by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Wake up call: The MacGuffin in Jaws is the shark, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

This might be the reason why so many people who experience Steven Spielberg's terror-under-the- water masterpiece today feel so gypped by it: the shark looks so "fake" - obviously a mechanical monster and not the real thing - that it's hard to focus on anything else. By doing that, though, you take your focus off of what the movie's really about.

The shark is the MacGuffin because a) the script never bothers explaining where it comes from, b) never gives it any deeper motivation for what it does (one character simply describes it as "a perfect engine - an eating machine"), and c) the movie is ultimately not about how many people get eaten by the shark, but about the concentrated efforts of three men motivated to stop it. Yes, there are some terrific scares, especially during the first half, when the monster is never actually seen (indeed, Jaws gets a generous assist from John Williams' bass-driven theme music, plus some eerie underwater camerawork, which shows us the POV of the Great White as it stalks its victims). But the shocks are merely icing on the cake, a warm up to the epic struggle between man and beast that makes up the movie's entire third act.

Set on a leaky fishing boat called the Orca, Jaws' final 52-minute stretch tests our three main characters in ways that help deepen the movie.

Three men on a fishing trip: Shaw, Scheider, Dreyfuss

The first is Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), our audience surrogate, who's recently uprooted his wife and two sons from Manhattan, NY, to become police chief of Amity Island. He's a family man first and foremost, though we sense his loyalties will be tested. (In an early shot that's so subtle you might actually miss it, Brody is called in to work on a phone framed in close up, while his family argues in the background - and each conversation is pitched at the same volume so it's hard to tell which takes precedence.) He's also got a debilitating fear of the water, which makes his duty to serve and protect the people of Amity all the more difficult.

The second is Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the hotshot oceanographer called in to consult on the shark attacks. He's a rich kid with something to prove, defined by his upscale education and high- tech equipment, but all his expertise hasn't prepared him for the 25-foot, 3-ton terror he's about to face.

"The thing about a shark... he's got lifeless
eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes..."

Third, and perhaps most important, is Quint (Robert Shaw), the seasoned shark hunter harboring a grudge so deep it rivals only Captain Ahab for sheer obsessiveness. It's Quint who gets the film's single-most electrifying moment. After their first encounter with the shark, all three men settle in the galley of the Orca for dinner, where Quint recounts the story of his fateful mission on board the USS Indianapolis during World War II. The ship was struck by enemy torpedoes and sank in a matter of minutes, stranding 1,100 sailors in the Philippine Sea for three full days, awaiting rescue. Only 316 sailors survived. The rest either succumbed to the elements or were picked off by sharks. It's a spellbinding monologue, powerfully delivered, and it defines the character and his hatred for sharks in a way that puts future wannabe blockbusters to shame.

These character arcs are the true heart of the movie. They make it matter. Without them, Jaws would have been just another exploitation movie designed for cheap thrills. The shark exists solely as a MacGuffin by which each man will be forced to prove his worth. And that makes all the difference in the world.


The Movie: Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

The MacGuffin: Carcharodon carcharias (Great White shark)

Why It's Important: It's a man-eater, and it's chosen a New England tourist resort community for its latest feeding frenzy.

Why It's Not: Based on the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley, the real focus of Steven Spielberg's career-defining blockbuster is on the three men - a police chief (Roy Scheider), an oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss), and a shark hunter (Robert Shaw) - who set out to kill the creature.

How It Holds Up: Granted, the mechanical shark (nicknamed "Bruce" by the cast and crew, after Spielberg's attorney) can't compare to today's CG/ motion-capture monstrosities. But Spielberg takes the time to build his characters from the ground up, and he keeps the beast hidden long enough that it really shouldn't matter. The suspense sequences and iconic John Williams score deliver the goods, but even they take a backseat to the movie's quieter, character-driven moments.


Hungry for more MacGuffin With Egg? Look no further! Click here and here for other entries.

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