Skeptics may wonder how such a simple fish picture could possibly be this terrifying, especially if they have read enough pre-release publicity to know that a mechanical shark, reportedly nicknamed Bruce, was employed (though not all the time; when a huge, toothsome creature rams its way through and underwater cage containing the young scientist, that's the real McCoy). Perhaps one explanation of Jaws' unique ability to scare, and to scare far more thoroughly than the book did, is that the menace is utterly realistic. Maybe another is the three-dimensional nature of the danger it invokes (the killer can attack from virtually any direction), which makes us acutely aware of the way we usually guard ourselves only on a single plane. More likely, though, it is the film's pacing that explains its power -- it moves along briskly, with frequent (though generally unpredictable) shocks, alleviated by occasional humor (Mostly from Dreyfuss) but seldom going slack. There aren't even the strategically timed throwaway moments that punctuated The Exorcist: when Speilberg suspected his audience would be most vocal, he simply miked up the dialogue so it could be heard above the brouhaha.
It is perhaps significant that once the scientist (Dreyfuss), the cop (Roy Schneider, who is wonderfully uneasy throughout) and the coot (Robert Shaw, whose role no sane actor could possibly covet) are out hunting on the high seas, the tension that develops among them is different from what it was in Benchley's version. In the novel, the young wise-guy and the police chief were at each other's throats because the chief had been cuckolded; crazy old Quint stayed out of their arguments and muttered garbled little Ahabisms about the object of their search. There was some conflict between the kid's newfangled technological approach and Quint's wisdom of the ages, but that struggle was never resolved. The movie, however, eliminates the sexual tension so as to focus more clearly on the Quint-scientist antagonism, and it also tips the scales in favor of the young know-it-all. No surprise, then, that this film was made by a smart young (27) director who seems far more interested in technique than he does in personal style.
Jaws is hardly an anonymous film, but its personality is quite secondary to its expertise. It does display an individual manner, one much akin to that of Speilberg's previous feature, The Sugarland Express. The young mother's frantic pursuit of her child in that film is not so unlike the tracking of the shark here -- both chases are born out of desperation and conducted with the same grim determination. But neither picture indulges in purely arty moments without simultaneously going for a gut response: when we see Roy Schneider's glasses reflect the book he's reading, we are soon distracted by the grisly subject of his studies -- shark-bite wounds. Spielberg's fanciest shot in Jaws, modeled on one of Hitchcock's, has the camera dollying forward while the lens zooms back -- but it so effectively conveys an abrupt reaction of Schneider's that it doesn't seem obtrusively clever at all. Whether or not Spielberg, who describes himself as "not an amateur," would prefer to make more esoteric films than Jaws is not yet clear. But he would certainly be hard-pressed to concoct a more skillful, shrewd and nerve-wracking nightmare than this one.
JAWS. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown. Screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, b/o Benchley's novel, with Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss. At the Charles.