Before we begin, let me issue fair warning: Caveat Lector. This is the first time I’ve attempted to write an in-depth review of a good, or more accurately, a great, film. Therefore I offer peremptory apologies should this task prove to be beyond my abilities. Bereft of the churlish mockery that generally defines my writing, I’m not sure how interesting or insightful this article will prove. So feel free to bail at any time. Also, a general Spoiler Warning Alert. I’ll be discussing numerous films that have aped plot elements of Jaws. Therefore, many general plot details of many films will be explicated. Ye are warned.
I have a marked reluctance to write about good movies. Such films, I feel, should be approached with as little foreknowledge as possible. That someone who hasn’t seen Jaws would read this article is a prospect I find more than a little disturbing. So let me err on the side of caution and beseech any such soul to stop and procure a widescreen VHS or DVD copy of the picture and pay it close attention. Then come back if it suits you. (Seriously, get a widescreen copy.)
As to why I’m violating my ‘good movie’ rule, well, this is a unique situation. This article kicks off a string of reviews tracking the ‘Jaws’ films from the first to the fourth and final entry. Collectively, the pieces will hopefully function as a more general examination of the manner in which movie series tend to deteriorate from sequel to sequel.
Given this objective, it seemed wise to opt for a particularly stark illustration of the phenomenon. Something like the Friday the 13th series, for example, seemed less than optimal. Gradations of quality between the various entries of that particular skein would, to all but the most intensely devoted aficionado, remain somewhat theoretical, if not altogether dubious.
Instead, a series that began on an especially high note seemed indicated. I’ve been mulling this general idea for several years now—all due thanks to Lyz Kingsley for finally prodding me to action—and my candidates came down to the Jaws and Halloween series.
In fact, due to my intense loathing of the fifth Halloween film, that series at one time gained a brief edge in my deliberations. However, several more chapters of the Myers saga have emerged, including a pretty fine one in Halloween H20. In the end, four movies seemed quite enough for what I wanted to accomplish, and the Jaws series it was.
As it happens, my review of Jaws: The Revenge will double as my entry in the next B-Masters’ Cabal Roundtable. The topic of which, fittingly enough, is Jaws rip-offs. (Whether an official sequel of Jaws falls under the rubric of a rip-off is a valid question, but one I’m steadfastly ignoring. Had I time enough to write five full reviews this month I probably would review another film. However, with family obligations soon to rob me of a full week of writing time, I’ll have problems enough as it is.)
I’m therefore hoping that the present article will also function as a bit of a primer for that round of reviews*. Unlike my usual format, I won’t be examining Jaws scene by scene. Instead, I’ll be breaking down the elements that define it. This will include both those attributes that have been mercilessly aped (sharked?) by invariably-inferior knock-offs, and those more rarefied qualities that have kept Jaws at the very tippy-top of this particular cinematic food chain.[*On the other hand, the piece is really quite long and as noted, it’s hard for me to judge how readable it is. A fine alternate choice would be Lyz’s own and typically insightful Jaws review.]
Few films have been as flagrantly, repeatedly, and ineptly cloned as this one. We’re talking literally dozens of films, and those are just the direct copies. Most of which really and truly sucked, and I’m not just talking about ones made in Italy. At least a dozen or two of these imitators themselves featured sharks. As I write this, the cable TV movie Red Water has premiered mere weeks earlier, continuing the tradition twenty-eight years after Jaws hit theater screens.
However, there were plenty of other menaces animal, vegetable and mineral, to stand in instead. There were alligators (lots), crocodiles (lots more), piranhas (swimming and flying, although, oddly enough, no giant ones), giant octopi, giant squids, killer whales, giant apes, giant snakes, prehistoric predator fish, mutated anthropologists, demonic automobiles, sand-dwelling carnivorous giant sunflowers, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, insects and arachnids of various stripes, genetically engineered sharks, genetically engineered shark/octopus hybrids, bears (regular and mutated), boars and lions that also had their moments in the spotlight. Hell, in Bridge Across Time, Jack the Ripper’s embodied ghost (or some damn thing) filled in.
As the above list indicates, Jaws knock-offs didn’t necessarily utilize water-based menaces. That which defined the breed was a stolid reliance on a template taken from their model. As long as all the clichés were properly observed, you didn’t even need a monster or killer animal. Anything deadly, like a serial killer for example, would serve.
