AFInity: Jaws
By Kim Hollis
August 21, 2009

When you're a shark, you're a shark all the way.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#56: Jaws

Last week, I talked about Star Wars and its lasting and enduring impact on cinema. But there was another movie that opened the door for Star Wars to have its world-changing impact on the way studios did business, not to mention pop culture itself. That film was Jaws, from director Steven Spielberg. Its place on the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies list could be assured simply for the sea change (heh) it created in Hollywood marketing and release patterns, but it's a fine film, to boot. It's one that many people hold in high regard as a standard-setter in the thriller/horror genre.

Back in 1975, the movie business was substantially different than what we see today. New films would be released in a few larger cities across the United States, and then they would be slowly and deliberately rolled out to other locations depending on performance and possibly reviews. Studio executives at Universal employed an entirely new strategy once results from test screenings for Jaws started coming in. They made a decision that they would not only release it in hundreds of theaters, but they would also give it a nationwide marketing push, investing an additional $400,000 to do so. This was unheard of at the time, and impossible to imagine now.

On June 20, 1975, Jaws debuted in 465 theaters, a record-shattering venue number. In its first weekend, it grossed more than $7 million (that's a $15,054 per venue average before ticket price inflation is factored in). Over the rest of the summer, Universal expanded the film to even more locations, and the end result is that the Spielberg feature became the first one to ever reach $100 million domestically. From then on, there was no turning back. The following summer, The Omen would follow suit (opening in a few more theaters) with a smaller but still powerful opening weekend, and then we all know what happened after Star Wars came next.

This makes Jaws the granddaddy of the blockbuster, and one of the most significant movies in history from a box office perspective. It's also referred to as one of the first "high concept" films, a term we throw around a lot but rarely define. A high concept film is one that has a short premise that can be described in a couple of sentences. For Jaws, it's as simple as, "shark menaces beach town," or perhaps even "animals eating people = $$$$$," if you want to get right down to it.

Of course, we wouldn't even be talking about Jaws as a cultural touchstone if it hadn't had those initial fantastic test screenings for audiences. I've long been a fan of the film. It's one of those movies that I'll happily watch whenever I come across it on the cable channels, one that I know like the back of my hand yet can find something new to appreciate with each viewing.

I first saw Jaws when I was at a slumber party full of sixth grade girls. You might be wondering how it could be possible that this would be an acceptable film choice for 11-year-olds given the gore and the scares. Surprisingly, the movie was rated PG (there was, of course, no PG-13 rating at the time) and I found myself still boggling over that fact even as I watched it again in preparation for this article. This film is tense and mature, and I know I was terrorized more than a little bit at the time. The good news is that since I lived nowhere near the ocean (and wouldn't approach a beach until I was 16), I was never able to nurture the kind of fear that affected a lot of people in the aftermath of Jaws' release.

And make no mistake about it; Jaws is really pretty scary, even by today's more blasé attitudes towards gore and violence. After all, the movie's opening scene was named the Scariest Movie Moment in a Bravo Halloween special. What's particularly unique about the way that Spielberg approaches the terror in Jaws is that it's generally done quite subtly. In fact, we almost never see the shark. Most of the tension is all created with underwater shots of legs and and a sense of unease that we feel as we wonder who the great white will munch upon next. There's a particularly outstanding example of this in a scene where the Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) scans the beach, looking at different people playing in the water almost as if trying to pick out the likeliest candidate for chum.

The movie isn't all about scares, though. There's also an adventure in the final act of Jaws, as Brody joins shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and ichthyologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) as they attempt to locate the deadly shark and destroy it. The movie undergoes a slight change in tone for this act, and carries it through all the way to the final five minutes, where something big, icky and terrible happens right before the conflict between man and beast is finally resolved.

Jaws succeeds in what it's striving to do primarily on the strength of Spielberg's direction, but it's important to note that Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw all turn in terrific performances. Scheider's Chief Brody has a hard edge to him, but his frantic efforts to convince local businessmen that leaving beaches open will result in tragedy are entirely believable. The screenwriters wisely put him a bit over his head as he hates water, making his assignment to a beach town a bit unfathomable. Since he's not a long-time cop for Amity Island, he's not viewed as a true voice of authority. The frustration displayed by Brody rings true.

Dreyfuss had previously had a notable starring role in American Grafitti, and he continued down a similar course as a likable nerdy scientist for Jaws. Everyone knows someone like Hooper. He's the smartest guy in the room and isn't always the best communicator because of that fact. Yet, you can't help but like him and appreciate his infectious enthusiasm for the work he loves. It's kind of odd that Dreyfuss's career trajectory has taken him to a point where these days, he's playing a lot of angry old men.

Shaw's screen time is slightly more limited, and he was also a writer of novels in his lifetime, but Quint does seem to be the role that people remember him for. He's exactly what you would imagine a rough old sea dog of a shark hunter to be - darkly humorous, crude and brimming with confidence.

There's another character in the film, though it's not human or even piscine. John Williams' score effectively has its own role to play, and it's become one of the most iconic pieces of music ever to emerge from film (he'd be responsible for plenty more, from Star Wars to Superman to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Harry Potter). It's fascinating that the "Jaws" theme (you know exactly the two-note motif I'm talking about) is never played in a misleading fashion during Jaws. If the music is playing, the shark is in the area and probably about to eat someone. Williams also has the upbeat, bright music that accompanies the more adventurous scenes.

In the years since the film's release (Jaws is 34-years-old now), there's been a fair amount of denigration of the appearance of the metal shark and its lack of realism in the movie. That's a reasonable criticism, but other than a couple of moments where his jaws moving open and shut look a little silly, I don't really have much problem with it. After all, the movie's best moments are built on the fear of the shark and wondering where he is, not through showing him.

I can clearly remember the things that stuck with me when I watched Jaws as an impressionable youngster. There's the shot of Brody's son, alone in the water, as the shark approaches the pond where he's been goofing around. There's the leg that floats down to the pond's bottom. Late in the movie, the impactful shot has Hooper discovering a head in a sunken boat. And of course, there's a character who effectively gets chewed to death in an entirely gruesome manner.

Years later, though, I am really impressed with the storytelling and the constant impending sense of doom (it never really lets up until the very end, either). It reminds me of Psycho a bit, as Jaws can't really be entirely classified as a horror film but it's not exactly a straight thriller, either. I never really think to list it among my favorite films, but it's certainly one that I would say has had an impact on my movie-going life. Whether movie lovers know it or not, it's had an impact on theirs, too.

Kim's AFInity Project Big Board