Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
"You're going to need a bigger boat."
So the police chief famously informs the shark hunter, right after the first brief appearance of the man-eater in "Jaws." It's not simply a splendid line of dialogue, it's an example of Steven Spielberg's strategy all through the film, where the shark is more talked about than seen, and seen more in terms of its actions than in the flesh. There is a story that when producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown first approached Spielberg with an offer to direct the film of Peter Benchley's best seller, he said he would do it on one condition: that the shark not be seen for the first hour. Viewing the movie's 25th anniversary DVD, I was surprised to realize how little the shark is seen at all.
In keeping the Great White offscreen, Spielberg was employing a strategy used by Alfred Hitchcock throughout his career. "A bomb is under the table, and it explodes: That is surprise," said Hitchcock. "The bomb is under the table but it does not explode: That is suspense." Spielberg leaves the shark under the table for most of the movie. And many of its manifestations in the later part of the film are at second hand: We don't see the shark but the results of his actions. The payoff is one of the most effective thrillers ever made.
The movie takes place over the Fourth of July weekend on Amity Island, a tourist resort that feeds off the dollars of its visitors. A famous opening sequence establishes the presence of a man-eating shark in the coastal waters; a girl goes swimming by moonlight and is dragged under, screaming. All evidence points to a shark, but Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) doesn't want to scare away tourists, and orders Brody (Roy Scheider), the police chief, to keep the beaches open. "If people can't swim here, they'll be glad to swim in the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island," the mayor tells Brody, who spits back: "That doesn't mean we have to serve them up a smorgasbord." But the mayor strides on the beach wearing a sport coat and tie, encouraging people to go into the water. They do, with predictable results.