As a self proclaimed film fan, I feel somewhat fraudulent for having gone so long without seeing some of the stone-cold classics. At least with the Godfathers I can claim the time commitment was too extreme, I haven’t found the consecutive three hour slots where the mob epics would fit and wholly absorb my focus. Trying to argue with myself proved fruitless, I had no reason not to have seen Jaws. Still, despite this pressing obligation to rectify my own view of my movie lover status, I knew I had to wait for the right moment to watch. Off the heels of King Hu’s gorgeous wuxia film, Dragon Inn, I knew (or at least believed) Jaws would hit me in just the right spot. It lived up to my expectations, and deserves its recognition as one of the masterpieces of tension and one of the best blockbusters of all time.
This film is divided cleanly into two parts, on land and at sea: the struggle while still on the island for Chief Brody is convincing the mayor to shut down the beach and concede the profits that come with 4th of July; on the boat the Chief, Richard Dreyfuss’s marine biologist, Hooper, and Robert Shaw’s shark hunter Quint (for whom the word “grizzled” may as well have been invented) hunt the great white that terrorizes Amity Island and build comradery over their shared goal. The result is two distinct types of tension appearing, both masterfully suspended between the very brief attack scenes. In the first half, we know the attacks are coming, and we know there is nothing which can be done to stop them. Brody is as powerless as he is on edge as we cut frantically from open water to dogs paddling, swimmers and his family on the beach. We linger long enough on each of these subjects to know he is beyond hoping for the attacks to stop, and is instead dreadfully idling, knowing he can only do anything in the aftermath. Spielberg was forced to rewrite this first section thanks to a terrible mechanical shark, visibly taking inspiration from the master of suspense, Hitchcock. Suggestive sequences are used to work around the faulty shark, and even make the climactic [SPOILERS] death of Quint, where the giant beast finally kills in full view of the camera, even more impactful. The Hitchcock zoom is even used during the young boy’s death scene to force us into the Chief’s perspective. On the boat, we are lulled into a routine of shots, barrel tying, feet dangling over the water, and a pragmatically unharmed shark. As our three shark hunters grow closer and the bickering grows more sparse the risk that must be taken to secure their kill becomes clear. Hooper’s descent in a metal cage goes predictable awry, Quint is brutally grawed in half on his own deck, the Orca half destroyed, but the chaos allows an opening for Brody to shoot at the compressed air tank he tosses in its mouth, killing it for good. Their cooperation draws them closer together, but a beast of this size requires something else entirely to be rid of: the determination that stood as the three’s sole shared trait at the start of their voyage. A bigger boat couldn’t have hurt either.