The first time I caught Jaws was on TCM in the third act of the film, where it pretty much takes place on a boat and I thought that was the movie. This film, then, became part of the TIFF’s Essential 100 and was introduced by NOW Magazine film critic Norman Wilner. He enthusiastically gave it a lot of superlatives. ‘The greatest accident in the history of cinema.’ ”The greatest American film’ – I disagree but my answer’s really boring. In a write-up of yesterday’s issue of NOW, he also writes, ‘…ask the TIFF people how the hell a film this gripping managed to place 79th on their stupid list.’ Meow.
What I will say is that one of the key elements in this movie is subtlety – there are a lot of scares but not too much. There’s Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gray), the strongest female amidst a groan-worthy male-dominated cast. She comes up behind her husband Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), but the camera’s not on her POV. That would have made the scene into a cheap scare. Later on, her complacent reaction to her son being on his boat changes when she sees Martin’s book with an illustration of a boat being t-boned by a shark, her fear added by the two shark attacks that hits their small town of Amity. She’s not the only one bringing comic relief, however. Martin has his share of calling out bad hat Harrys. Despite of that the shark attacks still put me at the edge of my seat for most of the film.
It’s also a film that has the best shot compositions on film. However, unlike films that take the cake in cinematography, Jaws’ cinematography doesn’t call attention in itself. There is an opening shots of the coral reef, two silhouettes of young adults kissing by a bonfire, another drunk college boy lying by the beach. There’s arguably a lull period in between, then a shot of a typewritten form about a dead young woman’s (Denise Cheshire) body transferred to a ‘CORNER’S OFFICE’ and a long shot of Brody framed by flowers and it’s shot by shot heaven after that, despite of the bloody shots of course. Wilner also said that this film is timeless, and with the exception of red corduroy pants and shots of people smoking indoors, he’s pretty right. It’s in the faces of the characters seemingly drawn or bordered from the background images as well portraying an evolved post-Tennessee Williams, post-Hitchcock Americana that does make it timeless. And yes, I paid attention to the cinematography to distract myself from being scared throughout most of the film, which didn’t work.
Speaking of urban-rural divides, this movie is one of those that came out around 1974 and 1975 that features a character moving away from the city only to find troubles in rural America. Brody is a New York City ex-pat, where ‘the crime rate will kill ‘ya,’ and in Amity his main concerns are boy scouts and mending fences. That’s until the shark came in. With the mysterious shark in the equation, he also has to deal with a mayor and a civic committee who wants the beaches open. When the creature makes Alex Kinder his second victim, Brody’s the one who gets slapped. The second victim does get him the permission to recruit Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an oceanographer, but the mayor still want the beaches open and he’s the one who has to make sure the waters are safe and litter them with deputies.
Director Steven Spielberg doesn’t shy away from unsympathetic characters, the mayor being the first one. He doesn’t even need to raise an eyebrow when Hooper wants to make sure that the tiger shark caught by fishermen is the real one. He also borders between shock and lucidity when Brody’s eldest son almost became the shark’s fourth victim, this event finally convincing him to approve the closing of the beaches until the shark is captured by Quint (Robert Shaw), a shark hunter. He stutters and justifies his decisions, saying that he’s acting in the town’s best interest, and he’s right in a way. He wants business to flow through Amity and doesn’t want to put people in more shock by closing them. Three dead victims are bad enough without economically crippling the small town.
The second unsympathetic character is Quint himself, who I found off-putting, greedy, crass and doesn’t really come around to getting my sympathy. He’s a war hero to some, he’s a war criminal to me. However, unlike other ‘working class heroes,’ Quint doesn’t try to seduce us with adventure and neither does he smooth his edges out and sells himself like he’s everybody else. He doesn’t make the labour more difficult for the two men he doesn’t want on his ship, but nonetheless the work comes first. yes, he does talk about a past but doesn’t make that his pathos and he doesn’t really take Hooper’s rich college boy background against him. I don’t like him, but in cabin fever situations like that of the film’s third act, you have to. He also realizes this and mixes up the dynamic between Brody and Hooper – it used to be just the two of them but Quint by default makes Hooper his right hand man and kinda alienates Brody.
Trivia: Peter Benchley, the author of the book also named Jaws, wanted Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen in the cast. Boring. Jaws screened last Sunday at the Lightbox and there was a line-up in front of the 300 seater where it was screened. The Lightbox is showing it for the second time tonight at 11, without an introduction. Still, come.