“It’s really a miracle…”
Jaws is more than a great horror movie. It’s even more than the greatest monster movie of all time, barring King Kong. (I’ve had numerous people argue with me over whether Jaws can accurately be called a monster movie, since sharks are real. All I can say is, I for one consider a 25-foot, three ton man-eating and boat-wrecking shark a sea monster, no matter what anyone else thinks.) Rather than just topping any particular movie category, Jaws is, in my opinion, legitimately one of the finest films of all time.
When the AFI released its list of the 100 Greatest American Films, five Spielbergs made the list. (A situation which, with all due respect to a fine director, seems increasingly goofy as time progresses. To be fair, I can’t imagine Spielberg himself thought it made much sense.) Schindler’s List, which at the time was still fresh in voter’s memories, perhaps inevitably received the highest ranking at #9. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial came in at #25. Jaws garnered the #48 spot, Raiders of the Lost Ark the #60 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind the #64. Meaning, actually, that Spielberg was responsible for five of the 64 greatest American films of all time.
Of those titles, Schindler’s List is the one that in my opinion least deserves the distinction. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great film. (‘Top 100’ being another thing entirely.) However, Spielberg will be remembered for the four films which constitute his other AFI entries. Minus the quixotic 1941, those four films were made consecutively, representing arguably the most richly fecund stretch in Hollywood history. It is these pictures that have guaranteed him a place among America’s greatest directors. Remove them, and Schindler’s List doesn’t come close to getting the job done.
Many of the films reviewed on this site are, in their own way, perfect. By which I mean every aspect of them—direction, script, acting, music, editing, etc.—is perfectly and flawlessly awful. Jaws is the opposite. Every element is perfectly executed and comes together into as accomplished a film as one is likely to see. Every goal it sets for itself it achieves, and greatly. It’s a seminal horror film, a superb adventure movie (a genre since supplanted by the narrower ‘action’ movie), an effective and perceptive character drama that nonetheless provides moments of hilarious comedy, and so on.
Moreover, you can break the film down into its separate component scenes and find delight and meaning in each. There’s little apparent fat in the proceedings; indeed, for a movie running two hours, it’s remarkably lean. (Which is, I suppose, why I remark upon it.) Chrissie Watkins, the shark’s first victim, dies five minutes into the picture. Alex Kintner, the second, is attacked less than fifteen minutes later. This in a film with four (onscreen) deaths total. It’s the death of young Kintner, however, that propels the rest of the action.
I’m not sure there’s a single sequence you could cut that wouldn’t injure the film, far less improve it. Soon after Alex’s death, two middle-aged locals attempt to catch the shark. Their idea it to hook it on a length of chain baited with a large roast. The shark indeed makes an appearance and gobbles up their offering. Instead of being trapped, however, the beast pulls down the decrepit pier the chain was anchored to.
This is one of the less overtly ‘functional’ scenes in the movie, yet it’s there for some pretty good reasons. It provides some badly needed humor following young Alex’s death. It gives us our first real suggestion of the shark’s immense physical power. It expertly shifts from humor to intense trepidation when one of the men ends up in the water and finds himself pursued by the beast as he attempts to swim to safety. After he in fact makes it out of the water, the scene quickly becomes comical again.
Having the guy survive the encounter helps ratchet up the suspense during the remainder of the movie as well. I really resent the way in which nearly every character in many modern horror films is used as simple body-fodder. I prefer actually wondering whether a character has a chance to make it out of a scene alive to just waiting for the film’s next rote kill.
Finally, the sequence provides a neat bit of foreshadowing. The shark’s position while pursuing his would-be catcher is indicated by the shattered remains of pier it tows along on the chain. This cannily sets up the yellow barrels Quint uses later to both force the shark to stay close to the surface, and more importantly (from the film’s perspective, anyway), to establish for the audience when the shark’s in the area.
There are several larger facets to Jaws that might be profitably explored at greater length. It’s what might be termed a ‘miracle’ picture. By which I mean a film whose production was so chaotic that the result should have been a fiasco, not a masterwork. Other than Casablanca, I can’t think of another movie where so many indications of trouble ended up producing such a perfect final product.
Omens of doom seemed plentiful. Steven Spielberg was a novice director. Much of the film, obviously, took place on or in water, historically the most problematic environment to make a movie. The three animatronic sharks (a lengthwise ‘half’ shark for passing the camera on the right, another for passing on the left, and one used for head shots) were rarely in working condition. Aside from being tetchy to start with, their mechanical and electronic innards did not coexist peacefully with salt water.
