Written by author, Sonia Marcon
The use of the word “classic” is, in my opinion, either thrown around too liberally or held back too snobbishly. If a film is more than thirty years old it is nominated to be a classic purely based upon its age, no matter how good the film actually is. When it comes to genre the term classic is used way more sparingly and when it comes to horror, the term classic is usually discarded due to lack of respect for the genre. If a horror film is deemed a classic, it is not usually because it is regarded in the same light as, say, Casablanca. A horror film will be deemed classic because it is seen as a pertinent choice for anyone who is in the mood for a bit of Freddy Krueger action while snug on the couch with the lights off, not because it is well scripted, directed or acted. Jaws leaves this belief dead in the water, so to speak. While being quite the scare-fest, it is also a wonderful story with appealing characters acted by a talented cast, an alluring setting and a script plus musical score that brings this film right into the room with you.
Jaws is put into the ‘monster film’ genre even though it’s not a typical monster film. Sure it has a bigger-than-normal shark terrorising the beach of a small island town but that is pretty much where the similarity between it and other monster films end. The monster in Jaws is a very big shark and that is all that it is. The shark is not a mutant, nor does it harbour any special skills or tricks that a normal shark is without. It does not become personified as some sort of evil fish that is out for revenge or any other emotion that is designated to people. It is just a shark and remains so for the entirety of the film. I love this film because the behaviour of the shark is explained in accurate scientific terms by the marine biologist character, played by Richard Dreyfuss. For viewers in doubt of this, the behavioural traits can be looked up and viewed on You Tube by people who have recorded similar events and experiences in real life. I guess the only differing advantage that the shark in Jaws has in relation to other sharks is its monstrous size and even then it is not much bigger than actual sharks that have been found since this film was made.
But enough of the soapbox rant and onto the film. The first thing the audience comes into contact with is the famous Jaws musical theme. This theme is so famous that it is known by people who have never seen the film. I use the word ‘contact’ when describing the theme because it has an almost visceral quality about it. The theme of Jaws gives possibly the best description of what the audience has to be ready for without a single bit of script or acting. It was written by composer John Williams who really is a master of the movie theme. I don’t think there is anyone who does not know the themes to Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Harry Potter, all of which were composed by Williams and all are recognised as what they are representing. When watching Jaws, the first shot of the film is a very unassuming shallow underwater landscape which would seem quite boring if not for the accompanying music. Following this is what feels like a suspense scene from an Alfred Hitchcock film, without the Hitchcock. It really is classic (for want of a better word) horror. The direction of Jaws, accomplished by Stephen Spielberg, is not the surprise for me. The fact that this is only Spielberg’s second feature film is what makes Jaws such a surprising accomplishment. Spielberg makes a classic out of his second film, full stop the end.
The namesake of the film, plus the accompanying shark, are really only the catalyst for the progression of the story. What this film is actually about is the ways in which different characters interact with each other in response to the sharky threat. The first half of the film is set on an island which automatically gives more a sense of community and claustrophobia and so makes it easier for the viewer to feel involved with what is happening. Once the film has made the viewer feel like they know what is going on by a sense of familiarity (who hasn’t been to a small, insular coastal town?), it rapidly jumps to a different setting altogether. This shift feels accurate and quite realistic. The plot, pace and tone of Jaws moves at the same rate as the occurrence of events in the town and how these events are dealt with; if a shark turns up and terrorises the locals then the only answer is for a bunch of guys to go out on a boat and kill it. What makes Jaws particularly effective is that the guys that hunt the shark are as realistic and believable as everything in the film so far but what makes this film work well as a thriller is that it takes seventy-nine minutes for the shark itself to actually be seen taking a victim.
Without the shark this film would have no plot but without the three male characters in the boat, this film would have no point. Jaws can be watched purely for the shocks and suspense of the first half and the horror of the climax but I really feel that the moments between are what make this film pure viewing pleasure. I don’t know of many other films that are so entertaining with just three characters in a small space. Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, and Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss, are a brilliant double act in the lead up to the boat trip but when they are joined by Sam Quint, played by Robert Shaw, the relation between and the chemistry of the characters changes as smoothly as the setting. Plus everyone has to be familiar with the iconic entrance of Quint with his fingernails down a blackboard and if you aren’t then watch the film for that moment. Regardless, this part on the boat with these moments of dialogue and character development make Jaws the definitive film that it is. Jaws doesn’t really become a monster film until the climax where the first major visual contact is made with the shark and this part almost doesn’t suit the rest of the film. It’s why writing a review of Jaws as a monster movie is so difficult. In my mind, it’s not a monster film. It’s a film about how the personalities of characters become understood through circumstance and it’s this fact that makes Jaws transcend the horror genre altogether.