December 11, 2023

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #48: Jaws

A giant shark terrorizes a New England resort town, and perhaps the greatest movie director working today has his break-out hit.

It’s not hard to see that movie releases have a cycle.  January is for the crap left over after the awards bait was released at the end of the previous year.  Aside from a special thing here or there, we see some gradual improvement in perceived quality from there, though not much.  Bigger budget movies might start appearing around April.  Once May hits, we get the big summer blockbuster season.  That runs until around September, though the earlier the movie appears in the summer, the higher the hopes the studio has for it.  September through mid November we see maybe some more thoughtful films, though the stuff expected to maybe compete for awards doesn’t appear until late November on through December.  And then it starts all over.

Why is it like that?  Well, awards bait comes late so people who vote on awards have a better chance to actually remember the movies in question, but summer time becoming what it is can be laid at the cinematic feet of 1975’s Jaws.

Jaws began life as a trashy novel by author Peter Benchley (who co-wrote the script and appears at around the film’s halfway point as a TV reporter).  I can’t say I’ve ever read it, but I did read Beast, which was a many years later book about a giant squid that could have been a thinly disguised Jaws rip-off if it didn’t come from the original author himself.  I don’t remember much about it.  However, for a summer blockbuster, Jaws as a film doesn’t behave like one.

For one, I have noted many times I don’t care much for horror movies.  Yet, somehow, I’ve always rather liked Jaws.  I think part of that is due to the fact it doesn’t come across much like a horror movie the way so many others do.  Yes, there are some rather grisly deaths, but the shark is often a background character (if “character” is the right word for something that basically just swims and eats).  There are six deaths in the film, and one of them is a dog that was probably eaten (the film only implies but it’s a strong implication), and another one doesn’t appear to be eaten.  That last one comes from a legitimately great jump scare, and if you have seen this film, you know what I’m talking about.  As many times as I have seen this film, and as I surely know it’s coming, that jump scare still gets me.

Cinefix, for what it is worth, agrees with me:

But when we think of big summer blockbusters, do we really think about a film where the closest the story comes to a human villain is a mayor trying to keep his vacation community economically alive by downplaying the shark which, well, maybe isn’t that bad if you aren’t Chief Brody or Matt Hooper.  He’s a politician in a town that probably needs those tourist dollars to stay alive, so when we see him for the last time, he makes a confession that says how little he believed the threat of the shark was real:  “My kids were on that beach too.”

No, as much as this film looks and acts like a horror movie, what it really is about is the three men who come together to kill the shark:  Brody (Roy Scheider), the outsider acting as a police chief for the summers who isn’t comfortable on water; Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a financially well-off oceanographer with the latest in technology; and Quint (the great Robert Shaw), a working class shark hunter with his own demons and loads of bluster.  A little after the halfway point, those three leave on the Orca and aside from the occasional voice on the radio, they’re the only people in the film.  It comes to three characters who by all accounts shouldn’t get along too well (and it may not have been much in the way of acting for Shaw when it came to Dreyfuss), coming together to do a job that none of the three could pull off alone.  Sure, Quint is a larger than life braggart, someone sure of his own skills well beyond what the other two have, to the point where he will sabotage his own radio to ensure that either the shark dies or they do, but even he may admit he’s out of his depth a little when he sees the shark isn’t wearing itself out with three barrels slowing it down.

But then we have a scene where the three get drunk and Hooper and Quint try to one-up each other with scars stories, a conversation that might have been both somewhat ad-libbed and also based on the three actually being drunk.  But then Quint launches into his U.S.S. Indianapolis story, an incident based on a real tragedy, and the humor goes out and the seriousness comes in.  We know why Quint hates sharks.  Coming on the heals of Hooper’s explaining how a shark once ate a boat he was on fascinating him in turn, the real question comes down to Brody.

And here’s what jumped out to me about Brody:  he’s the most responsible man in the film.  As soon as he hears about a shark attack, he wants to close the beach.  Even after the mayor denies that request, he keeps an eye on the beach, even if there wasn’t much he could do.  The problems of Amity Island are trivial and petty; that’s the big reason why he took the job and got out of New York City.  It is Brody who brings in Hooper and tries to control the overenthusiastic shark hunters that swarm the docks for a large reward.  It is Brody who accepts responsibility when a grieving mother blames him for not closing the beaches even though he was the one person trying to do just that.  When a couple kids prank the locals, it is Brody calling on keeping the evacuation orderly and not causing a panic.  Nobody listens and a panic ensues anyway.  And when his own son has a near brush with the killer fish, seconds after it ate a boater from only a few feet away from the boy, it is Brody who insists the mayor do what he should have done from the beginning and hire Quint.   Brody may hate the water, but he does believe in his duty.


And he chums with the best of them before Scheider ad-libs the best line in the film.

Director Steven Spielberg made a name for himself with this one.  He wasn’t a complete unknown, but he would cement his status as one of the greatest directors to even make a movie.  And all he really did was let his actors act, use John Williams’ memorable score fill in the mood, and keep the shark off-screen as much as possible.  That last one was a necessity seeing as how the shark never worked quite right, but the best frights are the ones in the mind anyway.  We fill in the blanks ourselves, and when the shark does make a more physical appearance, like when it attacks Quint’s boat, it doesn’t look all that realistic.

Like many summertime hits, Jaws made a few inferior sequels with lesser results at every go-around, but the original still has some power.  It’s probably also responsible for a ton of truly inferior rip-offs and Shakrnadoes, but I make it a point never to blame the original for its lesser copies.

NEXT UP:  Watson says his pick for greatest director is Spielberg.  That’s not a bad pick, but I’ve always been partial to other director’s works, and one of my all-time favorites returns to the AFI list with our next entry:  Martin Scorsese’s 1976 look into one man’s disintegration, Taxi Driver.