Screenplay by: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Based on the Novel By: Peter Benchley
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Monster in the House
Opening Image: In predator POV, we prowl the ocean floor. The now-iconic John Williams score sets an ominous tone.
Set-Up: A relaxed beach bonfire party segues to a couple sneaking off to skinny-dip… but during the jaunt the young woman goes missing. The next day we meet Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) and follow along as he is called to the site of the girl’s disappearance. There, the girl’s body is discovered washed up on shore and, though we don’t see it, the reactions of the officers convey how gruesome the sight. Back at the office Brody fills out a report on the incident, typing in “Shark Attack” as the cause.
Theme Stated: As Brody heads off to work his wife tells him to be careful and he laughs it off, replying, “In this town?” It seems danger can infiltrate even the sleepiest of small communities if we’re not vigilant.
Catalyst: Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) and a coterie of local businessmen pressure Brody, who is newly transplanted to Amity Island, to not close the beaches. Amity depends on tourism, and this is peak season. Call it greed or simply best intentions gone awry, but this is the “sin” that welcomes the “monster” into their “house.”
Debate: Brody’s on high alert as he watches friends and neighbors swim and play in the water, unaware of the danger. Can they really get away with tempting fate? Apparently not, as the shark attacks again—this time, in front of the whole town. A young boy is its victim. There’s no ignoring the problem now.
Break into Two: Every area fisherman takes to the water to try to collect the bounty being offered for catching the shark. One team catches a tiger shark and everyone celebrates in relief. Just-arrived shark researcher Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) insists it’s too small to be the killer, but the Mayor refuses to let him cut it open to verify. It’s clear Brody knows in his gut that Hooper is correct, but he’s torn—he wants it to be the right shark so this nightmare will be over. At the end of this sequence, Mrs. Kitner—the mother of the young boy who was killed by the shark—slaps Brody, saying that if he’d closed the beaches her son would still be alive. This is the accusation—and truth—that compels Brody to take action himself instead of relying on the city fathers in Act 2.
B Story: Hooper visits Brody at home. He believes, and Brody quickly agrees, that they need to cut open the shark. These two will be a team from here until the final scene.
Fun and Games: Together Brody and Hooper verify the tiger shark is not the killer, and then go out on the water to try to spot the real predator. Donning his scuba gear, Hooper descends into the water near the wreckage of a boat. He finds a tooth, and from this determines that the shark terrorizing Amity is a great white. Hooper theorizes that it’s unlikely that the shark will move on as long as there is prey to be had in its feeding ground. Still the Mayor refuses to accept the truth; he’s more concerned with not spooking the wave of tourists arriving for the 4th of July.
Midpoint: The city officials have refused to shut down the beach and, in fact, the Mayor convinces a few locals to be the first into the water in order to show the skittish crowd that all is well. Sheriff Brody keeps watch from the shore, as if that will help, and the Coast Guard patrols the ocean. Almost as if it’s aware of their precautions, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor and attacks again, managing to feast on one swimmer and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son. The “stakes are raised,” as now his own family has been threatened. Brody’s going to have to go out on the water, his greatest fear, and hunt this shark down.
Bad Guys Close In: Brody hires shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) [the Quint-essential “Half Man” of this genre, the survivor who has run into the monster before—or has prior knowledge of the evil—and come away damaged because of it] to help kill the shark, and as they prepare we begin to wonder if Quint—their last best hope at this point—isn’t completely loony tunes; his behavior doesn’t inspire much faith that their mission will succeed. Still, they go out in his boat and before long the shark makes his presence known. But he’s too smart to be killed too easily, swimming under the boat and foiling their initial attempts.
All Is Lost: Brody gets his first up-close look at the shark, and nearly goes into shock at the sight. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” It’s a 25-footer, three tons of shark, and its size seems to stun even the more-experienced Hooper and Quint.
Dark Night of the Soul: About 83 minutes in, night is falling and Brody, Quint, and Hooper, who have been at each others’ throats since they got onto the boat, sit inside the boat’s cabin and drink. At first Quint and Hooper compare scars in some funny, classic male bonding. But the tone shifts when Quint reveals his back story and the reason for his shark obsession: he was on a heavy cruiser that got hit during WWII and most of the men were killed by sharks before they could be rescued. It’s a dramatization of what we fear will happen to our heroes. And then, improbably, the three guys start to sing, “Show me the way to go home”…
Break into Three: But in the middle of the song we hear pounding; it’s the shark attacking the boat. The men scramble into action. In the morning, they’re dealing with the aftermath of that attack when they realize that their current plan isn’t working.
Finale: The entire third act is the final battle, and it is relentless. A new plan involves Hooper going into the water in a cage, which is promptly attacked by the shark and when the others pull the mangled cage back up it appears they’ve lost Hooper. The shark then batters a hole in Quint’s boat so it begins to sink under them. The shark comes onto the semi-submerged vessel and the men try to fight it off, but Quint meets his horrific end. The climax of course is water-phobic Brody finding his greatest nightmare coming alive around him: he must face the shark on his own on a sinking ship. Brody manages to kill the shark in an explosion caused by a (cleverly-planted) compressed air tank.
Final Image: As Brody clings to the wreckage of their boat, surveying the shark bits floating around him, Hooper appears in his scuba gear… he survived after all. The two men paddle back to shore.