Jaws (1975)

March 15, 2010

He ate the light.

The movie that launched the concept of the “Summer Blockbuster”, and as a result is directly responsible for a) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and b) Michael Bay.

Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is Chief Of Police of Amity, a holiday island strikingly reminiscent of Martha’s vineyard, who’s called out to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who went swimming. The remains that are found indicate a shark attack, and Brody wants to close the beaches. He’s opposed by the Mayor (Murray Hamilton), who wants to keep Amity open for business. The casualties mount, until Quint (Robert Shaw) is hired by Brody to hunt down the shark, and, accompanied by Shark-Expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), they set out in a boat that /may not/ prove to be large enough.

It’s well reputed that “Bruce”, the animatronic shark, did not work well, and that this limited the number of scenes he could be in. As a result, director Steven Spielberg had to find other things to fill the run time with. Fortunately, he chose acting. One of the really noticeable things about Jaws is how well it builds its story – from the first attack to the last moment, it’s carefully orchestrated and allows the story and characters to develop. Indeed, in many ways the most enjoyable things are the bits that /don’t/ involve the shark – Brody’s son copying his father’s despairing body language over dinner, the famous “my scar is bigger than yours” scene on the boat. The result is that the movie is more than the spectacle – it’s a tale of obsession and fascination, and of dread rather than terror or horror.

“Bruce” is the worst thing in the movie – the prop isn’t convincing, and it does drain some of the tension that the film has worked so hard to earn. Scheider and Lorraine Gary (playing Ellen Brody) and Dreyfuss all work well. Robert Shaw… on the other hand… puts in one of the most memorable performances committed to celluloid. It’s occasionally convincing, occasionally bizarre, and it’s clear that the fish isn’t the only thing intent on chewing up the boat.

Overall, Jaws is nearly as effective a movie today as it was when it was released, and even if it is responsible for the existence of some of the mind-numbing dross that gets pushed out over summer, it’s /also/ a template for how to do that kind of thing well. It mixes character and story and humour and scares and amazingly evocative music, to create something that is uniquely cinematic.

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