Back on March 30, 1974, when I was introduced to the young director of Sugarland Express, I had no idea I was playing a miniscule role on the periphery of one of the greatest revolutions in film history. Sugarland Express was being shown in our New Directors/New Films program, and this unknown kid (as I recall, his name was Steven Spielberg) asked me if I could recommend any movies involving sharks. Although fish are not my favorite filmic protagonists, I did suggest Howard Hawks’s Tiger Shark. In this film, shot in Monterey, a more-than-usually sympathetic Edward G. Robinson plays a three-limbed, Ahab-like character who, as a result of an encounter with a hungry shark, has lost an arm (de-mammalized Melville, one might say), and who at the end of the movie dies from another shark attack. (It would be something of a stretch to find in him the genesis of the Robert Shaw character, and I haven’t read Peter Benchley’s novel, but the Robinson character does share some of Shaw’s irascible saltiness.) Tiger Shark is a not-bad adventure picture with a touch of romance, but it’s certainly far removed from the profundity of Moby Dick.
I don’t know for sure whether Spielberg ever saw the Hawks film, and I don’t claim any credit for Jaws. (In fact, as a card-carrying member of the Ocean Conservancy and the Cousteau Society, I was mostly rooting for the shark.) As with the release of George Lucas’s Star Wars two years later, I think sufficient time has elapsed to provide a context for these two blockbusters, which set a pattern for Hollywood filmmaking that we are now reminded of every Friday. Jaws, in spite of its cost and schedule overruns, made more money than any previous film. Although the movie has some qualities that we can see as new and unique, we can also suggest that Spielberg was standing on the shoulders of giants who preceded him.From the very beginning, when we hear John Williams’s foreboding, menacing score, we are transported to the manipulated reality and surreality of F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock. I don’t think Spielberg, an acknowledged student of cinema history, would object to the suggestion that he is indebted to his predecessors. In such works as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones cycle, Jurassic Park, The War of the Worlds, and A.I., the director carries forward earlier filmmakers’ explorations of the eerie and otherworldly, albeit with his very personal touch. Even his more “serious” projects (Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Lincoln) have clear roots in the three directors named above, plus John Ford. Neither this nor his great success as a commercial filmmaker is meant to denigrate Spielberg’s achievement in any way. In post-studio-system Hollywood, his consistent level of achievement (balancing box office and artistry) is essentially without peer.
What Jaws introduced, aside from spawning the concept of the summer blockbuster, is Spielberg’s ability to have movie “reality” intrude so persuasively on mundane, everyday reality. Much of this can be attributed to the director’s gift with actors. He singled out Richard Dreyfuss as his “alter ego,” a kind of nebbishy novice on a swift learning curve—a role anticipating his place at the center of Close Encounters, Spielberg’s next picture. Roy Scheider, my fellow New Jerseyan and Rutgers man, more-or-less graduated from Jaws to stardom. Robert Shaw, a man of varied talents, led a troubled life, committing suicide three years later. An argument can be made that the real star of the film was composer John Williams, who won Oscars for Jaws and Lucas’s Star Wars (with Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot, sandwiched between them).
Since Jaws is being shown on the brink of Fourth of July weekend, it can be taken as a cautionary tale. Go to a movie, and try not to go near the water.