Thanks partially to the state of special FX in the seventies (and a malfunctioning mechanical shark named Bruce), for the most part Steven Spielberg, who made his career with this film, is Hitchcockian in that the shark is off-screen for most of the movie. Rather, John Williams’ amazing score stands in for the shark, with the great POV underwater shots showing us as it hunts and devours its prey. Despite only being PG, JAWS is a harsher movie than most of us remember, with the kills being gruesome and disturbing, particularly Chrissie’s desperate screams in the iconic opening scene, and the bloody death of young Alex Kinter.
But- JAWS is more than just “scary” and this is what distinguishes the film from the numerous sequels and imitators that followed. JAWS is, at its heart- the story of three men, each of whom represent a facet of “masculinity”. There’s the young, rebellious intellectual- Hooper, the older alpha male, Quint, and in between, the everyman- Brody. Roy Scheider, as Brody is the unsung hero of this film. An ex-New York cop, who relocated his family to Amity in order to protect them from the dangers of the big city- he’s totally unprepared for the force of nature that attacks the town, as what can he do about a monster that never leaves the water? Even worse- the bureaucracy of City Hall is eager to sweep the attacks under the rug as to not jeopardize tourist season.
Scheider perfectly conveys the anguish his character feels after the Kinter boy is killed due to him allowing the blustery mayor to steamroll his efforts to close the beach. Like many of Spielberg’s protagonists, he’s a family man who just wants to do what’s right for his brood, but when the shit hits the fan, he has to man up and overcome his own fear (which includes a deep fear of the water). In the end, it’s neither the know-it-all intellectual, nor the alpha he-man Quint that ends the shark’s reign of terror- but the everyman, Brody.
However, while this is arguably Scheider’s show- Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss are both iconic in their respective roles. Dreyfuss has kinda been playing Hooper ever since JAWS, and I assume Spielberg and his writers worked a lot of Dreyfuss’ own personality into the part. He’s amazing at the beginning of a great run of films that he did in the late seventies. Robert Shaw, of THE STING and FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE is even better as Quint- the Ahab like captain of the Orca. It seems unfathomable that not only did Robert Shaw not win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for JAWS, but his turn as Quint didn’t even get nominated. Like Dreyfuss, a lot of Shaw’s personality ended up being worked into Quint, and his famous “USS Indianopolis” speech was actually partially written by Shaw himself, who also dabbled as a playwright/novelist on the side.