The AFI Top 100 Films: Jaws (#48)

(Ed. Note — You might have noticed that we’ve skipped a few movies on this list. We saw The Philadelphia Story (#51) fairly recently, so it wasn’t included in our watch list. And we’re saving Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for our run of Disney animated movies, coming up right after we finish the AFI Top 100 List. So that brings us to #48.)

Jaws (1975)
Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Peter Benchley (novel, screenplay) and Carl Gottlieb (screenplay)

Oh man, so what is there to say about Jaws that hasn’t already been said? This is one of the most iconic movies in all of modern cinema; its pacing and composition of scenes have influenced horror directors for generations afterwards, and there’s no getting around that score from John Williams. It’s a perfect marriage of menace and mystery, the cello cue alerting you to something in the background that’s just disappeared. By the time you realize you’ve missed it, there’s another note, then another, all signifying the doom that’s racing towards an unlucky, unsuspecting swimmer.

Everyone remembers those beach scenes in the first half of the movie — the first young girl to fall victim to the great white shark’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust; the disastrous 4th of July celebration where Sheriff Brody (Scheider) is telling people to get out of the water; that scene with the two fisherman where one of them barely escapes getting eaten. They’re all tremendous, set up with a nice sense of naturalism that makes the intrusion of Jaws almost supernatural, yet perfectly believable at the same time.

Everyone knows that this could have been a much different movie, if everything had worked as Spielberg intended. But because the effects failed so disastrously, he was forced to get creative, and the result is some great fly-by-your-seat filmmaking. The scenes where Jaws menaces his victims rely on those brief glimpses, and it draws upon your imagination to fill in the shape of the beast lurking underneath the dark waves. It’s great stuff, and when it’s done correctly there’s really nothing better.

Here are the two scenes that really impressed me watching it this time around, though. The first, in which Brody is gearing up to head out to sea with nebbish marine biologist Hooper (Dreyfuss) and flinty shark-hunting captain Quint (Shaw), does a wonderful job of setting these men at odds with each other, and it serves as our first real introduction to Quint. Before then, he’d popped up in a scene or two to make an offer before trundling off into the background. Here, though, we see him on his turf, in a room that is surrounded by the jaws of sharks he’s hunted and killed before. It’s an incredibly striking image, and hints at a near-obsessive man who takes his work quite seriously — and just so happens to be good at his job.

A later scene delivers on the promise of Quint’s introduction. Quint and Hooper have been at each other’s throats for the entirety of the trip, and they’re finally bonding over alcohol and scars they’ve taken from their life on the sea. Then, almost out of nowhere, Quint recalls his time working with a submarine crew in World War II. Things go wrong, the crew is lost at sea with little hope of rescue, and all through the night he hears his crewmates harangued and eventually attacked by sharks. Few of his comrades survived, but he did. Everything that’s come before is focused on that one scene, and you walk away with a whole new understanding of him. It’s a cohesive moment, not only for Quint, Hooper and Brody, but for the audience as well.

The movie changes once those three men set sail to hunt the menace that’s rocked this sleepy island town. It actually comes across as an early novel, where character study mingled freely with travelogue and impromptu how-to guide. Quint is methodical about his work, and Spielberg makes sure we see every step of it as time goes on. It’s certainly not what you’d expect in a horror movie, but it’s engrossing all the same.

And then there’s that ending. After their steady chase of the shark, the trio is attacked and their boat disabled. Hooper decides to try the tranquilizer he’s brought with him and goes down in the shark cage. Jaws completely bashes it apart in a shocking display and Hooper is forced to hide. The shark then attacks Quint, who goes down in a horrible death. Brody is the one left to save the day, the one man who knows the least. And he does it; he saves Hooper, kills the monster and carries the day.

What’s interesting about this ending to me is that it suggests what really put man on top of the food chain. Quint, with his steely determination and Hooper, with his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the enemy, are both taken out of the fight handily. Brody, with his quick thinking and adaptability, is the one who gets the job done. So it goes for the entire human race, perhaps — we’re where we are not through our will or our intelligence, but through our ability to adapt and survive against whatever nature throws at us. There’s a comfort in that, especially in these troubled times of freak weather and looming environmental disasters. We’re smart and we’re determined, sure. But we’re also masters of quick thinking and that is perhaps our greatest asset.

Rating: 9/10.

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