By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, and Murray Hamilton
Being in my thirties, it still feels pretty odd that in these modern times, films that I grew up with are being classified as ‘classics.’ I will be the first to say that the term gets thrown around way too much (as much as many of the people I talk to now would like you to believe, Gremlins, in my opinion, is NOT a classic). Let me give you a bit of a scenario that proves to me something is a classic. It is a hot June afternoon. Your parents, taking full advantage of living near the ocean, decide to take everyone to the ocean for some fun in the sun and swimming in the salty, ocean water. You go out waist deep, and all of a sudden it hits you: what is going on in the water around me? Whose radius of space that surrounds me am I invading? Let me just say: all of these questions would never have occurred to me if I had not watched Steven Spielberg’s 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws. And, in my opinion, much like what The Exorcist did with possibility of the Devil invading a little girl, this ability to get inside my head, and stay there, makes it a classic. However, that is not all. Surrounded by a great variety of characters that make up the supporting cast, an extremely sharp script, and the smart direction of a man that would eventually become one of the biggest and most popular filmmakers in history, Jaws is a film that will forever live in the hearts and minds of everyone who go into the ocean on that sunny, warm day.
How Spielberg was able to make the film work at all is a tribute to him as a filmmaker. But, it helped that he had a great script to help lend support. After what has to be one of the best openings to a film in years (the way Chrissy is thrashed around and struggles to grasp anything as the shark attacks her is truly terrifying), Spielberg cuts immediately to a shot of the ocean from the point of view of one Chief Martin Brody’s (Scheider) window. The way this scene opens, all the way to the end of the film is pretty much done from Brody’s point of view. The typing of the word ‘shark attack’ on his typewriter. His sitting down at the beach and false alarms such as a black swimming hat and girl screaming as her boyfriend stands her up on his shoulders in the water occuring on a minute by minute basis are done from Brody’s point of view. Sure, we the audience know he’s right. It’s his unconvincing of others that makes us not only sympathetic, but knowing of the oncoming doom from the 25 foot terrorizing great white in the water that in the end makes us root for him.
Ahhh. The shark. The mechanical thing that Spielberg loved so much that he named it after his accountant at the time (Bruce). What is so interesting about its constant breakdowns is how this nightmare of a mechanism caused Spielberg to resort to tactics that make Jaws the movie even more terrifying. Chrissy’s nightmarish struggles in the beginning. Two fisherman who decide to use one of their wives’ holiday roasts to try and catch the beast, only to be stalked by a representing of the shark dock that had come apart and is following them toward shore. Barrels being thrown off the boat are used to represent the shark. Spielberg, in a way, brought back memories of Hitchcock (one of his heroes) and used the ‘what you don’t see is even more terrifying’ method of filmmaking that eventually pays off in a big way when Brody is throwing chum in the water (and then utters ‘we’re going to need a bigger boat,’ one of the best ad libs in history). With all the problems of the shark breaking down looming, Spielberg made the most of it and crafts an utter brilliant and terrifying monster. Using all of these tools he eventually made an utter masterpiece, and his way of foretelling what was to eventually happen is sheer genius. Watch the scene where we see a shark’s mouth in a window while in the foreground, Spielberg makes it look as if our three heroes are steering their boat right into it, and tell me otherwise.
Of course, while I have gone over Scheider’s role and entrance, I would be remised if I didn’t mention the cast around him. And all of these intros, Brody’s included, echo their characters as a whole. For example, the introduction of Hooper, Dreyfuss’ character and his uttering of the phrase ‘they’re all gunna die’ as he walks away from an overcrowded fishing boat makes us laugh. As Hooper does throughout the entire film. Because, in a movie surrounded by many feelings of shear doubt, the audience needed a bit of comic relief. And, Dreyfuss brings that. And, of course, you had Quint (Shaw). His fingernails scratching the chalkboard and offering to kill the shark is a brilliant introduction to the man that, later on in the movie, would utter an equally chilling monologue about the USS Indianapolis. But the thing that is so great about Jaws, what really sets it apart from other horror films is that we care about these characters. Hell, even the town’s mayor Larry Vaughn is not being a bad guy when he wants to keep the beaches open. And, in a telling hospital scene that takes place after another devastating attack and is brilliantly scripted and acted, he tells Brody that his kids were on the beach too.
Jaws is one of those movies that while everything during the filming of it didn’t necessarily work, the way they fell apart but yet were eventually put back together enhanced the movie and made it an unbridged classic. For example, the fact that Shaw and Dreyfuss didn’t get along, while yet another detriment to the working environment, really lends to the story when Quint is yelling at Hooper. All of the actors in it are good and on top of their game. It is also a film that is widely known to have truly benefitted from everything in the post production phase. Because, as good of a film as it is, how memorable would Jaws have been without the brilliant John Williams score? And, while the two note motif that represents the shark is sheer genius, this is another one in Williams’ monster catalogue of scores that has to be counted as one of his 5 best. A great music score and brilliant job of editing by Verna Fields mark yet more reasons why the earth, moon, and stars were aligned for Spielberg to craft, yes, a classic.
5 out of 5