★★★★ / ★★★★
Many of today’s horror movies, especially those with bloated budgets, have proven one too many times that there is nothing particularly scary about people being killed on screen. They may be gruesome, ugly, bloody, or especially violent—perhaps all of the above—but real scares, those that crawl their way into the mind and attach themselves there, are often confused with evanescent jolts or shocks. They can learn a thing or ten from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” based upon Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel (who also penned the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb), not because it is the granddaddy of summer blockbusters nor due to its reputation as being one of the all-time scariest movies. The reason is far simpler: It is pure craft from top to bottom.
When we finally lay our eyes on that great white shark, we do not see a mechanical, malfunction-prone prop. We see a living, breathing, eating machine—teeth the size of shot glasses—a real threat to those living and vacationing on Amity Island during the Fourth of July weekend. On the surface, the shark “appears” (we do not actually see its full body until late in the picture) every fifteen to twenty minutes to eat—or try to eat—people. But really look at what’s happening. These suspenseful and thrilling expository sequences are designed so that Spielberg can feed us information about the twenty-five foot, three ton creature.
For instance, the first scene involving a teenage girl who goes skinny dipping at night tells us the creature’s level of stealth. Although it is quiet out there in the ocean—minimal wind, no boat or planes passing by, and the girl herself isn’t even madly splashing about—she is not able to detect the shark coming… until its jaws are latched onto her leg and she is being dragged to and fro. Another example: the scene involving two fishermen at the jetty who think they can catch the shark nilly-willy. This sequence is meant to show the shark’s sheer power. I can go on. Later, we are forced to appreciate the shark’s intelligence. Then much later, its tricky instinct. We learn why it is an apex predator. Then it gets real scary: The second half combines all of its traits (supported by John Williams’ unforgettable score), and we watch spellbound.
There is another monster in the film—human greed. Despite pieces of human body parts being washed ashore, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) insists that the beaches remain open. He pretends to care about the local business owners and yet he is often surrounded by men in suits, men in power, men who have a stake on the local economy, perhaps men also elected in local office. Our hero is Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a recent transplant from New York City who wishes to do the right thing for his new community. Not only does he need to face bureaucracy, he must also wrestle against ignorance.
Scheider is wonderful in the role. His interpretation of Brody reeks of goodness at first glance, and he is a good person, but the character’s more complex layers are revealed during quiet moments with his family (sometimes with a drink in hand), when he listens closely to the expert opinion of enthusiastic oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss—terrific), when he looks at the cantankerous shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw—a scene-stealer) and try to make sense why the man in front of him is the way he is. This trio of vastly different personalities and temperaments is great entertainment—take away the shark and there is comedy a-brewing.
“Jaws” is the kind of work that one can visit every year and it never gets old. It is timeless precisely because it gets the island setting right, from the streets where vehicles are mere inches from one another… yet there remains a positive feeling in the air, inside establishments where people can be heard talking over one another (notice how some lines of dialogue do not have anything to do with the plot), down to how it is really like simply sunbathing at the beach—the gleeful screaming of children, adults gossiping and cackling, sloshing of the water, revving of motorboats, when the wind picks up just a little. “Jaws” is entertainment of the highest order not just because elements that make up a genre movie are present; it actively works to transport us into a time and place as if we live there.