Weather was the largest and most persistent problem. It rained. A lot. When it was sunny for a bit, they’d shoot. Then the area would cloud up. This would render the footage in the can all but useless, since the appearance of the water and sky above it would no longer match. Wind caused similar travails. If it started calm and become windy, waves would appear that wouldn’t match the previous footage. If it were windy and then calmed, you had the opposite problem.
Ironically, pre-production had been cut short in hopes of getting the seasonably good weather that never actually materialized. Because of this, shooting began before the screenplay was finished. Spielberg and writer/co-star Carl Gottlieb would work on the script at night and film during the day.
Take the scene that constitutes the picture’s emotional heart, Quint’s soliloquy on the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Seemingly perfect in its conception, its genesis was instead more than a little haphazard. It started as a short scripted passage in the screenplay by Gottlieb. Then screenwriter/director John Milius, laboring as a script doctor, wrote an extended draft of the speech. Finally, actor Robert Shaw, finding Milius’ version too verbose and flowery, rewrote it again. The result is one of the most memorable speeches in film history.
The consequences of these tribulations are predictable. The film’s shooting schedule ballooned from 55 days to 159. This in itself increased the chances of things going wrong, and go wrong they did. One especially memorable example occurred when the boat standing in for the Orca began to sink—with the lead actors aboard. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg himself began to think the film would be a disaster that would cost him his nascent directing career.
When shooting schedules are extended, production budgets mushroom. Sums ranging between three and nine million have been proffered as representing the original budget amount. Whatever the correct figure, it’s universally conceded that the finished film cost roughly three times as much. (The most likely figures are around a four million dollar starting budget and a final cost of twelve million.)
Such matters were quickly forgotten, however, after the finally completed picture received one of the first wide releases. (It hit 400 screens, which now would be considered a minuscule launch. At the time, however, it had The New Yorker complaining the movie was being forced down the public’s throat.) The film was an immediate sensation, eventually racking up over a hundred million bucks domestically and three times that in foreign revenue.
Jaws was the first film to crack the hundred million mark. Such a princely sum caused vapors in Hollywood, and the industry’s appetite was whetted like that of some, uh, I don’t know, some sort of ravenous animal. I’m sure there’s something like that.
Anyway, in Hollywood nothing succeeds like success. So it was no surprise when and the film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (It lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) Verna Fields won for Best Editing, and as a further reward for her work was appointed Universal’s Vice President of Production. John Williams won for his classic score. At the time, it was his sixth Oscar nomination, and his second win. Two years later his Close Encounters score was nominated but lost to…his score for Star Wars. Since that time, Williams has been at least nominated on an almost annual basis.
Spielberg not only didn’t win Best Direction, he wasn’t even nominated. Thus began his misfortunes with the Academy. Beginning with Close Encounters, the film he made after Jaws, Spielberg did start getting nominated on a regular basis. (Including for the suspect The Color Purple, which sums up much of the Academy’s problems right there.)
Spielberg continued to be passed over for the award, however. This eventually led to rumors that his vast success was resulting in snubs by jealous colleagues. Almost twenty years and five nominations would go by before his work as a director would net him a statuette for Schindler’s List. Five years later he won again for Saving Private Ryan.
The film’s success resulted in an unprecedented media sensation. The public just couldn’t get enough. Shark Kill, a cheesy made-for-TV film (one I remember watching as a kid) was quickly churned out. Meanwhile, Carl Gottlieb’s journal about the film’s dramatic production, The Jaws Log, became an instant best seller. Many similar tomes detailing the making of some film have emerged in the years since, but few remain as admired.
As demonstrated, Jaws is a remarkable film in many respects. That it survived its myriad production travails is extraordinary. That the result was the masterpiece it is remains mind-boggling. That its success would literally change the movie business is historical. The ways in which it did so, meanwhile, remain both fascinating and appalling.
Finally, Jaws represents the exceedingly rare film that’s markedly superior to the novel it was adapted from. The most obvious alteration, and no doubt the wisest, was to excise the entire middle third of author Peter Benchley’s book. This, fans of the movie will be surprised to hear, features Sheriff Brody’s unhappy wife Ellen initiating an affair with visiting shark expert Matt Hooper. The long digression provided some sex to go with the violence inherent to the killer shark concept, and probably cannily so. It’s arguable whether the subplot increased sales, but it demonstrably didn’t hurt, either, as the book remains one of the all-time best sellers.
