Jaws

Title:  Jaws
Director:  Steven Spielburg
Date:  1975
Studio:  Universal
Genre:  Suspense, Drama
Cast:  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“This was no boat accident.”  Matt Hooper

“It doesn’t make much sense for a guy who hates the water to live on an island either.”  — Hooper
“It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”  — Martin Brodie

“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”  — Martin Brodie

Quite by accident Jaws was the first movie that I got on DVD, received as a gift.  I still love it though because it’s a masterful piece of suspense, and a fine character study.  It is not out and out shock-factor horror, in part due to happy accident — the mechanical shark didn’t work, and the film works better when you can’t see it.  There are some scenes where you finally do see the shark, and it looks very fake, though the film stands up by it’s well-drawn characters and their relationships.

Amity Island is an East Coast summer island, preparing for the busy Fourth of July summer holiday.  The film opens with a group of young people having a bonfire on the beach.  One of the teenaged girls runs off to go skinny dipping in the ocean, at night, and is attacked and killed (eaten) by the shark.  Martin Brodie (Roy Scheider), the chief of police, immediately tries to close the beach — but is prevented by the local mayor and business people who are afraid they will lose their summer income.

And thus the first half of the film almost has the format of a disaster film:  one guy (Brodie) knows there’s a threat to life and limb, but no one listens to him, because doing the smart thing is a threat to local business and income.  Later a young child is killed, and reward is offered for the shark.  Soon every idiot who can find a boat is out looking for the shark, and doing a terrible job.

At this point, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a shark expert, shows up.  He tells Brodie the shark someone’s caught is a Tiger shark and too small to have killed the girl who died.  What they are looking for is a Great White.

The scene where Hooper examines the remains of the dead girl is well done, because we don’t actually see the body, he just describes into a dictaphone what he sees and what’s missing, while trying not to lose his lunch.  Similarly, when Brodie found the girl in the first place — all the audience saw was the girl’s hand — that’s it, no body and no blood.  (There isn’t even any blood in the first attack scene, though there are in later ones).

Again, Brodie and Hooper want to close the beaches, but the mayor won’t allow it on Fourth of  July weekend.  After another attack, and Brodie nearly losing his own son (he survives), the mayor relents.

Whereas, the first half of the movie is like a disaster film — with the one guy trying to convince everyone else and not being believed; the second half of the film is closer to horror — though it’s still more suspense than horror.  Because of the problems with the shark, and Spielburg’s excellent direction, surprise, brief glances, and suggestion is used more than actually seeing the shark eat anyone.

The second half of the film has Brodie — the chief of police, and a guy who’s afraid of water; Quint (Robert Shaw) the old poacher and fisherman, and Hooper (the shark expert), stuck on Quint’s boat trying to catch the shark.  The film examines these three characters, their relationships to each other, and their relationships to the shark.  This is where the character-building occurs, having already been touched upon as the three very different men are introduced.

My favorite scene in the entire movie is actually where the three are in the cabin of the boat, they’ve just finished comparing scars (except Brodie), and the three start singing, “I’m tired and I Wanna go Home”, only to have the shark butt in, literally, as it begins to ram the boat.  At this point, too, the shark goes from the unseen, spooky, where will it show up next, monster — to something they cannot kill.  It makes the film more towards the horror genre, but even once we start to see the shark, it still isn’t seen all that often.  A big part of what makes Jaws scary is that what you don’t see is a lot scarier than what you do see.  Even in Jaws, when we see people splashing around in the water, and hear the marvelous Jaws theme music, that’s scarier as the audience anticipates something happening, than later when the shark takes a chunk out of Quint’s boat.

Again, the acting in this is marvelous.  Scheider is calm and collected, but you can see he’s repressing his fears, especially when in the boat, or watching people swimming in dangerous waters.  Some of the best shots are of him reacting to things.  Dreyfuss is the manic scientist, smart, knowledgeable, but also able to get a quick insult off at the stupidity of people on the island when he needs to.  He also quickly convinces Brodie exactly what they need to do.  And Quint, the poacher and fisherman — course, mean-tempered, essentially a salty old sailor — the perfect foil for the more normal Brodie and Hooper.

In the end, of course, Hooper disappears (but survives), Quint doesn’t, and Brodie manages to thrust a compressed air tank into the shark’s mouth and then blow it up by shooting it.  Instant sushi.

Still, an excellent movie with great characters and some really good acting.

Recommendation:  See it!  But not for the really young (I’d go 13 plus on this)
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Justice League Crisis on Two Earths

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