THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 12: JAWS

by Laurent Kelly

Jaws (1975)  –  Director: Steven Spielberg  Adapted Screenplay: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb  Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss  OSCAR COUNT (3) – Best film editing, Best original score, Best sound. 

Jaws represents Spielberg at his finest, blending warm characters with exhilerating set pieces that make an art form of all the technical aspects of filmmaking. Evidence that Spielberg was born to make such high concept blockbusters can be seen in his mostly futile attempts at serious minded filmmaking which nearly all feel artificial in their attempts at conveying emotion and overly sentimental when trying to establish the grim subject matter.

Jaws is for me unquestionably Spielberg’s greatest film and also one of the most beautifully paced movies I’ve ever seen. What separates it from the majority of blockbusters is its timing, the manner in which it patiently builds up the shark’s apperance each time and masterfully anticpates that the audience will remain gripped to the action in expectation of what it is to come. The sharp editing and brooding iconic soundtrack were both instrumental in developing a tension that moment by moment keeps the audiences on their edges of their seat before finally unleasing the monster when they least expect it.

Compare this to a lot of big budget films which opt to show the monster first and then hope to create tension in its aftermath. Jaws is clever however because it is a film which knows that villains are only truly scary in fleeting appearances, a theory which is lent sufficient evidence within the horror genre where the initial terrifying presences of the likes of Leatherface, Hellraiser and Freddy Krueger were all nullified once they were given more exposure.

Indeed much like Hellraiser, the enemy does not make an appearance in Spielberg’s film until the start of the second hour. During this time, the film explores the general panic of the summer beach town to create sufficient intrigue around the beast as well as making a profound comment on the corrupt nature of tourism and peoples distance from the presence of death. People only tend to value their mortality when it feels as if their life is on the line and thus despite the death that has taken place in the shark infested waters, they manage to forget about this threat and are easily manipulated by the fun connotations of the beach.
Considering its high concept, Jaws also has great depth in character best exemplfiied by the drunk sailors scene during which the three men on the hunt for the beast drink and share war stories on their boat in the perfect moment of light relief before the character Quint cuts an intense monologue about his past encounter with a shark that both reminds everyone onboard of the seriousness of their mission and acts as the perfect piece of dramatic foreshadowing for his own death later on in the film. This expertly written scene does a wonderful job of humanising the characters and making the film seem so much more than just a simple man vs beast story.

Jaws of course inspired the summer blockbuster and established new methods of marketing which could help to transform films into industries unto themselves. It has left in its wake a plethora of brilliant big budget films and a fair number of awful ones too though I still feel stands in a league of its own as an artistically crafted mainstream action thriller.

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