18 Things to Look For the Next Time You Watch Jaws

MCA/Universal Home Video
MCA/Universal Home Video / MCA/Universal Home Video

Steven Spielberg invented the modern summer blockbuster with Jaws, and his 1975 great white shark thriller is like nothing before or after it. The director was essentially an unknown at the time, his only theatrical film having been the modestly successful The Sugarland Express. With an estimated production budget of just $7 million, the then-28-year-old turned a horror movie disguised as beachy fun into a box-office sensation that grossed about half a billion dollars worldwide.

What’s most impressive about Jaws today is how gripping it still is, thanks to clever camerawork and editing, as well as Spielberg’s innate understanding that what we don’t see is always more unsettling than what we do. You’ve almost definitely seen Jaws, but if it’s been a while, grab the popcorn and blankets and watch it in a whole new way with these interesting facts and Easter eggs in mind.

1. Jaws is as much John Williams's movie as it is Steven Spielberg's.

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Jaws is known at least as much for the singular theme music written by composer John Williams as it is for any shot or line. The surprisingly simple arrangement of notes is played during the opening credits and repeated throughout the film, particularly to heighten scenes in which the shark attacks, and it’s impossible to get it out of your head. But when Williams first played the score for Spielberg, the director laughed and said, “That’s funny, John, really. But what did you really have in mind for the theme of Jaws?”

Thankfully, Spielberg was ultimately convinced that the score would work, since Jaws wouldn’t be close to as potent without Williams’s work, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Score. Spielberg and Williams have been tight collaborators ever since.

2. The first victim in Jaws is left helpless when her paramour falls asleep.

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This movie is not exactly an endorsement of men. Among other things, the shark's first victim—a young woman—falls prey to the giant fish after she meets a guy at a hippie-ish party on the beach. He chases her toward the ocean, where she skinny-dips. He has to ask for her name again even though they’re about to hook up (it’s Chrissie), and as he’s taking off his clothes, he falls asleep! That leaves her alone in the water, where the great white pulls her to her death.

3. That woman is actually a stuntwoman.

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The first victim isn’t just a bikini babe in distress. Because of the requirements of the acting gig, Spielberg cast a stuntwoman, Susan Backlinie, who specialized in swimming scenes. If you look closely, it’s pretty obvious she’s being pulled by a rig rather than a sea creature, given the quick, rigid movements. Backlinie was actually fitted with a harness attached to a 300-pound weight, which crew members moved using ropes to drag her through the water.

4. The audience watches Jaws through the shark's eyes.

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One of Spielberg’s great formal tricks in Jaws is the use of POV (or point-of-view) shots, in which the audience sees things from the shark’s perspective. An underwater camera stalks the shallow floor of the ocean near the island, approaching soon-to-be victims frolicking in the water. POV shots showing a killer’s vision became a recurring trope in horror movies, especially slashers like John Carpenter’s classic Halloween, which was released three years after Jaws.

5. There is no Amity Island.

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The setting for all the human-chomping action is Amity, an idyllic island. In Peter Benchley's original novel, on which the film is based, Amity is located in Long Island, New York. Because of particular production demands, shooting took place on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It’s probably better for the tourism industry of Martha’s Vineyard that the fictional island remains known as Amity—though the island is clearly proud of its place in film history. Some Jaws super fans even recently took the time to map out some of the film's real-life locations via Google Earth.

6. That's a real (live) woman's arm on the beach.

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We get our first look at the shark’s damage when police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) comes upon the corpse of the woman killed in the opening. You’d be forgiven for thinking what he sees is just a prop arm dangling out of the sand. In fact, Spielberg decided the prop looked too fake and opted to have a female crew member buried in the sand, leaving her arm above the surface.

7. The mayor of amity is intolerable from the start.

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Amity Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) intentionally undermines Brody’s investigation into shark attacks so that the town can rake in more money from the summer beach season, leading to more casualties. But it’s his introduction, wearing an obnoxious anchor-print blazer, that signals the character as someone not to be trusted.

