Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
If this were an audio review, I might simply start playing the Jaws theme here; as it is, I’ll spare you my text rendition of the classic sound. It’s such an iconic piece of film music that it was even used, semi-jokingly, as the “you’re talking too much” music at the 85th Academy Awards. Everybody knows the sound. Kids whose parents weren’t even born in 1975 know the sound. And lines from the movie show up in pop culture all the time as well, from “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” to “That’s some bad hat, Harry”, which inspired the name of a production company. To a certain extent, it feels as though I’ve known all there was to know about Jaws for most of my life… I just needed to see the film.
The story is proof that a film doesn’t need to have a complex plot to be a great movie. There’s an island town dependent on beach tourism. There’s a shark that’s eating people. There are obstructive bureaucrats trying to deny the problem. And then there are the people trying to solve the problem. It’s all fairly straightforward. But what provides texture to the film is the emotional reactions from the characters, both major characters and bit parts. The community starts out in blind denial of the problem; they need the tourism. Then there is panic, and blame directed at the authorities for not disclosing the problem sooner. Then defiance as the local fishermen determine to go after the beast themselves, and further denial after they get the wrong shark. It’s disaster-driven hysteria played out on a small town.
The plot, and the emotional strength of the movie, ultimately comes down to three men. Roy Scheider has the primary role as Brody, the recently-appointed Chief of Police. He’s not a local, and is nervous around the water before the shark even shows up. But he has a job to do, and considers protecting the people from the shark to be part of the job. It’s a role that is something of a tightrope act to pull off; here is a man who is visibly frightened by his circumstances, and just as visibly determined not to let that interfere in any way with his job. Scheider pulls this off magnificently; he never seems like he’s on the verge of leaving the problem to someone else, but he also never seems as though he’s become comfortable in his role as a shark-hunter.
Richard Dreyfuss plays marine biologist Hooper. He’s concerned about the shark, but only as it presents a threat to the people. His personal safety doesn’t appear to be a factor for him; he’s excited to participate in the hunt and study the shark. He’s not so much bold as he is presumptive; at one point, he casually starts eating Brody’s dinner and this attitude of oblivious self-assurance carries forth in the rest of his performance.
But the most engaging character, while not the lead role, is Robert Shaw’s boatman Quint. An older veteran fisherman, Quint eventually agrees to hunt down the shark for a fee. He’s alternately gregarious and irascible, genially berating his ersatz crew as they go after the shark. And then he starts to show elements of Captain Ahab in his nature.
The combination of the three contrasting personalities in such a confined space provides a lot of the entertainment in the film, most particularly the second half. If this were merely a shark story, it’s doubtful that it would still be remembered as a classic. The story of the shark attacks is entertaining in its way, but it’s the response to it that makes the film work. Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw provide a dynamic that makes the film interesting to watch even while waiting for the shark to make his next appearance. And accidental though it may have been (the mechanical problems with the shark are almost as legendary as the film), the sparing use of the shark model make its occasional appearance that much more powerful.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.