AFInity: Jaws

By Kim Hollis

August 21, 2009

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

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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.

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