During a late night beach party on Amity Island in New England, a 23-year-old woman named Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) goes skinny-dipping only to be pulled under by an unseen force. Amity's new police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), is notified that Chrissie is missing, and deputy Lenny Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) finds her remains. The medical examiner informs Brody that the death was due to a shark attack. Brody plans to close the beaches but is overruled by town mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who fears that reports of a shark attack will ruin the summer tourist season. The medical examiner reverses his diagnosis and attributes the death to a boating accident. Brody reluctantly goes along with the explanation.

A short time later, a boy is brutally killed by a shark at the beach. The boy's mother places a bounty on the shark, sparking an amateur shark hunting frenzy and attracting the attention of local professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). Brought in by Brody, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) examines Chrissie's remains and concludes a shark killed her.

A large tiger shark is caught by a group of fishermen, leading the town to believe the problem is solved, but Hooper is unconvinced that the shark is the killer and asks to examine its stomach contents. Vaughn refuses to make the "operation" public, so Brody and Hooper return after dark and discover the dead shark does not contain human remains. Scouting aboard Hooper's boat, they come across the half-sunken wreckage of a boat belonging to local fisherman Ben Gardener. Hooper explores the vessel underwater and discovers a massive shark's tooth, but also Gardener's severed head, which makes him drop the tooth in a panic.

Vaughn refuses to close the beaches, and on the Fourth of July numerous tourists arrive. After a prank by two boys causes a panic, the shark enters an estuary, kills a man and causes Brody's son go into shock after witnessing it. Brody forces Vaughn to hire Quint. Brody and Hooper join the hunter on his fishing boat, the Orca, and the trio set out to kill the shark.

Brody is given the task of laying a chum line while Quint uses deep-sea fishing tackle to try to hook the shark. As Brody continues chumming, an enormous great white shark looms up behind the boat; the trio watches the great white circle the Orca and estimate it weighs 3 short tons and is 25 feet long. Quint harpoons the shark with a line attached to a flotation barrel, designed to prevent the shark from submerging and to track it on the surface, but the shark pulls the barrel under and disappears.

Night falls without another sighting, so the men retire to the boat's cabin, where Quint tells of his experience with sharks as a survivor of the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The shark reappears, damaging the boat's hull before slipping away. In the morning, the men make repairs to the engine. Attempting to call the Coast Guard for help, Brody is stopped by Quint, who destroys the radio with a baseball bat. The shark attacks again, and after a long chase Quint harpoons another barrel to it. The men tie the barrels to the stern, but the shark drags the boat backwards, forcing water onto the deck and into the engine, flooding it. Quint harpoons the shark again, adding a third barrel, while the shark continues towing them. Quint is about to cut the ropes with his machete when the cleats are pulled off the stern. The shark continues attacking the boat and Quint heads toward shore with the shark in pursuit, hoping to draw the animal into shallow waters, where it will be beached and drown. In his obsession to kill the shark, Quint overtaxes Orca's engine, causing it to seize.

With the boat immobilized, the trio try a desperate approach: Hooper dons his SCUBA gear and enters the ocean inside a shark proof cage in order to stab the shark in the mouth with a hypodermic spear filled with strychnine. The shark destroys the cage but gets tangled in the remains, allowing Hooper to hide on the seabed. As Quint and Brody raise the remnants of the cage, the shark throws itself onto the boat, crushing the transom. As the boat sinks, Quint slides down the slippery deck and is eaten by the shark.

Brody retreats to the boat's partly submerged cabin. When the shark attacks him there, he shoves a pressurized air tank into the shark's mouth, then takes Quint's M1 Garand and climbs the Orca's mast. Brody begins shooting at the air tank wedged in the shark's mouth, causing it to explode and blow the shark to pieces. As the shark's carcass drifts toward the seabed, Hooper reappears on the surface. The survivors briefly lament the loss of Quint, and then cobble together a raft from debris and paddle to Amity Island.
Oscar
4 Nominations
3 Awards
Best Film Editing
Best Sound
Best Original Score

Golden Globes
4 Nominations
1 Award
Best Original Score
Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, producers at Universal Pictures, heard about Peter Benchley's novel at the same time at different locations. Brown came across it in the fiction department of Cosmopolitan, a lifestyle magazine then edited by his wife, Helen Gurley Brown. A small card gave a detailed description of the plot, concluding with the comment "might make a good movie". The producers each read it overnight and agreed the next morning that it was "the most exciting thing that they had ever read" and that, although they were unsure how they would accomplish it, they wanted to produce the film.

