It went into production without a completed script and during production became a byword for certain and imminent disaster: spiralling out of control on location, it doubled its estimated budget and was constantly restructured and rewritten to accommodate the deficiencies of a wildly uncooperative special effects shark. What somehow finally emerged was the most effective American film of the nineteen-seventies, a masterpiece of suspense that instantly took on a degree of iconic relevance unmatched by any movie since Gone With the Wind.
It is well but not outstandingly directed; it is, however, outstandingly edited by Verna Fields and scored by John Williams. The combined effect of Fields's editing and Williams's score is frequently misattributed to Spielberg's direction.
But what is more surprising - and unnecessary, strictly speaking, for a film of this type - is the quality of the script and the acting, both far in excess of anything demonstrated or demanded by a movie of this kind before or since. This, it seems, was a most welcome legacy of the production problems - with the crew labouring over the special effects scenes, the cast and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (who also appears as the editor of the town newspaper) were able to hone their material to such a degree that the final script is as tooled and memorable as a piece of theatre, and the whole cast contribute uniquely convincing, subtle and memorable performances. Rarely in any movie, much less a monster flick, do we believe so completely that these characters really know each other, have a real unseen history with each other, and speak, behave and interact exactly as they would were they real. The tiny details of small town life are likewise conveyed with an uncharacteristic subtlety and charm, all of which has the happy consequence of making the scenes of suspense and horror, when they come, all the more effective for happening to people we feel we know so well. Virtually every other line is worth quoting, and the film, brilliantly constructed in three acts, is as gripping and compelling on the tenth watch as the first.