Jaws is number 48 on the AFI list. Otherwise, I have to say that it’s a movie I never intended to watch. I don’t like horror, I don’t deal well with suspense, and I think the ocean (as opposed to the beach) is scary/creepy. Having said that, I thought it was a really good movie. It’s said to be the first “summer blockbuster” and it’s pretty much Spielberg’s first major directing credit; obviously, it’s a big deal, so I’m sort of glad that it lives up to the hype.
Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is adjusting to life as the police chief of Amity, a quiet little beach community, after having left New York City. The idyllic setting is thrown into turmoil by the discovery of the scant remains of a young swimmer who has apparently been the victim of a shark attack. Brody must contend with the mayor and the townspeople, all of whom refuse to admit the seriousness of the situation because their livelihood depends on summer tourists. When a second victim, a little boy, is claimed by the shark in the midst of crowds at the beach, everyone is forced to pay attention. Brody brings in shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to back him up and help him determine exactly what they’re dealing with, and a mad, local fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) is contracted to hunt down the beast. Ultimately, the three men go out in Quint’s boat to try and kill the Great White Shark, and the hunt becomes a duel to the death.
The first, and main thing I’d like to say about this movie is that it is suspenseful as all get out. I mean, think about it. We all know what happens. We all know “whodunnit.” We all know that the movie is about a gigantic shark that eats people. The questions, then, are when will it happen, and to whom? Armed with these two uncertainties, Spielberg ratchets up the suspense and tension until they are nearly intolerable. Particularly notable is the scene on the beach, where we are focused on four or five different individuals while Brody scans the beach anxiously. We have no idea who is going to meet their fate. As events take place on land, we are worried about when tragedy will strike again. We fear for Brody’s family (his two small sons are often in harm’s way). The clock is ticking! Later, when the men are in the boat, even when the mood is light, we are anxious, wondering when the shark will reappear, and what is going to happen next.
Instrumental (haha) in the tautness of the film is John Williams’ iconic score. Ordinarily I don’t really like it when the music gives away what’s happening, but in this case, it somehow doesn’t matter. The tension is so high that the music only adds to it, instead of letting the viewer (and listener) off the hook. Oh dear. Get it? Off the hook? Erm, sorry. I am generally not a fan of John Williams, but in this case, I am forced to acknowledge a job well done. Surely you won’t begrudge me a couple of bad puns?
The acting is also first-rate, as everyone involved must contribute to the mood and feel of the film. Scheider and Dreyfuss have a great rapport, and Shaw is really impressive as the mad Quint. It seems as though it would be difficult to switch between light moments and more serious scenes, and all three men manage it admirably. In particular, a scene in which Quint is relating his experience during World War II is riveting – an even darker hour than the one in which the men currently find themselves.
It’s interesting how Spielberg (and writer Peter Benchley) manages to remind his viewer of the atrocity of man even while we are watching nature give him a bit of a beating, and in what is essentially a “horror” movie. I was struck by the lack of concern, early on, of the people of Amity. They are so focused on their livelihoods, and the summer tourism of their town, that they choose to be completely blind to what is happening until it is too late. A cautionary tale that is possibly even more relevant today than it was 35 years ago, I’d say.
All in all, I was actually pretty impressed. We’ve been dragging our feet on this one for a while. I was expecting something gory and over-the-top and ridiculous, even though it’s Spielberg. Instead, what I saw was tight, well-acted, not too graphic, and even a little thought-provoking at times. I can’t really say I would recommend it, just because I think you’re either inclined to see something like Jaws, or not; but I will say that I was surprised and impressed, and I’m not sorry that we finally got around to watching it.