Saturday, April 26, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Jaws (1975)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
It was only about a year ago that I saw Jaws for the first time. I had never gone out of my way to see it before because I was under the impression that it was just a routine action thriller, albeit the one that began the trend of summer blockbusters. Happening across it on TCM last summer, I decided to watch and found myself completely engrossed. There is nothing “routine” about this movie, and if more “blockbuster” wannabe films styled themselves after Jaws, they wouldn’t come and go so quickly from the collective imagination.
Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has moved with his family from New York to the island of Amity, a place his wife thinks will be a safer environment to raise their two kids. The mangled body of a woman is found on a beach, a victim of a shark. The Mayor, and other locals concerned about the impact that news of a shark attack would have on tourism, conspire to cover this up, and Brody reluctantly goes along with it until the shark returns to claim more victims. He then teams up with Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw), a shark expert and shark hunter, respectively, to kill the shark, a creature that proves to be more difficult to kill than most movie monsters.
By now everyone has heard the anecdotes about the mechanical shark that wouldn’t work, necessitating a limited visual presence in the film. This turned out to be a good thing, of course, because it lets the audience build up the shark in its imagination, and even though we don’t actually see the shark until the final third of the film (though we do see it’s massive shadow underneath the water), it’s presence looms large over the entire narrative. What we do see of the shark is pretty spectacular (and prompts the film’s most famous line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”), especially when it literally takes apart the ridiculously inadequate Orca piece by piece.
However, the sequences of high action are only a small part of why Jaws works. This film is effective because it spends most of its running time letting us get to know its characters and then puts them in the middle of nowhere up against a shark bigger than their boat. There are lots of little moments that allow us to feel for these characters, to like them enough so that we actually care in the end whether they live or die. There is a moment early in the film, after Brody has had an especially bad day, when he sits at the dinner table and notices that his younger son is imitating his gestures and expressions. There is also the scene in the Orca where Brody and Hooper listen as Quint tells them about being a survivor of the USS Indianapolis – one of the great movie speeches. Scenes like these are cut out of most blockbuster style movies, where the story is more or less just a means of connecting one explosion to another. But these scenes add incalculably to the film because they ground the characters firmly in the audience’s reality and we see them as people instead of characters who have the superhuman ability to withstand just about anything.
Jaws also has in its favour a pretty good sense of humour and moments of comedy that seem to arise organically out the story, rather than being tacked on for the sake of ironic catch-phrases. Most of the comedic moments come courtesy of Hooper, but my favourite comes down to Brody. Hooper drops by the Brodys’ house with a bottle of wine and Brody pours about half the bottle into his own glass while his wife and Hooper watch with bemusement. They then have a conversation which includes the following exchange:
Ellen: “Martin hates water. Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to the mainland. I guess it’s a childhood thing. It’s a… there’s a clinical name for it isn’t there?”
Hooper then takes Brody off on an unofficial exploration mission in which we get more scenes of drunk, snarky Brody before he quickly sobers up at proof that the shark that has been caught and killed is not the same shark that’s been attacking people.
Jaws is a movie that does everything right in order to accomplish it’s goal. It’s a movie that knows that the audiences needs someone in the film to connect with in order to care whether or not the villain is defeated and whether or not the action sequences result in death. It doesn’t rush through the steps of character establishment in order to get to the “good stuff,” but instead takes its time and lets it characters breathe a little. It’s an action movie that is anything but routine.