Great Moments in Cinema: Jaws

The dog days of summer are officially upon us (though for most of us, it feels like they’ve been here for a while now), and what better way to welcome the season than to take a look at one of the best moments from a flick that is not only one of the best summer movies of all time, but is also a bona fide classic film.  Okay, I’m sure there are some of you who think grilling out and lighting off fireworks is probably a better way to celebrate the summer, and hey, to each their own and all that.  However, seeing as how this column is not titled “Great Moments in Hot Dogs and Explosions” we’ll just have to settle for this taking a closer look at of one of the best (not to mention scariest) moments from what is arguably the quintessential summer movie (it helped usher in the age of the summer blockbuster), director Steven Spielberg’s early career masterpiece, Jaws (1975).

The film’s plot is delightfully simple and straightforward:  basically, a big ass great white shark terrorizes a small island community in New England, and chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and a grizzled old fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) set out to kill it.  That’s pretty much it.  Sure, there’s some stuff about how the town’s mayor (Murray Hamilton) refuses to close the beaches because he’s more interested in bringing in those sweet, sweet tourist dollars, and there is some family stuff sprinkled throughout, but aside from that, the flick is pretty much a man vs. nature story in which three guys try to kill a big shark.  It’s economic storytelling at its finest, and the film is all the better for it, as there are no wasted moments or shoehorned-in nonsense that detracts from the main plot.

While Jaws is a nearly perfect film that is made up almost entirely of great moments, we’re going to focus on one that takes place shortly before the movie reaches its tense and gripping climax.  By this point in the film, Brody, Hooper, and Quint have set out on Quint’s boat, the Orca, in search of the shark that’s been making a beachside buffet out of the hapless citizens of Amity Island, a small New England fishing community just off the coast of Maine.  During a lull in the hunt, following a particularly tense encounter with the beast, Quint orders Brody to throw some chum in the water, in the hopes that it will entice the shark to come to the surface once more.  Brody does so, but grumbles the entire time, glaring over his shoulder at Quint and muttering under his breath, “Come on down and chum some of this shit.”  Without warning, the shark’s massive head breaks the surface of the water right next to the boat.  Startled, Brody slowly backs into Quint’s cabin and mutters the film’s most iconic line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

One of the reasons Jaws works as well as it does is because for most of the film we hardly ever see the shark.  Instead, we are given tantalizing glimpses of a fin as it cuts through the waves, or a menacing shadow gliding along just beneath the surface of the water.  Of course, the reason for this is due more to technical difficulties than any sort of artistic decision.  For those who don’t know, the shark was originally meant to appear on camera early and often.  However, the mechanical shark created for the film was constantly breaking down, forcing Spielberg and his crew to work around it whenever possible.  This technological failure turned to be a blessing in disguise, as it made the shark all the more terrifying.  It went from being a mere animal (well, as much as a 25 foot long great white shark can be considered a “mere animal”) into an unseen, seemingly unstoppable menace.  Therefore, when we finally get a good look at the beast late in the film, it is a far more powerful and terrifying moment than if we had been seeing it in full right from the beginning (for proof, see Renny Harlin’s stunningly awful Deep Blue Sea from 1999).  We’re right there with Chief Brody, who is also seeing the shark for the first time.  Granted, Brody is also confronting an overpowering fear of water, but this emotion has been instilled in us as well, as we have been conditioned throughout the film to be afraid of whatever it is that lurks just beneath the waves.  Either way, it is a shocking moment made all the more horrifying thanks to the fact that the shark has remained mostly hidden to both the characters and the audience until this very moment.  When that colossal head breaches the waves, we are put right inside Brody’s head.  Thus we are made to also experience a sort of primal fear as we come face to face with this unfeeling creature that is nothing less than “a perfect engine” and “an eating machine” that rules the oceans, and reminds us that whenever we venture out into the water, we are no longer the top of the food chain.

Countless articles have been written about Jaws throughout the years, (our own Dan Schindel recently penned an article about it as part of his “Catching Up” series), and deservedly so.  Thanks to the boundless talent of Steven Spielberg and his crew, the film transcends its cheesy blockbuster roots, and it remains one of the best, most perfectly constructed films ever produced.  It is responsible for changing the landscape of cinema, for better or worse, and laid the groundwork for summer movies for years to come, spawning countless imitators (not to mention a handful of increasingly terrible sequels) and several straight up rip-offs.  However, none of them even come close to touching the straight up majesty of Jaws, which is still the very embodiment of the term “summer movie.”


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