8. Brody fears the water—just like STeven Spielberg.

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Brody’s discomfort with the ocean is alluded to throughout the plot, and he refuses to get into the water for most of the film. It’s hard to blame him after watching Jaws. But Spielberg commented on a similar anxiety of his own. “I’m not so much afraid of sharks,” he said of his blockbuster. “I’m afraid of the water and I’m afraid of everything that exists under the water that I can’t see.” That might be why he so often depicts the ocean at night, when it’s at its most murky and unknowable.

9. A kid and a dog die, but somehow Jaws is rated PG.

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It’s worth stopping to recognize that two of the first three shark victims are the young Kintner boy and a dog, who’s not seen after fetching a stick. Dog deaths are normally traumatic events reserved for the climaxes of movies, but Spielberg pulled out the big guns early.

10. Mrs. KIntner gave Brody one hard slap in Jaws.

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One of the more quietly powerful moments involves Brody being confronted and slapped by Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro), the mother of the boy killed by the shark. Fierro had trouble credibly faking a slap, so she used force. Seventeen takes later, Scheider was genuinely hurting.

11. That ghoulish shot of a dead man was a last-minute addition.

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After Spielberg felt preview audiences didn’t scream loudly enough at the image of a decomposed head found by Richard Dreyfuss's Matt Hooper, the director decided to reshoot the scene using his own money. He summoned a crew to editor Verna Field’s swimming pool, and they dumped in a gallon of milk to give the illusion of seawater.

12. We don't see the shark in Jaws until more than halfway through the movie.

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The audience gets its first—brief—look at the shark during the Fourth of July weekend, when it kills a boater and pursues Brody’s son in an estuary. Though it looks impressively lifelike, the prop shark was a headache to operate, often failing, which helps explain why Spielberg used it so sparingly.

13. The shark in Jaws was known as "Bruce," which almost makes him sound cute.

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Three mechanical sharks subbed in for the man-eater, and were collectively known as Bruce on the set (after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer). That was apparently cuddly enough for a reference in Finding Nemo, which features a great white named Bruce.

14. The shark's cause of death is teased much earlier in Jaws.

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Few climaxes are as visually glorious and satisfying as watching the shark blown to smithereens at the end of Jaws, thanks to Hooper’s compressed air tank. But the tanks are mentioned well before, when the sea-averse Brody accidentally knocks them over on the ship. Hooper chastises him, warning him that they could explode. What’s not clear is why they don’t use the would-be bombs on the shark much earlier.

15. The most famous line in Jaws wasn't in the script.

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Brody is throwing chum into the water and smoking a cigarette when the hungry shark unexpectedly leaps in front of the camera. The startled chief withdraws and tells Robert Shaw’s Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” thereby putting himself in the film history books. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb admitted that the line wasn’t scripted; Scheider improvised it. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it, however, since Scheider repeats some version of it two more times.

16. That's a real shooting star you see in Jaws.

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You can’t always plan for the perfect cinematic moment. The shooting star that appears behind Brody as he loads his gun during a night scene on the boat looks magical for a reason: That was nature intervening on the set.

17. Hooper was supposed to die in Jaws.

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In the novel, the shark delivers a fatal blow to Hooper when he’s in his cage underwater. (Hooper also sleeps with Brody’s wife, but that’s another matter.) A Jaws crew in Australia captured footage of a real-life great white thrashing an empty cage, however, and Spielberg wanted to use it. So the ending was rewritten.

18. Brody and Hooper inappropriately share a laugh at the end.

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Hooper doesn’t emerge from the depths of the water until after Brody has demolished the shark, which is smart thinking on his part. He swims up to Brody and the two immediately share a laugh over their good fortune, while nearly in the same breath Hooper discovers that Quint has just died. It generally goes against decorum to express joy in the early stages of mourning.

This story has been updated for 2020.