The horror movie “Jaws” forever changed how America views the seashore.
The unofficial beginning of summer, with the arrivial of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, is enough to give pause and pay tribute to a movie that sparked the nation’s obsession with Great Whites, Hammerheads,Tiger Sharks and every other species lurking in the deep.
As it happens, as the 50th anniversary of the book’s release nears, the nation is undergoing a resurgence in real, unprovoked shark attacks.
The United States recorded 41 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark bites in 2022. It’s just off the record of 47 incidents in 2021. But, the U.S. still leads every other nation in the world, including Australia, and represents 72% of the attacks worldwide.
Marine scientists say the chances of being bitten are still extremely low, and note the problem isn’t due to a rising number of sharks. Rather, the number of people flocking to beaches has soared, especially in Florida, the nation’s shark bite capital.
Like the proverbial dorsal fin, “Jaws” rises from the depths around this time of year for me and visiting the filming locations only further whets my appetite for the movie.
While some people see the robin as the harbinger of the spring and warmer weather, a mechanical great white shark has been my gauge since Dad and I watched Jaws on television nearly 40 years ago. If I get the urge to watch the movie, summer must not be far away and I always take the bait.
The first time I saw the movie in the summer of 1985, I thought everything about it was masterful, including the horror.
There’s the quintessential seaside New England setting, the hauntingly iconic music, the pulse quickening scares, Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis speech, the heavy, but never overbearing use of foreshadowing, and cinematography that included many water level shots which gave the viewer the shark’s perspective.
I particularly love the movie’s third act when reluctant hero Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), vengeful Captain Quint (Robert Shaw), and passionate marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) set out aboard Quint’s boat, “Orca” to hunt the 25 foot killer shark that has been terrorizing Amity Island.
All of the attacks rattled me, but I found Quint’s death, devoured alive by the shark, particularly harrowing. It was the fodder of nightmares for years. Yes, upon close inspection the shark’s teeth looked rubbery, but it was still terrifyingly magical.
“Jaws” also acts as a time capsule. Looking at the clothing and hairstyles from the year I was born, like Mayor Vaughn’s polyester anchor themed sports jacket and Captain Quint’s gray mutton chops, never grows old and reminds me now that, yep, I am a middle aged man now.
The fictitious Amity Island and its beaches didn’t look too different from my native Long Island. The idea that a monster preying in the waters that looked like the beaches of Smithtown both scared and fascinated me.
Wooden motor boats at the Kings Park Bluff or the Long Beach Marina immediately remind me of Quint’s Orca. If I saw a police officer at one of our beaches, Chief Martin Brody popped into mind.
With the exception of a few underwater shots, the entire movie was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard.
With both the 50th anniversary of the film’s production and my 50th birthday looming, I thought it was high time to get my tail up to the fictitious Amity Island and take a peek at some of the spots where one of my favorite films was shot.
Two expensive ferry rides (“I’m gonna need a bigger wallet,” I thought to myself…) and a serpentine drive through Connecticut and Rhode Island later, I was in Amity.
The first stop was Chief Martin Brody’s house on Chop Drive on the northside of the island. That’s where we first meet our protagonist and his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and see him get the call about the first shark attack.
The house featured in the production used both the interior and exterior, but was renovated in 2002. The address is still the same, but the house and garage look totally different.
I idled in front of the new house for a few minutes with false hopes of catching the chief on his way to work or popping inside to eat his unfinished supper like Hooper does.
Edgartown, with its whaling village white clapboard buildings and narrow old fashioned streets, stood in for Amity’s downtown, and doesn’t look much different today from how it did in 1974.
Edgartown seems to embrace its connection to “Jaws.”
Many of the souvenir shops carry shark shirts or fridge magnets, and the corner bank proudly displays a fiberglass sign that reads “Amity Bank” that was used as a prop during filming. The bank staff graciously let me come in and take a picture.
The Amity police station (South Water St. and Davis Lane) was then and still is a private home and is where Chief Brody types up the first “shark attack” police report as Polly the secretary tells him about the nine-year-olds who karate-chopped fences.
A stone’s throw away from one another on South Water Street around the corner from the police station are the two homes that were used for the Amity Gazette and Keisel’s Bicycle Rental.
I walked by them just like Chief does and I half expected to find a small parade at the end of the block like in the film.
Chief grabs supplies to make “Beach Closed” signs at Amity Hardware, but today the store is a restaurant called the Port Hunter and was still closed before the season started.
