By Thomas Griffiths
Jaws is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus, as well as Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton. It is a film about a great white shark that has staked a claim of territoriality around Amity Island during the summer, smack dab in the middle of the time of tourism for the island, and it starts eating people, which prompts Roy Scheider’s character, Chief Brody, to try and stop it any way he can. Jaws is an extremely special film, even in comparison to the rest of Steven Spielberg’s body of work – Spielberg is an extremely talented and efficient director, who has directed some of the best films ever made, like Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and, of course, ET. It was the first, and definitive, blockbuster in film history, in that there were so many people queuing to watch it that they would ‘bust the block’ so to speak. It is, even today, one of the best-done thriller films ever made, and it is certainly one of the most ingeniously-directed thriller films that I have ever seen.
I’ve always been aware of this film’s existence, I suppose. Even before I saw it for the first time, I always heard about Jaws in some way and I always ended up associating great white sharks with the film. In fact, I did a bit of reading up on the film’s history before I watched it, and I discovered that it made hundreds of people afraid of going into the ocean for fear of being eaten by a shark. It tells a brilliant story about a shark attacking an island, and the very tone of this movie holds up throughout its entire running time, even forty years after it was released. Nowadays, people dislike the film because it oversells the possibility of a shark attack because, nowadays, people are less and less likely to be killed by sharks, but that’s an unfair judgement because that doesn’t lessen the movie as an entertaining, clever and frightening story.
The opening scene of Jaws is a spellbinding sequence where we take the point of view of the shark as it swims through a reef, and comes up to the clear water, and John Williams’ positively brilliant musical score plays in the background. Meanwhile, a teenage girl decides to go skinny-dipping in the sea with a boy she is at a party with. She goes in on her own ultimately, since he is too drunk and tired to stand up, and starts swimming around and having fun – and then the shark sneaks up from underneath her and attacks her. In a terrifying sequence where the girl is attacked by the shark, we get a short but stunning performance by Susan Backlinie, who completely sells the fact that she’s being attacked by some kind of monster. There is a really well-captured silence after she finally goes under.
We are then introduced to the hero of this film, Chief Brody. As far as the casting of the movie is concerned, I don’t have any complaints, and Roy Scheider as Chief Brody is fantastic. He is an interesting, realistic character that you can get behind, and his best element is the fact that he is just a normal guy. He is a man who wants to protect people, as a police officer, and who has a family to provide for in a home that he loves. When we are introduced to him, we immediately like him and his character, and feel his horror when he finds that girl’s remains on the beach and we know what’s about to happen when the coroner reports that it was a shark attack that killed her, but then we are introduced to the Mayor , who overrules this conclusion and suggests that it was a boating accident.
Murray Hamilton as the Mayor was really good, but from the moment he came on screen I figured that he wasn’t a very likeable guy. Throughout the film, he denies what’s happening before his eyes because he wants to keep the peace at a time that would be profitable for the whole island. So, when the shark attacks again in a really frightening scene where the shark attacks a boy who is swimming on the beach, the Mayor is opposed by Brody, who cannot believe that this man is denying what’s shown up on his island, and we immediately side with Brody on this. We are later introduced to Matt Hooper, played excellently by Richard Dreyfuss, who is an oceanographer who really knows his stuff. The scenes that include Schneider and Dreyfuss are captivating in my opinion, and their chemistry is very well-written.
One of the more frightening scenes in the film is when Hooper and Brody go to investigate a boat, and when Hooper dives down to search it and there’s a brilliant jump-scare where a corpse killed by the shark bursts on to the screen. This is one of the best jump-scares in film history, in a film that is more about suspense than scares. The next day, Hooper and Brody confront the mayor and Hooper gives one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard in a film about the mayor – ‘I think that I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you on the ass!’. Richard Dreyfuss delivers that line and its meaning brilliantly, and we really buy his incredulity about the mayor’s ignorance. The irony of this entire situation is that, while these three people are arguing, there is still a huge man-eating shark roaming the waters, so Hooper’s point stands to reason either way.
The scenes where the shark attacks people are beautifully-filmed and are all empowered by John Williams’ score, the simple tune that gets everyone tense and anticipating what’s about to happen. Also, one of the scenes where the score shines is the scene where the shark has apparently entered the bay, when it turns out to be two kids wearing a shark fin, but then the actual shark enters an estuary and kills someone else. That could have gone really wrong really fast during the filming, but Spielberg’s handling of that situation, where the kids are revealed to be pulling a prank, gives us a false sense of security for when the shark really attacks. The effect of this scene is astonishing, and even the mayor is shaken by what he’s allowed to happen by ignoring the situation that has been staring him in the face since the start of the film.
By far, where the movie picks up is when we are properly introduced to the character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw. Robert Shaw delivers by far the most entertaining performances in this entire film, and is one of the best characters in a Spielberg film that I have seen. From the moment he gives that terrific monologue about wanting to hunt down the shark for a price drives home the very fact that, from that moment on, this guy is going to be awesome. In some scenes, he can come off as arrogant and sarcastic, but in time that’s what you come to love about him. In addition, he seems to glue the other characters together when he’s in the room with them – Schneider and Dreyfuss’ performances seem to glow even more when they have to put up with the character of Quint. For this reason, the movie piques when the three of them venture out on a boat to kill the shark.
From then on, the movie takes a turn for the best. To this day, the scenes on the boat between Shaw, Schneider and Dreyfuss are captivating. Their attempts at trying to pin down the shark are extremely suspenseful and faultlessly shot, and the actors are at their best at depicting the difficulty of hunting down the creature. Of course, I can’t mention the scenes on the boat without mentioning the Indianapolis speech – the guys are sitting at a table together, comparing cuts and exchanging stories, when Quint suddenly points out a burned tattoo from the USS Indianapolis, and he delves into this incredible monologue about how the Indianapolis was struck by torpedoes and the crew came under shark attacks (Sharks with ‘lifeless eyes…black eyes, like a doll’s eyes’). Shaw’s acting in this scene, simply voicing the story is astonishing, and you really feel how his story has suddenly ensnared the attention and alarm of the other two guys.
The climax of Jaws comes along rather quickly after this scene, and it is when this film goes from suspenseful to epic – to this day, I hold my breath whenever I see Hooper go down in that cage to inject the shark. Also, we get to properly see the shark in full view, and honestly I adore the practicality of the shark’s design. Its authenticity and realism still holds up today, but they don’t overuse a full camera view of the shark’s body, which is very wise because otherwise it would possibly reduce the tension that the movie employed. When Quint dies, it’s impactful and, though it pushes such a boundary, it isn’t overly gory in my opinion. It looks real. Also, when the shark get that tank in its mouth and Brody tries to shoot it, it’s where all the tension of the movie pinnacles, and we feel Brody’s sheer tensity in trying to destroy it once and for all because he feels he’s the last man standing – this makes his joy, when he destroys the shark, so, so real.
Jaws is one of Spielberg’s best films to date. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss (May they rest in peace) were excellent, and John Williams’ score has immortalised itself in the archives of film history.