31 Screams in October, Vol. 2, #30: Jaws (1975)

Posted: October 31, 2015 in Movie Review
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Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

Forty years have done nothing to dull this monster’s teeth. From the first few notes of the now infamous theme composed by John Williams to the climactic struggle between man and shark, “Jaws” is just as gripping an experience now as it was back in the day. So popular was it in 1975 that, together with “Star Wars” two years later, it set the standard for how film studios approached the summer movie season. But its recognition as the inventor of the modern blockbuster would mean nothing without its enduring ability to entertain. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, there’s just too much good stuff going on in “Jaws” for it to lose any of its charm.

The peaceful community on the fictional New England island of Amity, where everyone is on a first-name basis and no murders have ever been committed, is about to be shaken to its core by a merciless force of nature. In one of the scariest opening scenes in cinematic history, a young girl goes out for a night swim, her drunken date passed out on the beach. Suddenly, she feels something tugging at her from underneath. We of course know it’s a shark, but it’s the IDEA of both the shark and what it’s doing to this poor girl that terrifies us. What little is left of her washes ashore and is found by Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and his deputy.

At first, Brody is given the accurate report that the cause of death was a shark attack, but the medical examiner later goes back on his statement due to pressure from the Mayor, who found out that Brody was planning to close the beach. July 4th is approaching, and it’s one of the most lucrative days of the year. If word gets out of a shark attack, the Mayor reasons, tourists will simply head for other beaches. So, he hypothesizes a boat accident, with which the coroner agrees and Brody goes along with it. Unfortunately, this little white lie results in a second shark attack which claims the life of a small boy. The grieving mother puts up a $3,000 reward for anyone who catches the shark, resulting in every amateur fisherman in the area racing out to grab their prize. The more experienced bounty hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) also offers up his services, but demands the more hefty sum of $10,000. The Mayor agrees only to “take it under advisement.”

Also arriving on the scene is oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), called in personally by Chief Brody. Hooper’s first order of business is to view the remains of the shark’s first victim. Hooper recognizes instantly that “this was no boat accident!” He’s also skeptical about the tiger shark that’s just been hauled in, noting that the mouth, while large enough to fit one’s head inside, isn’t large enough to have inflicted the damage done to the teenage girl. He’d like to do an autopsy on the shark to be certain, but the Mayor balks at that idea. Hooper and Brody, after many glasses of wine, go out to the dock and cut the shark open anyway. It may be a shark, but it’s definitely not THE shark. Still drunk, they go out on Hooper’s high-tech boat to see what they can find. The come across the wreckage of a boat belonging to a fisherman named Ben Gardner. Conducting some deep sea investigating, Hooper discovers a shark tooth the size of a shot glass embedded in the side of the boat. The sight of Ben Gardner’s mangled remains causes him to drop it. Without proof of the tooth, the Mayor is unimpressed with their findings, and plans for Amity’s Fourth of July festivities go on as scheduled.

The Fourth of July rolls around, but word has already spread of the island’s recent shark activity. Suddenly, no one feels much like swimming. Some eventually go in under duress, with Brody’s oldest son, Michael, relegated to the pond for his own safety. Turns out that was the wrong move. While two kids are out pulling a prank with the aid of a cardboard fin, the real shark shows up and devours some poor schmuck while Michael looks on in horror, needing to be hospitalized due to the shock he receives. Fed up, Brody insists that the Mayor hire Quint to kill the shark.

For the entire second hour of the film, its just three men on a boat chasing a shark. Oh, but what a second hour it is! All three men, based on prior experiences, have different opinions about the water. Chief Brody alludes to a fear of drowning being the reason why he’s afraid to go swimming, make his being the Chief of Police for a community that is surrounded by water on all sides somewhat ironic. Hooper has no such problems entering the water, and has been fascinated by sharks in particular since a childhood incident that saw a shark attack and destroy the small boat that he’d been in. Hooper and Quint each have their share of scars from various forms of sea life, but it’s Quint whose scars are more than skin deep. He has good reason for wanting to capture/kill this shark without aid from the Coast Guard. He was on board the U.S.S. Indianapolis when it was sunk by the Japanese near the end of World War II. For days, he and the other members of his crew waited in shark-infested waters for help to arrive. By the time it did, Quint was one of only 316 survivors out of 1,100. In real life, it was closer to 900, but forget the historical inaccuracies because Quint’s sharing of his sad story, more than any of the scenes of shark attacks, is my favorite scene in “Jaws.” It’s also a reminder of what a great actor Robert Shaw was.

Another discrepancy that occurs within the script is the fate of Hooper, different from that of the novel of the same name. Richard Dreyfuss is simply too good to wind up as shark food. I love watching Hooper Quint’s personalities clash. Quint’s got that working class hero mentality going for him, and he scoffs at this rich kid with his fancy equipment. Hooper is prideful and brilliant, and not afraid to remind you of both. He’s also slow to admit when he’s wrong, and enjoys having it pointed out to him even less. But, there’s a mutual respect between the two of them, and that shines brightest when they bond over their scars and when Hooper learns that the shark has eaten Quint. In the end, the hero’s journey in “Jaws” is Brody’s, and it’s he who must be the one to overcome his aquatic phobias and slay the beast. Roy Scheider is great, but is only the third best in the cast after Shaw and Dreyfuss, a fact that would rear its ugly head when the latter two did not return for “Jaws 2.”

Steven Spielberg was a virtual unknown when he took the director’s chair for “Jaws,” but today is one of the most highly respected directors of all-time. It all began with this B-movie plot which drew upon the monster movies of the 1950’s. In addition to changing the way Hollywood filmmaking is approached, “Jaws” also helped inspire the shark culture, which has grown to include many “Jaws” knock-offs and even the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” The “Jaws” franchise never came anywhere near the 19th film we were promised by “Back to the Future Part II,” nor should we have been cursed with the three mediocre sequels we got. But whatever damage those worthless films have done, how much time and money was wasted in making them, they don’t erase the power that “Jaws” had and continues to have. We’re still nervous about dipping our toes in the water.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Here! Here! Your review states the truth throughout, especially about the bonding between Hooper and Quint and those two actors assuring that this movie is a timeless classic. I also REALLY love the movie and never ever grow tired of watching the same scenes you pointed out..

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