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A shark tale that made swimming a nightmare

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RIDE THE TIDE: The film propelled the little known director Steven Spielberg, then 27, into Hollywood's stratosphere

For an entire generation of impressionable beachgoers, this month is a memorable milestone: 35 years ago, a shark invaded movie theatres in what would become the first summer blockbuster - and, for many squeamish vacationers, a strong incentive not to dip more than a few toes in the ocean. Great white sharks have had a lousy - and, marine experts insist, undeserved - reputation ever since.

It was the Massachusetts resort island of Martha's Vineyard, of course, where Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws. As writer and former resident, Zaineb al Hassani notes, "this impossibly beautiful island would prove to be the perfect location for filming the then 27-year-old director's breakout hit. Can you imagine how different the movie might have been, had the white picket fences and picturesque beaches of Edgartown been replaced by a less innocent looking location? One of the reasons Jaws works so well is that the appearance of such a hideous monster - in such a beautiful place - is so unexpected. "

After 35 years, people haven't tired of talking about or watching Spielberg's quintessential summer movie. The shark-in-the-water thriller remains competitive on the Hollywood blockbuster list, having raked in over $470 million at box offices worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, the number would be around $1. 9 billion today. Composer John Williams' ominous two-note "shark" theme is known by kids and adults of all ages, whether they've seen the movie or not.

The movie flooded theaters for the first time in July 1975, and the buzz around it remains particularly strong on the original Jaws movie set - the beaches and towns across Martha's Vineyard, which portrayed the fictional Amity Island in the 1975 film based on Peter Benchley's best-selling novel.

On the Vineyard, it's almost as easy find a resident who played an extra in the flick as it is to buy an icecream cone. Most were kids back then, and were paid $5 a day to swim in the ocean, play on the beach, and most importantly, run screaming from the water when Jaws - a mechanical shark more affectionately known by those involved with the movie as Bruce - was approaching. "It changed scary movies completely, " said Tina Miller, a lifelong resident of the Vineyard, who was an extra in the movie alongside her father and brother.

Tom Smith, now a police officer in the Edgartown neighbourhood, was a third grader when he was an extra in the original Jaws, again in junior high when he was cast for the sequel, and he took a week from college to do special security for Jaws: The Revenge, the fourth film in the series. "The people who were involved in the movie are proud of that, " he said. "It's part of the identity of those people. "

Jaws is also part of the Martha's Vineyard brand. The lore surrounding the film draws fans from across the globe for a glimpse at the beach where young Alex Kintner was snapped from his raft, or the empty plot in the sleepy fishing village of Menemsha where crews built shark-hunter Quint's cottage. Scenic beaches, spectacular sunsets and vacationing US presidents have long been a feature, but the film has contributed steadily over the years to an economy reliant on tourism.

Jaws remains one of Spielberg's very best pictures, displaying what he became great for knowing: how to tell a story, and how to have the image serve the script. Nominated for four Academy Awards, the film won three, for sound, musical score and film editing, losing only Best Picture to Miro Foreman's masterful One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Alfred Hitchcock famously noted that "there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it. " Spielberg withheld the shark's appearance for 81 minutes, leaving the audience with much anticipatory terror. And when the shark finally burst from the water, the audience screamed. The 27-year-old director used the "bang" to layer shock on top of suspense.

Reader's opinion (1)

Krishna BandaruOct 15th, 2010 at 16:00 PM

To this day, despite several attempts at recreating it's magic, Jaws remains the only good shark movie churned out by Hollywood.

 
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