If Duel was Steven Spielberg’s attempt to make a Hitchcock film, Jaws is Spielberg’s attempt to humanize the Hitchcock film. While Hitchcock was interested in making technically proficient, suspenseful master classes, Spielberg is interested in crafting a cast of human characters tragically flawed in order to enhance the horrors awaiting them.
Take the protagonist of the film, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who takes on a new job at Amity Island even though he has a strong fear of water. When a young college girl ends up dead after a shark attack, he attempts to close the beaches.The town businessmen and politicians oppose this, fearing the town with disappear if it’s deprived of its main economic income: tourism. Yet how many attacks will be too many, as the shark takes yet another victim.
It’s surprising how emotionally devastating this story is, in part because of how disempowered the characters are. There’s no one at fault for the shark attacks, not the mayor, who is trying to keep the town alive, or Brody, who simply is trying to do what is best for the community. The violence is senseless and brutal and even against the odds, the character are determined to stop the attacks.
To that end, he as well as shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzly harpooner Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) take out a boat in order to hunt down the shark. Even though what precedes it is an excellent and involving setup, it’s this half of the film that proves the most engaging and entertaining. Watching the play between these three well-defined characters and the gradual buildup of suspense makes for one of the most engaging film experiences.
It’s one of those few films that perfectly nails the tempo, every scene gradually building into the next and helping to reinforce and push forward the plot. Screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb condense a lot of great information in the screenplay and Spielberg finds a great way to bring it to the screen and give each scene a natural flow.
So much has been written about the iconic score of John Williams, which proved early on that he is The Man. However, the use of silence is far more powerful and effective than the score It’s almost unheard of for there not to be some kind of sound is every single second of every single film made today, but here, Spielberg understand the power of silence and how it can be far more devastating than even the most heart-throbbing music.
A lot of people talk about Spielberg as a highly entertaining director but that’s to discount his absolutely gorgeous cinematography. This is especially true of his ‘70s films and there are plenty of beautiful and magnificently shot sequences throughout Jaws that look like they are from a serious art film and not some blockbuster b-movie.
Jaws is a film that a lot of people talk about in the context of history and the rise of the blockbuster, but that’s to overlook the fact that it’s such a well crafted film that works a lot better than it should. It’s a throwback to the old cheesy monster b-movies yet Spielberg crafts it into one of the greatest films ever made, a master class in suspense, an exercise in character development and one of the most entertaining films ever made.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing