Spielberg had to conjure suspense out of nothing but ideas, and he was learned enough in cinematic tricks to pull it off. That's what everybody remembers.
But, when I think of Jaws, I remember how he managed to get a sense of community and decent performances out of the locals, and how he managed to make things matter before we go shark-hunting. In a movie where the people could get lost in the movie-making mechanism, ground up like in the teeth of a shark, Spielberg and his writers emphasized character and made us care.
I always remember this scene from Jaws, when I think of how good a film-maker Spielberg is. It's just an economical thirty seconds, hardly a bump in the road, in the film's momentum. But it shows the depths of grief Brody is going through, and why he would personally take on the task of joining the Orca expedition to take on The Great White Shark.
The Set-Up: Amity Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has had a rough few days. He's getting pressure from all sides. A great white shark has decided to make a high tourist season beach its personal buffet, killing several of its townspeople. The citizenry is, naturally, alarmed. The mayor wants the news stifled, and local experts are starting to nose around. Plus, there are several shark-vigilante groups stupid enough to try to hunt it down. A tiger shark has just been caught, but the interest has died down when the mother of one of the victims has confronted and slapped the Chief in public.
That night, at the dinner table, things are subdued.
INT. BRODY HOUSE - NIGHT - DINING ROOM
Brody and Ellen, Sean and Michael, have all finished dinner.
Brody's plate is untouched, a virgin meatloaf. His glass, on the other hand, is well used, with the remnants of a stiff scotch and ice.
He is staring across the table at the youngest, Sean, who makes a face at him.
He makes a face back.
They play this game together for a few minutes.
Sean gives Daddy the kiss. Brody shoos him and Michael off to bed.
Ellen, who is feeling progressively more left out with each passing moment, gets up abruptly and clears a few dishes. Brody is not letting her into his world for the moment, and it shows.
There's a knock at the door.
Now, get outta here.
Words by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley
Pictures by Bill Butler and Steven Spielberg
Jaws is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.