September 22, 2010

#56: Jaws

"Baaaaa bump."

Some might scoff to see Steven Spielberg's 1975 shark-infested horror-thriller on this list, but Jaws is a well-crafted chase film as well as a major cinematic milestone. It marked the emergence of one of the most formidable and successful directors in movie history and changed the way we go to the movies. Plus: it has the most recognizable film score of all time. Not bad for a movie that filmed 100 days over its original schedule and cost twice as much as it was supposed to from a director no one (at the time) had ever heard of.

Company: Kecia, scream queen; RPK, afraid of sharks

Cuisine: homemade pizza and Smirnoff Raspberry with D-Co. A delicious, summery feast!

The film opens underwater, lurking through weeds as though hunting its audience prey. Then, a glimpse of teenagers on a beach on a murky night. No good can come of a group of teenagers on a beach at night, right? Soon, two PYTs galavant to the water's edge, and while the guy drunkenly fumbles with his clothing, the girl is ravaged by an unseen underwater force and finally pulled beneath the water. The scene is effectively terrifying because we just can't see how it's being done. No CGI either, just a couple guys yanking her back and forth with ropes. Oh, the days...

After this first attack, we are spooked by what lies beneath, and every time someone approaches water, we tense up. Congrats, Spielberg. The incident is hushed up by the town of Amity, which relies on beach tourism to survive, and with a sunny 4th of July weekend approaching, no one is especially keen on shutting down the beaches because of one unconfirmed and isolated mauling. This troubles the new chief of police (Roy Scheider), who can't shake this crazy feeling that the mauling wasn't so isolated. His paranoia so shapes the first act of the film that it becomes its own character, and John Williams wisely leaves much of this section tacet, as though daring you to break the silence.

Soon enough, a young shark expert (a very young Richard Dreyfuss, only a year or two after American Graffiti!) inspects the girl's remains and concludes that this isn't just a shark, it's a humongous shark. And he seems relatively certain that the shark will strike again, if given the chance.

And suddenly we're nearly an hour into the film, and we haven't been breathing. Tension is running high, and Spielberg knows to keep it running high, he can't shoot his wad. At 28, he's already a master of suspense. This largely unscored sequence is one of the most effective in the film, in which wary beach-goers finally venture out into the water.

... and more fishy horror is unleashed, bit by bit by bit. I love this shot of the girl seeing us -- supposedly over half of this film is shot at sea level, which puts the audience so close to the shark that we think maybe he's right behind us. (Turns out this was just a copycat. Blurg!) But the panic is real, and soon, on a mission from God, the shark scientist and the police officer head out with a wacko expedition leader (played with ... um, drunken aplomb, by Robert Shaw) to take down the menace for the latter half of the film.

Here, fishy fishy fish...

It's much to the credit of the three actors left to battle with the giant sea-menace that the second act of the film feels as fresh and exciting as the first half. The pace is different: not slower, just different ... more delicate with just a couple men on a boat enticing the monster. Soon, they're gonna need a bigger boat. And of course, the film has to end happily to please audiences and to get them to leave the theater wanting to see it all over again.

God, look at those teeth.

Jaws was one of the first "high concept films," in which everything an audience needs to know is in the title. This is "the shark movie." You don't really need to know anything else, and once you've seen it, that's what you remember. It's a brilliantly simple way of marketing. Other prime examples of this include Alien (pitched as "Jaws in space"), Jurassic Park and Speed, all owing their place in thriller cinema to the shark movie. Jaws was also one of the first films to use a wide-release strategy to entice audiences, and as a result, it broke box office records all over the place (only to be beat two years later by Star Wars) and recategorized the summer months as prime moviegoing season. No longer were films unceremoniously dumped into theaters during the days when we should all be outside -- now the must-see films are strategically placed to lure us indoors on a sunny day -- and it's all thanks to the shark movie. Not bad.

A lot of these tidbits were things I didn't know about Jaws, but knowing them now, it's fascinating to go back and study the film as a turning point in the movie-theater experience, and what it means (and takes) to get butts in the seats. The next time you watch this (because it's so rewatchable), keep all this in mind.

Next up: Cary Grant is mistakenly mistaken in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

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