For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
35 years ago, “Jaws” was released and the way movies are marketed and consumed would be forever changed. Never before had a film been so widely released, or shown on so many screens. This was the beginning of the Summer Blockbuster, and the prenatal days of the push for a huge opening weekend.
“Jaws” is a film that grows in the minds of those viewers, who remember seeing it years ago. Nostalgia and memory play up the effectiveness of the shark, and Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss’ acting. I do think that the film still works for the most part as a thriller, but it’s starting to show its age.
As far as story structure and motivation of character, “Jaws” is a weird film. The entire movie breaks in half, and what motivates the characters in the first half is radically different than the second half.
Before we get to a detailed discussion of this movie’s bits and pieces, let’s look at a scene that still works incredibly well. This opening is undeniably one of films most iconic moments, and rightfully so. This scene shows “Jaws” at its most effective, when only the reaction of the victim translate the horrific moment to the viewer, and the shark remains hidden in the murky depths. Some claim “Jaws” is a horror film, and not a thriller. I’m not of that camp, but I can understand the argument when I watch this scene.
That lone buoy on the now peaceful waters adds emphasis to what we just watched. It gives a visual counterpoint to the frenetic action moments ago, and allows us to fully comprehend what is to come. This scene shows the mastery of the young Steven Spielberg.
Now let’s talk about the two halves of “Jaws.”
The first half of the film focuses on the new Police Chief of Amity, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), as he struggles to close the beaches in spite of the Mayor’s (Murray Hamilton) concern for the town as a tourist destination. A town hall meeting is called to tell the locals and merchants.
Even though we get a hint at what’s to come in Sam Quint’s (Robert Shaw) speech, the story at this point focuses on the forces that are at work on Brody, the economic needs of his town, and the need to keep people out of the angry snapping jaws of a rogue shark.
Brody calls in an expert on sharks, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). When a shark is caught, and offered up as the man-eating rogue, Brody and Hooper do some further investigation, and discover the killer shark is still on the loose. They appeal to the mayor, but with less than satisfactory results.
Now rarely would you have seen these last two scenes offered up as classic moments from “Jaws.” They both take place in the first half of the film, when the struggle is between Brody and the mayor. This is the more frustrating and perhaps more real struggle for our characters, but significantly less compelling and tense than the conflict that dominates the last half of “Jaws,” that of man versus shark.
With one more victim added to the body count, the mayor can no longer stand in the way. Sam Quint returns, and with Brody and Hooper in tow, they sail off to face the shark on the open water. But even with Quint’s crazed zeal and experience, and Hooper’s knowledge of sharks, they may be in over their heads.
This is perhaps Roy Scheider’s shining moment. For most of the film he is flat and uninteresting. All of the characters around Brody must keep reminding us that he hates the water, because there is never a sense of anxiety or desperation that comes from Scheider. Once they are alone on the Orca with Shaw, both Scheider and Dreyfuss look like patent amateurs compared to Shaw’s unrivaled bad-assery. In this scene, in which Quint and Hooper share scar stories, it is Robert Shaw that is our seafaring predator, devouring Scheider and Dreyfuss.
For a character that could have quickly devolved into caricature, Shaw takes Quint, the crusty, old, New England fisherman, and endows him with real pain and gives him heart. Shaw is the capstone of “Jaws” that holds everything in place. Without him this is arguably a well-shot and well-structured B movie.
So I have to talk about the shark. In the underwater scenes, which have quick cuts and only show the shark swimming in to smash the cage, or employ a real shark struggling in the lines around the boat, the shark is believable and still reinforces our fears.
The bubbles, water and the shaky frame all help to sell the animatronic shark, when it appears.
The scenes above water are significantly less forgiving. Here the shark is showing its age. Instead of looking like a violent and capable predator, it looks like a semi-believable, half-broken, robot shark. I understand that this shark was a great feat of technological wizardry in 1975, but by today’s standards, it seems a little sad. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)
Now normally if the story is still solid, I tend to be pretty forgiving of aging special effects. If “Jaws” were a comedy I wouldn’t even bring it up, but “Jaws” is a thriller that builds tension and danger based on the shark. It is absolutely necessary that we believe that this shark can kill people. Luckily we have John Williams’ knockout score to push moments and cue the viewer, but even his almost perfect score can’t fix a broken robot. When the shark doesn’t look or feel real, then the viewer is more likely to lose their sense of suspended disbelief. I know this happened to me a number of times in the final moments of the film.
So sure the shark looks a little weird 35 years later, and Scheider and Dreyfuss are a little flat, but in spite of all that this movie is still entirely watchable. With “Jaws,” Spielberg makes his mark as a young director, Shaw is perfect, and John Williams gives us one of the most recognizable pieces of music in movie history. If you put all of that together with its cultural impact, then I think “Jaws” will have a place on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list for some time to come.
Up Next “North by Northwest” (1959)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)