June 29, 2004

Jaws (1975)
Grade: 85/100

The great irony of Jaws is that the hero, Police Chief Roy Scheider, is afraid of the water. But it is the landlubber that must face the killer shark alone when his salty confederates, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, prove no match for the shark's wide open smile.

The story goes that among Jaws' other production problems, the big mechanical shark didn't work. Director Steven Spielberg was forced to approach the film completely from the perspective of the shark's intended victims, which was probably for the best anyway. What was the shark going to do, strum a ukulele?

Sharks just don't do such things. Instead, they cruise about and wait for someone to go swimming. This happens often in Amity, because it is an island off the New England coast and its mayor, Murray Hamilton, would rather serve money-spending tourists to the shark than close down the beach and have an unruly mob of merchants lynch him in effigy. Or in fact.

If there's anyone in Amity to feel sorry for, other than the kids who should have listened to their mothers when they said not to go in the water, its Murray Hamilton. He becomes increasingly pathetic as the story progresses, starting out as a misguided man in denial and ending up as a guilt-wracked shell muttering under his breath, "I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry." You're forgiven. How could you have known that your blue and white striped sports coat makes too busy a fashion statement?

We don't often see the shark, not even when it invites someone to dinner. But we know it's out there, partly because we sometimes get a shark-like view of legs kicking underwater, but mostly because John Williams' ominous, quickening score accompanies its appearances. You are tempted to shout at the stupid swimmer, "Get out of the water! Can't you hear the music?"

One can learn important life lessons from great movies such as Jaws. When your goals are too ambitious for your means, remember Scheider's advice, "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Planning a foolhardy adventure, like confronting a Great White shark from a steel cage? Shaw's reply is "Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies..."

Jaws has plenty of suspense, and even has its share of terror. But comic relief is also pervasive. Excitable Dreyfuss fumes under the disrespectful leadership of Captain Shaw, who isn't impressed that Dreyfuss is from the Oceanographic Institute and can use the word charcharodon in a sentence. The belly of a shark includes a license plate from Louisiana. A billboard promoting Amity's sandy beaches is transformed by vandalism into a cartoon warning about the island's most unwelcome visitor.

Not a perfect film, since a couple of scenes should probably have been left on the cutting room floor. Dumb and Dumber fish for the shark from a pier using a supermarket roast as bait. Scheider and Dreyfuss have a nighttime male-bonding exercise aboard Dreyfuss' gizmo-ridden boat. But far more scenes are memorable and indispensable, including Shaw's harrowing tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

It's comforting to know that it is the most level-headed character, the police chief, who perseveres even though his common sense actions are usually circumvented by others. Perhaps it is not ironic, but natural, that a practical man out of his element should nonetheless become a hero.