The opening of Jaws rivals Psycho's shower scene as the definitive example of primal horror in cinema. After a creeping view of the ocean's depths from the point of view of the film's agent of death, we cut to two young partygoers flirting on the beach. As they run towards the ocean for some late-night skinnydipping, the silliness is accompanied by frantic tracking shots that at once accentuate the carelessness of the horny couple and foreshadow something more violent. As the man (Jonathan Filley) passes out on the beach, the woman, (Susan Backlinie) plunges into the water. After the briefest pause, we return to the underwater POV shot as it creeps towards the woman's suggestively lit torso. Our sense of voyeurism is quickly replaced with a palpable unease as we realize what is about to happen; it's not so much an indictment as it is a hard right turn. Then the woman disappears underwater for a moment, surfaces with a shudder, and chaos breaks lose. We must struggle to locate the woman as she is tossed around like a rag doll by a great white shark (who remains out of frame). The scene ends with the woman crying out to God for help and then being suddenly, brutally silenced as the ocean's calm is restored. If the rest of Jaws were like this, then it would be more nihilistic than Irreversible; as it is, the opening gives the film a gravity sorely lacking from most of its imitators. It's the best "boo!" movie ever.
As we are introduced to hydrophobic Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), his family, and the people of Amity Island, Steven Spielberg uses every possible opportunity to punctuate our anticipatory glee and anxiety. The dull "thwack" of a typewriter's keys announces "SHARK ATTACK" in extreme close up; Brody's early attempts to close the beaches are repeatedly interrupted by the petty concerns of the people of Amity ("There's a truck parked outside my store with New Hampshire plates!") before being squashed by the pressure of the island's commerce-minded Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). The tension builds to the untimely end of young Alex Kitner (Jeffrey Voorhees) and the goosebump-inducing smash-zoom on Brody as he realizes that his worst fears have come true.
Amity's business owners try to deny the seriousness of the situation in order to salvage the summer, local fishermen salivate at the promise of a $3,000 reward, and Brody tries in vain to prevent further attacks before setting off on the Orca to kill the shark in the film's daring second half. Consider that the last hour of Jaws features only three characters and has the tiny ship as its only set (with the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean as backdrop). What is often overlooked with Jaws is just how crucial the three lead performances are to its success. Scheider is excellent as Brody, a man torn between fear and a sense of moral responsibility; he's the perfect ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Spielberg deserves all the praise in the world for the achievement, both here and with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for eliciting likeable performances out of Richard Dreyfuss; the actor's characteristic smugness is offset by an endearing geekiness when paired with two men's men.
And then there's Robert Shaw. Consider that we know very little about Captain Quint. He interrupts a town meeting with nails on a blackboard and offers to kill the shark for $10,000, and an hour later, he's hired. We never find out what makes Quint especially qualified to hunt a great white; presumably, we're supposed to accept that it's because he's played by Robert Goddamn Shaw. And we buy it completely, because Shaw runs away with every scene he's in, whether he's reciting a dirty rhyme or quietly, chillingly recounting the tragic story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Quint is clearly batshit insane, and he's also a hero. Much of the pleasure of Jaws comes from the tension between the leads, which makes the shark's appearances all the more pleasurable. I won't rehash the same old stories about how broken sharks led to creative inspiration, but the effectiveness of Jaws can be credited to the seemingly arbitrary way that Spielberg alternates suggestion and confrontation so that we can never be sure what where or how the shark will approach yet. The best effect in the world repeated over and over becomes monotonous; instead, Spielberg keeps us on our toes.
One of the best scenes in Jaws has nothing to do with the shark. It is the "mirror game" scene between Brody and his son Sean (Jay Mello) while eventual revenger Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) looks on. It's an important pause in the action, raising the stakes with an authentic depiction of family life that avoids schmaltz in favor of genuine warmth. It's that warmth, of course, that Spielberg would become known for more than the dread of Jaws. However, that humanity is the most important element of any great genre film; if we can't believe in the characters, then they're merely shark fodder.