By Marc S. Sanders
Steven Spielberg’s third film, Jaws, is more than just an adventure or thriller piece of filmmaking. I believe it explores the dichotomy of motivations by man versus the intrinsic behavior of nature. In other words, in the peak season of summertime a great white man-eating shark will never care about how important it is for a small harbor town to sell the necessary amount of ice cream cones or hotel bookings to make an annual profit. You wanna swim with nature, then die by nature.
The New England coastal town of Amity Island has a new Police Chief named Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). When he comes upon what’s left of a girl’s mutilated corpse on the beach, he takes it extremely seriously when he learns the cause of death was a shark attack. The Mayor (Murray Hamilton) cannot afford to be mired with the inconvenience of a large fish just before the always profitable 4th of July weekend. So, the beaches must continue to stay open.
When the town gets a bloody public viewing of the problem at hand, a young, wealthy, educated oceanographer named Matt Hooper (a perfectly cast sarcastic and smart Richard Dreyfuss) is recruited. His knowledge with the science of shark behavior is not very welcome to anyone but Brody.
One dynamic of Hooper is his reliability of technology. Will any of his expensive tools be enough to rid the town of this shark?
As well, will a bounty hunt worth $3,000 satisfy? Any Joe Blow fisherman will take a crack at it. Spielberg’s film explores Hooper’s intellect of sea life, against the buffoonery that follows from others both near and far. Why not randomly toss some sticks of dynamite in the water or bait the animal with a pot roast while you’re at it? Maybe that’ll work. It’s money and technology in the face of one of nature’s most dangerous creations.
Will a sea faring Ahab like fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw playing one of the greatest characters ever on screen) do the trick? His philosophy stems from his experience with the might of sharks in general. An illustrious monologue from Shaw describing Quint’s harrowing experience aboard the USS Indianapolis confidently tells us he’s seen what sharks can do. He’s floated in the blood red waters that sharks leave behind. Therefore, Quint has devoted his life to hunting one shark after another, boiling their large jaws of teeth for trophy hangings. He’ll win battle after battle, but never will he win the war with the nature of the ocean water.
Brody might be the only sensible guy, though. He fears the water and won’t go near it. He’s over with danger, leaving the cop’s life behind in the city for what he expected of the tranquility of ocean front real estate.
A mounting pressure always exists in Jaws. The townsfolk are hard pressed resistant to allow their businesses to avoid prosperity because of something as silly as a shark that isn’t even known to swim in these waters normally. Money is what matters. Money is what’s needed to live. During the age of quarantining with the spread of Coronavirus, Jaws is a fair allegory for the argument of staying at home or going back to work. You could die, but it’s still expensive to live.
The other argument lies in what’s more appropriate for this problem. Hooper’s technology or Quint’s hunter instinct. A metal “anti shark cage” with a spear of poison vs tying barrels to the predator and drowning him out in the shallows.
Spielberg with a script by Carl Gottlieb adapted from Peter Benchley’s best selling novel proposes no easy answer to ridding an ocean area of a man eating, uncompromising animal. That’s the thrill that keeps Jaws alive for over 45 years. Sharks will never change. Man might, but nature’s creatures will consistently emote the exact same patterns of behavior.
Unlike the fantasies of Jurassic Park or a Friday The 13th picture, a beast born of nature with enormous strength will always be unpredictable performing on God’s purpose. It will never be negotiable. If you’re a raggy fisherman like Quint, your old, leaky boat might keep you afloat for so long, but a shark will also not feel intimidated, no matter how many others of its kind this hunter might have conquered before.
Experience, technology or disregard for the elements of nature will not always win. Something unconquerable will come along.
To maintain the strength of the film’s monstrous antagonist is to watch the movie with your own most frightening, worst case scenario in mind. Hence, Spielberg gratefully never shows the great white until long after half the film is over. Masterful shots occur where his cameras seem positioned just at the surface of the water. When swimmers make desperate runs for the shore, away from danger, it feels as if the viewer is frozen in fear and getting trampled on by the panicked extras cast in the picture. What could be so terrible that these people are swimming and running away from? When Spielberg finally shows the gigantic shark emerge from the water, Scheider’s shock with his suggestion of needing a bigger boat assure you that, yes, this problem is actually this insurmountable.
Additionally, Spielberg uses props to keep the mystery of his beast alive. When the shark pulls a dock off its moorings with his bait, we know the fish is turning around to pursue its next victim as the wreckage now floats in the direction of a man’s panicky, desperate swim.
Most effectively beyond Steven Spielberg’s camerawork, has got to be the pulse pounding and blood curdling soundtrack from John Williams. (Cliche descriptions they may be, but I’d argue Williams’ score created the terms, nonetheless.). Without his music, the narration of the story would be a little lost, I’m sure. John Williams’ repetitive string notes that build, feel like the dialogue of the underwater monster. His music goes beyond the short rhythm everyone is familiar with. Looking at the opening scene with Susan Backline portraying the moonlight skinny dipper in the opening scene of the film, Williams brings in a variety of different sounding instruments that leave an impression of her body being torn apart by something she’s truly not aware of. Splashing, screams, body thrusting and harsh chords of long strings with percussion the emote panic and anarchy make for one of the most memorable opening scenes of any film. Spielberg with a collaboration of cinematography from Bill Butler and Williams orchestration make for an arguably unforgettable and frightening scene on the same level of the shower scene in Psycho.
Jaws transcends generation after generation. Everyone eventually has some kind of familiarity with the film, even if they’ve never seen it. People have seen the poster, heard the music or truly refused to step in the water off a coastline out of fear for what can’t be seen. Few films ever leave a subconscious effect on a viewer or a general public, but Jaws is most definitely one of those exceptions.
2 thoughts on “JAWS”
I stood in line, with my parents, in the hot Texas summer sun for about an hour to get into the theater to see this movie when it came out. Totally worth the wait.
A landmark film for sure. It changed the landscape of movies forever.
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