1975: JAWS - The Beginning Of The Spielberg Phenomenon

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All week long we're turning the clock back 40 years to revisit some of the big movies and TV shows from 1975. To get things underway Tom Pheby goes shopping for a bigger boat...


1975 was a great year for film, indeed by today's standards it would be fair to call it a stellar year. Nowadays you barely get two or three films worthy of note, or traipse to the cinema with high expectations only to have them dashed because all the best bits were in the trailer. But 1975 was the year of Tommy (the rock opera), Three Days of the Condor (with Robert Redford), Mandingo, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Man Who Would Be King starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Wow, it all but takes your breath away, unlike some years when the best part about going to the cinema is the popcorn and the bus ride back to the comfort of your own house!

1975 then, was an embarrassment of riches that had something for everyone, and looking back now, it was one of the finest ever. Yet eclipsing the majority of those on the above list, in the minds of the paying public at least, was a little Spielberg offering called Jaws.

Adapted from Peter Benchley's novel of the same name, Jaws struck genuine fear into the sun seeking masses who flocked to the beach in the height of the summer to hear some doofus playing crap music through a ghetto blaster! Scaring the pants off those pale skinned tourists scoffing gallons ice cream, dripping in sun oil, and looking forward to a carefree dip in the sea.

Empire magazine voted it fifth greatest film ever made. The New York Times featured it as one of the 1,000 best movies ever, and the American Film Institute included it in their choice of the 100 Greatest American Movies Of All Time. Jaws scooped a respectable three Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture, but with competition this fierce it eventually was overlooked in favour of  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

If any film was responsible for the 'Spielberg Phenomenon' this was it. Jaws was an electrically paced thriller/horror film that had strong characters, epic action and a giant fish (a great white to be precise)

Steven Spielberg: One of the greatest directors of his generation.

The shark unfortunately drifts into the normally sleepy tourist trap known as Amity Island, and when a young woman is killed whilst skinny dipping (naughty) the police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches to avoid more casualties.


You just know that this request is going to be declined by Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who has other ideas based on the fact that the entire town may go bust without vital revenue.


Brody reaches a point where he needs expert help, so enter Ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Incidentally, Ichthyology is a branch of zoology dealing with fishes. I'd like to claim I knew that but in truth I had to look it up!

Brody seeks additional help in the form of rum swigging, fish hunting, not very nice, slightly obnoxious, ship captain Quint (Robert Shaw), and all three set out to chase, capture or kill the shark.
This provides the best part of the film, when the three men confront the two beasts of the story,  the open seas and the mother of all marine life.


The casting is absolutely sublime, and when you add to that Spielberg's vision, technical ability and a soundtrack by John Williams that pulses and heightens the tension, it is in a class of its own.

'Duuun dun, duun dun' - brings it all back doesn't it? To such a degree that even a bath doesn't seem like a good idea.

Brody: "We're going to need a bigger boat!"

Lets dwell on the casting for a moment. Spielberg recalls that some luck was involved in securing the talented ensemble:
“Casting sometimes is fate and destiny more than skill and talent, from a director’s point of view. First, I went to see Lee Marvin and he said no. Then I went to Sterling Hayden and he said no. Then finally David Brown, who had just worked with Robert Shaw on The Sting, and said, ‘What about Robert Shaw?’ I said, ‘David, you’re a genius!’ And Robert said yes. That was a simple story, although it took six months to cast Quint, and I went to several actors before Roy Scheider. They didn’t turn me down, I just decided they were not right for the part. I tested dozens of possible Brodys. I don’t want to mention any names because many of them are still with us. [Then, Spielberg met Scheider at a party] Roy actually said to me, ‘You have such a glum look on your face. What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘Aw, I’m having trouble casting my picture.’ He actually said, ‘Who have you gone out to?’ I named a few names and he looked at me and said, ‘What about me?’ He actually said, What about ME?!? … I looked at him and said, ‘You’re right! What about you? Will you make my movie?’ Without even asking for a script he said, ‘Of course! If you want me, I’ll do it!’… And Richard Dreyfuss was my first choice.”
It wasn't all plain sailing (pun) for the talented director, filming at sea had caused numerous  headaches as did the use of a the giant mechanical shark (nicknamed Bruce) which was far from reliable. Yet Spielberg later admitted that it proved more of a help rather than a hindrance.
“Everything on land went normal! … I was actually on schedule for the first part of the picture … The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock … When I didn’t have control of my shark it made me kind of rewrite the whole script without the shark. Therefore, in many people’s opinions the film was more effective than the way the script actually offered up the shark.”

Jaws was a giant jigsaw that needed considerable skill to bring home. Spielberg took every opportunity to make any necessary changes along the way, and expanded his repertoire by finding shots that were outside the norm. He strived to find new ways of framing a shot, using as many camera angles as possible and by employing specially built metal rail style tracks to follow the action.

All this ingenuity led to the use of the most effective camera tricks in cinematic history, the 'dolly zoom '. This is where the figure of Brody moves into the foreground whilst the background appears to drift further into the distance. It doesn't sound like much, but back then in the context of the film as the shark strikes, it was stunning.



It wasn't an original idea (and it's been done to death since), it just hadn't been used since second unit cameraman Irmin Roberts developed it for the Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo, but Spielberg's use of this technique made it feel fresh, enhancing the scene.

I've recently gone back to the novel, and like the book itself, Jaws the film was genuinely gripping. A masterpiece, a triumph of story telling with the most basic of ideas, and apart from the affair between Hooper and Brody's wife, it doesn't stray too far from the Benchley original, which is rare. No doubt it won't be long before I pop the DVD in once again, to relive it all in its magnificent glory.

Spielberg has made some absorbing movies in his career but this is right up there with his best work.

Duuun, dun.....

Script Writer, Poet, Blogger and junk television specialist. Half English, half Irish and half Alsatian, Tom is well known for insisting on being called Demetri for reasons best known to himself. A former film abuser and telly addict who shamefully skulks around his home town of Canterbury after dark dressed as Julie Andrews. Follow Tom on Twitter

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