and shark are overdubbed with the sound of Godzilla dying from the 1954 original - an indication of Spielberg's affinity for B-movies and that he understands that monster movies can have a deeper significance.
As with Duel, it doesn't matter that the monster in Jaws doesn't make a lot of sense. There was and is precious little to suggest that sharks prey on humans for sport; more people die every year from falling coconuts than being eaten by sharks. But the film is not so much about killer sharks as it is about characters being confronted by an unstoppable force which they never faced before and cannot hope to understand. It could almost be called the father of Hallowe'en in its contrast of peaceful, boring middle-class life with a ruthless, blood-hungry predator.
This contrast is best observed in the opening section of the film. Having given us a great early jump with the death of the skinny-dipper, Spielberg withholds the shark to build up the relationships between the townsfolk. We see Roy Scheider's sleepy world slowly descend into panic and really feel his frustration when the town council and the press ignore his demands about closing the beach. As the children enter the water to swim and the attack begins, the dramatic irony kicks in and what was once a perfectly ordinary and rational community is torn apart forever.
Much has been written about the production problems which Spielberg faced on Jaws which meant he could not shoot as much of the shark as he wanted. Three full-scale mechanical sharks were built for the production, and all three regularly failed due to everything from short circuits to corroding skin and getting caught in seaweed. Such failures were one of the main reasons the film went so far over-schedule and over-budget: what started as a $4m movie shooting for 55 days ended up as a $9m movie that shot for 159 days.
In the end, the problems with the shark were not merely serendipitous: they helped to create one of the defining features of the film. Because he could not show the monster as he wanted, Spielberg had to improvise with different techniques which could hint at what the shark was capable of doing. It's testament to his ability as a filmmaker that he could achieve so much threat and suspense from little more than a dorsal fin and a few barrels - enhanced by his use of the former to comedic effect early in the film. Through these techniques, the shark takes on a quality of amorphous evil whose only real equal at the time was Rover from The Prisoner.
But as before, Jaws is less about the shark than the characters reacting to it, and no matter how much of the action revolves around 'Bruce', we keep coming back to the people. In its second hour, where most of the action takes places on the Orca, we genuinely bond with this foolhardy trio and soak up all the conflicts within their personalities. Brody's determination to protect his family is contrasted by Quint's obsessive streak and Hooper's feeling of being - no pun intended - a fish out of water.
As with The Sting, Robert Shaw dominates every scene that he is in. His accent may be a little harder to pin down this time, but his piercing intensity and unkempt manner give him unrivalled screen presence. Although much of his early lines are played for comedy, to set him up as a loose cannon against the uptight Brody and Hooper, he gradually takes on a more intense, obsessive quality which lead you to wonder whether or not the shark has driven him mad.
The best scene in Jaws comes when the three men are sitting in the boat at night and Quint begins talking about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. In a speech co-written by John Milius (who scripted Apocalypse Now), he talks about his experience with sharks in the same way that Colonel Kurtz talked about horror - as something to be somehow embraced and understood, even at the cost of one's sanity or soul. The dialogue in this section is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's work in The Old Man and the Sea, with man and nature locked in battle, both mentally and physically, while all around there is only silence.
Jaws remains a high-water mark in Spielberg's career and in those of all the performers. It isn't as relentless as Hallowe'en in its ability to sustain fear, and Spielberg's work on the Indiana Jones series would eventually surpass it. But that is mere nit-picking in the face of a film of great craft and vision, a film which proves that simple entertainment can be smart and that, under the right circumstances, people enjoy being scared.