Zanuck and Brown had originally planned to hire John Sturges to direct the film, before considering Dick Richards. However, they grew irritated by Richards' vision of continually calling the shark ‘the whale’; Richards was subsequently dropped from the project. Zanuck and Brown then signed Spielberg to direct before the release of his first theatrical film, “The Sugarland Express” (also a Zanuck/Brown production). Spielberg wanted to take the novel's basic concept, removing Benchley's many subplots. Zanuck, Brown and Spielberg removed the novel's adulterous affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper because it would compromise the camaraderie between the men when they went out on the Orca. Although filming was scheduled to take 55 days, it was eventually completed after 159. Spielberg, reflecting on the extended delay, stated: "I thought my career as a filmmaker was over. I heard rumors ... that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule." Spielberg himself was not present for the shooting of the final scene where the shark explodes. He believed that the crew was planning to throw him in the water when this scene was complete. It has since become a tradition for Spielberg to be absent when the final scene of a film he directs is being filmed.

Spielberg offered the role of Brody to Robert Duvall, but the actor was only interested in portraying Quint. According to Spielberg, Charlton Heston expressed a desire for the role, but Spielberg felt that Heston was too large a personality, as Spielberg intended the film's primary ‘star’ to be the shark. Roy Scheider became interested in the project after overhearing a screenwriter and Spielberg at a party talking about having the shark jump up onto a boat. Spielberg was initially apprehensive of hiring Scheider, fearing he would portray a ‘tough guy’, similar to his role in “The French Connection”.

The role of Quint was originally offered to actors Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden, both of whom passed. Producers Zanuck and Brown had just finished working with Robert Shaw on “The Sting”, and suggested him to Spielberg as a possible Quint.

For the role of Hooper, Spielberg initially wanted Jon Voight. Richard Dreyfuss first passed on the role of Matt Hooper, but after being disappointed by his own performance in a pre-release screening of “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”, a film he had just completed, he immediately called Spielberg and accepted the role, fearing that no one would want to hire him once Kravitz was released. The first person actually cast for the film was Lorraine Gary, the wife of then-studio chief, Sid Sheinberg.

John Williams contributed the film score, which was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute's 100 Years of Film Scores. The main "shark" theme, a simple alternating pattern of two notes, E and F, became a classic piece of suspense music, synonymous with approaching danger. Williams described the theme as having the "effect of grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable."

There are various interpretations of the meaning and effectiveness of the theme. Some have thought the two-note expression is intended to mimic the shark's heartbeat, beginning slow and controlled as the killer hunts and rising to a frenzied, shrieking climax as it approaches its prey. Others have stated that the music at first sounds like the creaking and groaning of a boat, and therefore is inaudible when it begins so that it never seems to start, but simply rises out of the sounds of the film. One critic believes the true strength of the score is its ability to create a "harsh silence", abruptly cutting away from the music right before it climaxes. Furthermore, the audience is conditioned to associate the shark with its theme, since the score is never used as a red herring. It only plays when the real shark appears. This is later exploited when the shark suddenly appears with no musical introduction. Regardless of the meaning behind it, the theme is widely acknowledged as one of the most recognized scores of all time.

Similar to the fear of showers created by the pivotal scene in the 1960 film “Psycho”, “Jaws” caused many viewers to be afraid to enter the ocean. The film was credited with reduced beach attendance in the summer of 1975. “Jaws” set the template for many future horror films, so much so that the script for Ridley Scott's 1979 science fiction film “Alien” was pitched to studio executives with one tag line: "Jaws in space".