Best Movies of All Time + [thriller]

JAWS

JAWS1975PG

"Come on into the water!"


-- Chrissie Watkins
Jaws is a 1975 action thriller directed by Steven Spielberg that has become one of the most beloved films in American cinema history. When the half-eaten remains of a young girl are washed onto a beach in Amity Island, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) attempts to close the beaches just before the Fourth of July holiday. He is immediately met with resistance from some of the town's political leaders, including Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who tries to explain to Brody that Amity's very livelihood is reliant on the income it will receive over the holiday weekend. Reluctantly, Brody allows the beaches to remain open, only to see a young boy killed by the same shark in broad daylight. The town goes into a panic, and through another series of attacks, the police chief is able to convince Vaughn that outside help is necessary to defeat the beast. He enlists the help of a young scientist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from the Oceanographic Institute as well as a local grizzled shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) to captain their vessel. The rag-tag trio sets out onto the horizon in search of the massive shark that has terrorized the entire community.

I chose to write about Jaws as my first "Must-See Monday" post for a few reasons. First, I thought the timing with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week was too good an opportunity to pass. Secondly, I have never held back my personal love for this particular film. I have always commended it both for its cinematic integrity as well as its social relevance and its importance to film history as a whole. It is easily my favorite film, and it's one that I can watch over and over and still find entertaining from start to finish.

There's a number of facets working together in this film that elevate it to such a lofty standing in my book. For starters, we have a fantastic screenplay that delves into more than the casual viewer will realize. The film is based off Peter Benchley's 1973 novel of the same name, but as with many book-to-film adaptations, the two have very stark differences. What's unique in this particular example, however, is that the film version of Jaws is the only movie I have ever seen that I believe surpasses its source novel. Now don't get me wrong: I have read and own the novel on a number of occasions, and I think it is a fantastic literary endeavor. However, there are a number of storylines in the book that cause it to get weighed down just a tad, and I think the film's writers were able to get to the meat of the story and stick to that throughout.

What the audience gets is a tense thriller that works in two "acts," so to speak. In the first act, Brody has two key antagonists: the shark, and the politicians trying to keep him from protecting the community. While the main continuous strain comes from the mayor and his cronies, and we only see the film's true terror surface now and then, we as the audience know who the true villain is. Once the politicians reach a breaking point, the film shifts into the second act, where things become a bit more clear-cut. Now, we have man versus shark, and it's this struggle that proves to be the most memorable as well as the most effective.

Through the first act, we get to good sense as to the characteristics of each individual on-screen. While the story moves along at a relatively steady pace, we have the opportunity to learn the good and the bad of each character. Character development isn't necessarily something that most people are going to talk about when it comes to this movie, but I think a lot has to be said both for the screenplay as well as the stellar cast who manages to bring forth spot-on performances. The trio of Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss proves to be one of the most enigmatic groupings of characters I've ever seen on-screen at one time, and they all manage to play off each other well. I do have to say that this might be Robert Shaw's greatest film role, and his monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis is easily one of the most haunting scenes ever devoted to celluloid. Add a slew of great smaller performances (i.e., Hamilton and Lorraine Gary), and you've got quite a cast.

At the end of the day, however, the film's best character has to be the shark itself, and yet, we as the audience don't actually see it until about halfway through the film. Spielberg had a hell of a time getting this movie made, and a huge part of the problem was the mechanical shark they wanted to use to bring the menace to life. As most film fans will know, the shark barely ever worked properly, so a number of other methods were crafted in order to keep the filming process in the works. There's a very clever use of sleight of hand throughout the film. Spielberg used tricky camera shots that allowed for the idea of the presence of the shark without there ever being a shark anywhere on-screen. In the first few attacks, we never actually see the shark, but the violence of the attacks may make the viewer think back and remember the shark anyway. The fact that we don't actually see the shark only makes the film all the more terrifying, and it always keeps the audience questioning when it will strike next.

Once the film reaches its second act, we see the mechanical shark do its work. By today's standards, it doesn't look like much, but back in 1975, the fact that they got this massive machine to work at all is utterly impressive. It benefits from the sleight-of-hand build-up it receives, and it makes it a little more believable as time goes by. In addition to the aforementioned techniques, some live stock footage of a real great white is used towards the end of the film, if only to give perspective as to just how large it was supposed to be.

The final piece that brought the shark to life was, in fact, the film's legendary cinematic score, brought forth by the brilliant John Williams. In the time where we do not see the shark, the ever-present sound of a tuba lets us know that something is coming, and in a way, the score makes for a character all its own. It's menacing and terrifying all at the same time, and there's a reason that it has remained such a classic score all these years later. Give it a listen here, if you'd like:

At the end of the day, however, there isn't much I can say about Jaws than has already been said by countless others. It is one of the defining films not only of the 1970s but also of cinematic history as a whole. I would challenge anyone to find a film that has had as much social impact as this venture, and even then, less than a handful could be named. The fact that even thirty-seven years later, Jaws is still entirely entertaining only helps prove that this is one of the greatest films of all time. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

Movie Review SummaryGrade: A+Status: Must-See