I peered through the window at the empty tables and pictured Chief knocking over some brushes as he picked up a jar of paint. “Let Polly do the printing,” I mumbled to myself.
The small Chappy ferry which holds a handful of cars and takes mere minutes to get across the water from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick is where Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) and Chief have their first conversation about the arrival of the shark.
With the exception of the modern cars it transports, the ferry looks unchanged from the movie. As I watched it from a dock I couldn’t help but hear the mayor’s gruff dialogue:
“Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
The stretch of shoreline where the young Alex Kitner becomes Jaws’ first bloody victim is part of Joseph Sylvia State Beach in Oak Bluffs. The changing rooms, arcade, and hotdog shacks that the props department set up for filming were long gone when I visited the deserted beach on a windy March day.
The shoreline has moved significantly because of flood prevention and dredging, but other than that, the sand and water look the same as in the film. I called out for Pippet the black Labrador retriever, but it was to no avail.
The tense meeting after the Kitner boy’s death at Amity Town Hall was actually filmed inside Edgartown’s Town Hall.
The conference room has since been altered, but the hallway showcased in the scene looks pretty much as it did in 1974.
There was no chalk to scratch my nails against ala Quint, but the same handsome clock seen in the background of the movie ticked away when I was there.
Careful not to disturb the nearby offices, I slipped into character: “You all know me; you know how I make my living,” I quietly said with a hint of a brogue like Quint.
The charming and very New English harbor where Chief Brody first meets Matt Hooper looked almost as it did in the film.
The Harbormaster’s shack is gone and the boats’ motors are a little more modern, but the water is the same, albeit calmer the day I was there.
The aquatic cul-de-sac looked placid as I sat on a bench, very different from how it looked when Speilberg filmed the scene of frenzied amateur shark hunters which featured colorful local extras tossing buckets of chum and sticks of dynamite into the water.
“They’re all gonna die,” I said in my best nasally Dreyfuss voice.
The Gay Head Lighthouse, perched on the gorgeous, craggy clay cliffs of Aquinnah on the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard about 25 miles away from Edgartown, provided the scenic background to the argument between the mayor, Chief and Hooper about keeping the beaches open.
The lighthouse, which has been moved since filming because of erosion, is worth seeing in its own right. I stood where the defaced “Amity Island Welcomes You” billboard once stood and wondered whether the perpetrators were ever hung up by their Buster Browns.
The bridge over Sengekontacket Pond between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, is now known on Google Maps as the “Jaws Bridge.”
The original structure has been replaced, but it’s in the same spot and looks essentially identical. I stood on the banks right where the actress who yelled “Shark! Shark is in the pond!” stood and pointed.
The stones that run parallel to the waterway which Chief races down to get to the pond, look almost the same, too.
I’m not as athletic as Scheider, but I carefully jogged on top of the rocks toward the bridge like he does in the film. The pond’s cerulean water looked clean and inviting, but I kept picturing the rowboater’s bloody severed leg cascading to the pond’s floor.
Though Quint’s shop was a set built for the film and no longer exists, the working fishing village of Menemsha remains and it’s just as quirky.
Crusty lobster traps were stacked on the docks and dried starfish and signs advertising deep sea charters decorated some of the shacks’ salted windows.
I stood exactly where Quint’s set once stood and looked out at the shacks and small piers that the Orca glided past on her way out to sea to hunt the leviathan. Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women, I thought.
The book Jaws was the bestseller when I was born in February 1974 and its film adaptation helmed by 27 year old Steven Spielberg started production a few months later in the spring. A year later, in 1975, it was released and changed everything.
It was the highest-grossing film of all time until the release of “Star Wars” two years later.
I obviously don’t remember the shattering blockbuster of my second summer or when Jaws-mania swept the nation, but I certainly recall the lengthy wake it left. And like a great white instinctively trolling prey in the salty depths, I inherently get the annual urge to watch the classic film as summer nears.
Jaws should have failed. It had a malfunctioning prop shark (named Bruce after Speilberg’s lawyer), waterlogged cameras, unwanted sailboats drifting into frame, seasickness (and in Shaw’s case- drunk) actors, a shattered schedule and a bloated budget.
Author Peter Benchley argued with the producers, some scenes were set up while dialogue was still being written, and the fishing boat the Orca had trouble staying afloat. Despite the adversity, Jaws defied the odds, becoming the quintessential monster movie of the 1970s and scaring the chum out of generations.
See the original movie trailer below: