THE 28: #1, JAWS (1975)
Roy Scheider: Chief Martin Brody
Robert Shaw: Quint
Richard Dreyfuss: Matt Hooper
Lorraine Gray: Ellen Brody
Murray Hamilton: Mayor Larry Vaughn
Screenplay by Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb (based on Benchley's novel)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
JAWS is a pure monster movie and is all the more effective because the monster is one we could encounter. It's not a giant lizard mutated from an atomic bomb. It's not an alien crash-landed on our planet. It's not a regenerated dinosaur. It's a rogue 25-foot great white shark. "A perfect machine," marine biologist Matt Hooper calls it. "An eating machine. A miracle of evolution." JAWS is frightening because it reminds our dominion as humans over this planet is tenuous, at best.
I grew up to stories my dad told about a creature called a wampus cat. I've written about it before on my old blog. He said the wampus cat prowled the woods around our house. Now, those woods were dense and seemed to stretch to infinity. I occasionally stepped foot in them and was amazed at how little I could really see. Every sound triggered a mild panic. Was that a wampus cat? As a kid, I didn't fear the giant lizards. I feared the monsters that might actually exist. I feared the ones that could be lurking in those woods. The wampus cat is fictional (or is it?). The shark in JAWS is terrifyingly real.
The story is simple, as the best of these pictures are. A moonlight skinny dip ends with a shark attack on a girl. This is bad news from the town of Amity, as it relies on beach tourism for the 4th of July weekend. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) thinks the beaches need to be closed until the matter is settled. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) insists on keeping them open because that's what mayors do in monster movies. Then, in a horrific scene, a young boy is attacked and eaten. What follows next is the quest to find this shark and kill it. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is brought in and a haggard fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) offers up his boat, which we learn in the film's iconic reveal of the beast is much too small.
Much is made of Steven Spielberg's insistence on not showing the shark until over an hour into the film. Rightly so. We don't even see the shark in the opening midnight swin scene. Then, it's mostly glancing shots of a fin. When Brody is slinging chum into the water, the shark makes its first appearance. The audience I first saw it with screamed. I screamed with them. All along we only could imagine what the characters were dealing with. We know something is out there. We know it's supposed to be a man-eating shark. The seed is planted and we wait. Spielberg delivers a seminar in building suspense and the payoff is huge. Every time I watch it I go back to those moments in the woods and hearing twigs snap and bushes rustle. The unseen is what scares me.
Of course, a movie like this can be fun simply because it's about a monster. JAWS gives us three memorable characters to journey with. Brody is afraid of water and just wants to rid the beach of this menace. The fact he even ventures out on Quint's boat is a major step for his character. The movie doesn't dig too deep into Brody's phobia.
"There's a clinical name for it, isn't there?" his wife Ellen asks.
"Drowning," he says. I can relate.
Matt Hooper is a marine biologist who lends valuable information. We need guys like Hooper in these movies to speculate about what we're dealing with from a scientific point of view. He continuously butts heads with Quint, a man's man who lives and works on a more primal level.
The three engage in a marvelous scene aboard the boat at night. They are drunk and Quint and Hooper are sharing stories about their scars. Brody is quieter and more introverted. The other two bond momentarily over their shared maritime experiences. Then, Quint launches into a haunting monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis. It's the best scene in the movie and gives us a moment of calm before the final battle with the shark.
JAWS was a game-changer in American cinema. It was released in the summertime, which in the 70s was a dumping ground for B movies and exploitation flicks. JAWS showed, like PSYCHO before it, that genre movies could transcend and tell a far more compelling story with grand style and vision. JAWS also brought in the biggest box office take up to that point. It launched the summer blockbuster. Nowadays, we mostly get special effects driven extravaganzas during the hot months. Filmmakers would do well to remember what made JAWS so special. The patience of revealing the shark. The POV shots of the shark under water. John Williams' perfect score. The terrifying attack on that poor Kintner boy that didn't show too much. The richness of the characters and their place in the story. JAWS never forgets that these are real people dealing with a real shark.
I watched JAWS again not too long ago. I've lost track of the number of times I've viewed it. I was struck by its timelessness, by its simplicity that still holds so much to be consumed. Finally, I was struck by how effective it is in taking me back to those days of hearing those sounds in the woods. The ones that made me turn my head and wonder. Last November, my wife and I went to Cancun for the first time and it was glorious. I sat on the beach and soaked up the rays and even splashed in the water a bit. It was lovely.
I also thought about Brody, Hooper, and Quint. And the Kintner boy. And I made sure I didn't stray too far from shore.