It’s hard to believe it has been 40 years since the movie “Jaws” was released. I find myself thinking about it, what with all the recent news concerning a series of shark attacks up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Peter Benchley, author of the book by the same name, had summered in Nantucket and had been inspired by the story of a huge shark that was caught off Long Island in 1964. The book and movie were both situated on Amity Island, a fictional New England summer resort town.
Principal shooting took place on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, mostly in the small fishing village of Menemsha to create a kind of appealingly comfortable and middle-class ambiance. The idea was to depict the kind of place that might attract hordes of visitors and be subject to mass pandemonium and evacuation in the event of horrific shark attacks, thereby destroying the tourist business.
The movie’s director, Steven Spielberg, was 26 years old and an unknown in the spring of 1974 when production got underway. Some notable, but not particularly famous, actors were used to play the major roles. Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw had achieved recognition for their roles in “American Graffiti” and “The Sting,” respectively. The fellow who played the corrupt mayor of Amity Island, Murray Hamilton, was the kind of character actor who was recognizable, but one couldn’t recall exactly how or why. At least I couldn’t.
I was completely unfamiliar with the rest of the cast with one exception: Jonathan Filley, who played the speaking cameo role of Cassidy at the very start of the movie. Jonathan was a year ahead of me in boarding school, a campus thespian, a nice guy, something of a comedian and one of several who passed auditions from a pool of local actors on Martha’s Vineyard for minor parts.
The mother of another schoolmate of mine had a close-up shot with a couple of other people during one of the beach scenes.
At any rate, when the movie began — first with John Williams’ threatening, pulsating, minimalist score, followed by Jonathan’s mug suddenly popping up on screen — I was utterly shocked.
In fact, I was probably more stunned by seeing Jonathan than by the severed head, which rolled through the porthole later in the film.
What the heck, I thought, why didn’t I get that part? (even though I didn’t act or know the first thing about the production — such is the reasoning of a teenager.)
Richard Dreyfuss is quoted as saying, “We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.” What was supposed to be a 55-day shoot on Martha’s Vineyard dragged on for months with significant cost overruns, complicated by weather and a pneumatically powered artificial shark rig that refused to cooperate. It got so bad that people on the set started referring to the movie as “Flaws.”
Nonetheless, “Jaws” opened June 20, 1975, on 464 screens — an extraordinarily large number at the time — following an unprecedented promotional blitz and numerous tie-ins, including the sale of merchandise, Benchley hitting the talk show circuit, innovative use of Williams’ musical score and the widely circulated movie poster showing an artist’s rendering of a lone swimmer about to get chomped by a monstrous beast of the sea.
The movie was an immediate hit with audiences and critics, drawing comparisons to the best of Hitchcock, old-fashioned cinematic story-telling and even post-Watergate cynicism to the extent that the villain (shark/Nixon) menaced everybody regardless of position. Others, such as The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, described it as “the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made ... (with) more zest than an early Woody Allen picture, a lot more electricity, (and) it’s funny in a Woody Allen sort of way.”
I’d agree with all that — an excellent mixture of humor, the natural world, suspense, moments of terror, a familiar tale of good vs. evil, accentuated by brilliant direction, editing and outstanding acting.
More than anything, though, it was fun and galvanized audiences to the throes of entertained hysterics more than only a handful of other movies I’ve ever seen.
“Jaws” was selected by the Library of Congress in 2001 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth @comcast.net.