1. JAWS (1975)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Why it's No. 1: It all comes back to "Jaws." It's the first movie I fell in love with, and it's the movie I've identified with summer since I can remember. For those of you who know me this is not exactly a surprising choice. In fact, it may seem a little too predictable. But there's no denying it, "Jaws" is the reason I love movies to begin with. If I were allowed to watch only one movie for the rest of my life, this would be it.
"Jaws" is one of the few movies I've watched over and over again only to like it more and more, mainly because I've grown to appreciate the characters and their relationships. It's credited with ushering in the era of the summer mega hit, but "Jaws" is a strikingly human blockbuster.
It is very much a movie of the 1970s, and I'm not talking about the hair or the dated spectacle of people smoking in hospitals. It's the emphasis on characters and ideas that are very much the stuff of the realistic, character- and idea-driven Hollywood movies of that decade, when the old-fashioned studio system was on the decline and young, audacious directors with heads full of cinematic history and personal visions were given an unprecedented amount of creative freedom. Method-trained actors, who relied on emotions and "sense memory" more than matinee-idol looks, became movie stars. It was a bizarre, interesting and exciting time in Hollywood, when styles and philosophies clashed and combined to create many of America's greatest films. "Jaws," which was director Steven Spielberg's second feature film following the underrated "The Sugarland Express," was no exception. It combines Hitchcockian techniques with the French New Wave-style humanism and emotion prevalent in the big, important movies of that decade.
"Jaws," while clearly proud of its B-movie roots, isn't merely a movie about a giant killer shark, it's about people struggling against this beast and what it does to their lives. It's about people struggling against the motivations of each other. It's about greed. It's about class. It's about family. It's about friendship. It's about revenge. It manages to be about all of these things in the most natural, realistic manner. The characters feel like people and not just types. The plot is important, and it makes sense within the movie's B-movie concept, but it's not the only thing driving the movie. Devin Faraci at Chud.com is right when he says that "Jaws" as we know and love it simply could not be made today. That's a bitter truth for movie lovers, especially when you consider that "Jaws" in many ways is responsible for the earnings-driven, mega blockbuster factory that Hollywood is today.
Another reason that "Jaws" as it is couldn't be made today is its reliance on character-centric exposition scenes that actually sound like natural conversations. Consider the dinner table scene between Amity Island's New York City transplant police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), and marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). The chief is depressed and drinking after a very, very bad day at the job, and Hooper, who senses that Brody is at least sympathetic to his view that the shark caught earlier in the day is not the shark that has "staked a claim" off the island, shows up with a couple bottles of wine. Hooper doesn't appear to have been invited, but Ellen welcomes him into their home. She's a little curious about what he actually does ("You're in sharks?"), but she also wants to pull her husband out of his funk, and this young, idealistic man who takes pride in his job might just do the trick. Hooper, of course, charms Ellen and endears himself to the audience, even while the chief broods. There's even an understated comic moment when the chief interrupts Ellen and Hooper's conversation by pouring wine into their smaller glasses and his into a big one. Brody doesn't say anything, but his intent is clear: "Hey, remember me? Let's get down to brass tacks." The scene is pulled off so naturally, like you're just watching three adults talk at the dinner table, but it also serves to move the plot along as Brody agrees to go down to the docks and cut open that "wrong" shark to prove it isn't the predator killing Amity bathers.
There's another dynamic at work at the dinner table scene, too: the extremely Spielbergian theme of a family straining to stick together in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Remember that the dinner table conversation immediately follows one of the movie's more famous scenes, in which the chief's younger son, Sean, imitates his father's depressed mannerisms. The chief realizes what his son is up to and starts to play along by making increasingly sillier faces. There isn't any dialogue until the very end of the scene, when Brody asks for a kiss before sending his boy off to bed.
The scene, besides providing a great emotional payoff, also serves as a template for the relationship between Brody and Hooper, who shows up immediately after Sean goes to bed. Brody and Hooper are both nebbishy, nerdy guys in their own ways. One's a "college boy" who's been "countin' money" all his life, according to the super macho shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw); and the other is a cop who lives on an island but is absolutely terrified of the water. At least Brody, who's the police chief, has some power to influence things, which is why Hooper appeals to him as a kid would go to his father for help. The two bespectacled protagonists are kindred spirits, a father-and-son-type duo who team up not only to kill the great white, but to contend with the greedy, provincial town fathers and with Quint, who clearly regards the two as less-than-worthy of the mission at hand.
Ah, Quint. Easily the most memorable character in the movie. He's all bluster, bravado and masculine pride, a cocky Ahab who has turned a tragedy in his younger life into his lifelong mission to kill not one shark, but all of them. He's bigger than anyone or anything on the screen, at least until the shark gets him. He gets the best lines, too. Behold perhaps the most-loved scene in the movie, when Quint, Brody and Hooper are out on the Orca hunting the shark:
Don't you just love the look on Hooper's face when Quint finishes his tale? It's as if he's realized they're stuck on a boat with a madman on a suicide mission. When the brusque captain finally gets his in the end, it seems like the most appropriately violent way for him to go, as he's literally cut down to size by the relentless, indifferent force of nature he tries in vain to imitate even as he seeks to destroy it. "The high point of the film's humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they're tougher than anybody," the late, great film critic Pauline Kael wrote in her review. "The shark's cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to." Hooper and Brody make it out alive, of course, and once again, in true 1970s tradition, the brainy, neurotic guys save the day.
"Jaws" is often categorized as a horror movie. I suppose you could see it that way, with all the jump scares and the images of a very fake but no less scary-looking shark. But like "Psycho" or "The Birds," it's only really scary when you find yourself swimming in the ocean or in a shower or walking among some pigeons. I was never really scared of "Jaws" until I went to the beach after seeing it, and I still have images of Alex Kitner and Chrissie Watkins being ripped apart lurking in the fear regions of my mind whenever I go near the water.
"Jaws" is all those summer afternoons I spent watching it on Channel 11 or TBS, back when it was the SuperStation, before I headed down to the Keansburg "boardwalk" near the beach. It's all that time I spent with my grandparents, back when I was too young to get a job and I could sleep till noon if I wanted to but never did. "Jaws" is about when the days were the longest but never long enough.
"Jaws" also means more to me than the past. It's how I'd love to see my future turn out. Well, other than that business with the killer shark. The movie depicts the Brody family as the ideal family I've always wanted. Kids on a swing set or in the rowboat they got for their birthdays. Sitting and relaxing on the porch in the evening, with my easygoing, understanding and beautiful wife who asks if I "wanna get drunk and fool around?" To which I'd reply, of course: "Ohh yeah."
To me, "Jaws" is home.
"Smile, you son of a bitch!"
NOTE FROM THE COLONEL: I hope you enjoyed The Countdown, and I hope at least one or two of you have read all the entries. Regardless, this has been a lot of fun for me, and it's got me back into the habit of writing. Thanks for sticking around. There is plenty more where this came from.
Link to "controversial" omissions
Link to 25 that missed the cut