“The shark’s not working! The shark’s not working!” That report, piped in through walkie-talkies off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard during the shooting of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, open The Shark Is Still Working, a feature-length documentary included on the new Blu-ray edition of the film. Among the many trials of this famously cursed production, the failure of the mechanical shark is the most instructive, a “happy accident” that demanded innovation and proved that old-fashioned cinematic trickery—like the use of off-screen space, misdirection, and ominous sound design—was better than any special effect. That’s one of the ironies of Jaws’ success: It heralded the dawn of the blockbuster event, yet its big effect, the terrifying spectacle of a great white shark, had little to do with what makes the movie great. Spielberg could have made the shark work with nothing but a guy in a rubber zipper suit.
There’s a sequence in Jaws where a couple of locals, looking to claim a hefty reward for catching the shark, hook a piece of raw meat on the end of a long chain, attach it to the end of a dock, and hurl it out into the Atlantic. The shark takes the bait and tears away the end of dock, leaving one of these yahoos in the water, but rather than show the creature, Spielberg simply follows the movement of the dock as it heads out to sea and then suddenly back toward shore. It’s a telling indicator of Spielberg’s aesthetic: Time and again, Jaws finds ways around the obvious and explicit, some simple piece of invention that’s more surprising and arresting than it would have been otherwise. The ’70s “film brat” renaissance introduced a lot of great directors, but Jaws makes an argument for Spielberg as the most intuitively gifted of all of them.
Working from Peter Benchley’s pulp thriller—Benchley and Carl Gottlieb scripted, though production started with an unfinished draft—Spielberg balances terror on the water with a rich portrait of an island police chief (Roy Scheider) torn between public-safety concerns and a community that thrives on the tourist dollar. After a skinny-dipper becomes the shark’s first victim on the sleepy Atlantic island of Amity, Scheider is advised to write it off as a “boating accident,” but he keeps his eyes on the water and witnesses another death. With town officials pleading for the shark’s capture before the July Fourth weekend, Scheider gets some help from two experts with wildly varied temperaments: Richard Dreyfuss, a college-educated marine biologist, and Robert Shaw, a grizzled seaman who agrees to hunt the shark at a premium.
The first glimpse of the shark doesn’t happen until over an hour into Jaws, and the trio’s harrowing adventure at sea occupies only the final third, yet the escalating, agonizing tension is present from the start. John Williams’ iconic score does its share of the heavy lifting, but what’s really striking about Jaws is how much Spielberg gets from reaction shots, especially the eyes. Production headaches caused the schedule and the budget to balloon—55 days to 159 days and $3.5 million to $9 million, respectively—but its most masterful scene involves Scheider simply sitting on the beach, fretting over every scream and splash, imagining the worst. The worst finally arrives, but it’s resided in our heads well before it happens.
Key features: A magnificent Blu-ray transfer makes the film look clean but not plastic or antiseptic. Beyond that, there’s an abundance of special features, including The Shark Is Still Working, Laurent Bouzereau’s two-hour-plus making-of documentary from 1995, a nifty nine-minute look at the restoration process, and deleted scenes, storyboards, and original featurettes.