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Perspective

How ‘Jaws’ took a bite out of America

Forty years ago, a little movie filmed on Martha’s Vineyard changed everything.

(Shutterstock)

This month, the film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s blockbuster 1974 novel Jaws turns 40. Does that make it an old movie? By the standards of contemporary advances in geriatrics, it might not even make it a middle-aged movie. When I was a preteen movie lover, an “old” movie was one in black and white. My knowledge of Casablanca as a venerable classic was acquired when the film itself was, in fact, several years younger than 30.

Middle-aged or old, Jaws is almost universally acknowledged as classic, even if those who acknowledge it as such also feel obliged to deplore what it’s come to stand for. That is, the “summer tent-pole movie” that eclipses all the other serious and artistically worthy movies that we might all be flocking to during the hotter months had Jaws never existed.

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In 1975, summer was still generally the slow season for Hollywood, in part because so few theaters were air-conditioned. But Jaws, the first film in history to gross $100 million at the box office, changed all that. The movie industry now takes in nearly 40 percent of its money between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The summer tent pole is of course a two-headed leviathan. Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, still a vital and active Hollywood filmmaker, has to share the credit for Ruining Everything with 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, directed by Spielberg’s peer, pal, and sometimes collaborator George Lucas, who’s been on a hiatus from directing since the last round of Star Wars movies.

Watching Jaws today, the film shows its age from the very start. The cheesy TV-movie typeface of the credits, the hair and clothes, the normalization of smoking — all very ’70s.

But there’s more. Jaws, especially relative to its more frenetic ostensible inheritors, has a control and a coherence that’s cinematically classical, as opposed to classic. It doesn’t shrug off death the way so many of today’s big summer movies do. Five people fall victim to the shark in Spielberg’s movie. Asked how many people were killed in his 2013 blockbuster Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder replied, “Probably five thousand.”

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Jaws takes its time, letting the horrors wrought by the shark’s destructive path sink in. Actress Lee Fierro, as the mother of a young child killed by the beast, has one of the film’s most memorable moments when she slowly approaches Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody and then slaps him in the face, saying: “My boy is dead. I wanted you to know that.”

Seven and Gone Girl director David Fincher once said: “I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again.” What Spielberg achieves in the early Jaws scenes is a visceral anatomy of destruction, making the ocean as frightening as Alfred Hitchcock’s motel-room shower. It’s a fear that revisits us each time a great white surfaces off Chatham.

While the movie is set in the fictionalized beach town of Amity, Spielberg shot much of it on Martha’s Vineyard, one of the oldest English-language place names in the United States. And, not to get terribly highfalutin about it, a lot of what makes Jaws resonate today has to do with the film’s depictions of various aspects of what I’ll call The American Character.

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Spielberg, a charter member of the Movie Brat generation of white male American directors, well knew his white male American archetypes. The three heroes of Jaws are rugged individualists.

The my-way-or-no-way truculence of shark catcher Quint (Robert Shaw) suggests a figure out of Hawthorne or, of course, Captain Ahab of Melville’s imagination (Benchley often cited Moby-Dick as an influence on his tale). Oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is seen as just a rich-kid intellectual until he proves his mettle. Chief Brody, with his tacit passion for getting a job done right, could have stepped out of a story by Hemingway.

On the other hand, Amity’s Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who can only see tourism money going down the drain, blusters and snivels like the thieving banker Greenwood in John Ford’s Stagecoach.

Even film critic David Thomson, whose overall perspective on Spielberg is one of persistent skepticism, has to give it up for Jaws: “You only have to submit to the travesty of Jaws 2” — the 1978 sequel, which had no Spielberg input — “to realize how much more engagingly Spielberg saw the ocean, the perils, and the sinister beauty of the shark and the vitality of its human opponents. The terror of his films is healthy and cathartic because his faith in the unknown is so generous and sensible and his trust in the plain man’s ingenuity and pluck so precise.”

That “trust” is, you could add, also so emblematic of our national character. And so the movie remains not just a classic, but an American classic.

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IN THEATERS

Jaws returns to the big screen for showings at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. June 21 and June 24. Participating theaters include:

> Regal Fenway Stadium 13 & RPX

> Showcase Cinema de Lux Legacy Place

> Showcase Cinema de Lux Patriot Place

> AMC Framingham 16 With Dine-in Theatres

> Showcase Cinema de Lux Revere

Get more information at fathomevents.com.


Glenn Kenny, a former critic and editor at Premiere, is a critic for RogerEbert.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.