However, in a book you can afford to fart around for a hundred and fifty pages. Readers bored with an extended vacation from the main plot can just skip ahead. I’m sure many did, in fact, as the shark largely remains AWOL during all this. However, time constraints are a much different matter with films. In any case, that entire section of the novel was so superfluous that it seemed designed to be jettisoned at will.
Moreover, it left the filmmakers with a free hand in terms of redesigning the characters to their liking. Minus the affair, there’s no reason for Martin and Ellen to have a troubled marriage. Indeed, the film provides one of the most convincingly affectionate couples since the Thin Man series back in the ’40s. Hooper, meanwhile, bites it in the book. (Now that I think about it, in a literal sense that’s the opposite of what happens.) However, it’s probable his death in the book was meant as punishment for his sinning ways. Since the movie Hooper doesn’t swim in Brody’s pond, as it were, there was no reason to bump him off, and so he’s allowed to live out the picture.
Spielberg also souped up elements of the film’s climax. In the book, Quint dies after becoming entwined in the lines he earlier fired into the shark. The line were attached to empty plastic barrels meant to keep the beast near the surface while also creating drag so as to tire it out. (The devices remain a central part of the film.) Once entangled, Quint is hauled overboard by the shark and drowns, trailing after the animal he so desperately sought to kill.
This, many will recognize, is a direct steal of Captain Ahab’s demise from Moby Dick. Since Quint was a rather thinly disguised variation on Ahab to start with, his manner of death was just a little too much on the nose. (On the other hand, the producers of 1978’s The Bermuda Depths, a made-for-TV romantic ghost story/giant turtle movie–really–felt free to pilfer it for the closing image of their movie.) In the film, on the other hand, the shark smashes up onto Quint’s boat—itself a nice piece of symbolism, and at least a tad less obvious—and gorily chows down on the guy. This is both more satisfying to the audience, and more cinematic to boot.
Spielberg also changed the manner of the shark’s death. In the book, the Orca sinks. Brody is floating on the surface of the water, his companions dead. The shark makes to attack him and…dies of its various wounds just before chomping on him. Indeed, Brody can feel the beast’s body with his feet.
In the documentary on the film found on the highly recommended Jaws DVD, Benchley reports his annoyance with Spielberg’s plans to change the ending. But, Spielberg was absolutely right in not wanting to close his movie with such a mood-killing anticlimax. He wanted an ending that would make theater audiences stand up and cheer, and he delivered one.
We open on some college-age kids holding a beach party. The real kind, with beer and pot and stuff. Two of them peel off for a little, er, somethin’ somethin’. The woman, Chrissie, leads her beau on a chase, disrobing as she goes. Reaching a more isolated stretch of the beach, she dives into the water for a swim. Unfortunately, her would-be paramour proves the worse for drink and falls semiconscious on the shore.
The woman enjoys an invigorating swim, at least until an unseen menace swims up under her and attacks. In a truly horrifying sequence, the woman is dragged and whipped across the surface of the water, screaming and babbling in terror even as water floods her mouth. In the end, she’s pulled under the water and disappears.
The next morning we meet Martin Brody, the recently installed Chief of Police for the New England island community of Amity. He, his wife Ellen and two young sons are transplanted New Yorkers. They’ve moved here to get away from the crime and disorder of the city. Amity is so peaceful that during the off-season the department consists of ‘Chief’ Brody and a single deputy, who don’t even wear guns.
Brody receives a phone call and heads out to the beach, where Chrissie’s scant remains have washed up on shore. Afterward, he stops by the station and orders his deputy to post signs closing the beach. This has never been done before, so Brody stops to collect supplies at the local hardware store for the signs to be made.
All this quickly draws the attention of Mayor Vaughn and the other city elders. Amity derives its livelihood from the tourists who flock to its beaches during the summer months. The Mayor applies pressure on Brody, who finds himself further undercut when the town coroner changes the presumed cause of death to a boat accident. The beaches stay open.
The Brody family spends the day at the town’s beach. A tense Brody still believes there might be a shark in the water and compulsively watches the various swimmers from shore. Despite this, a young boy named Alex Kintner is attacked and killed by the shark.
Alex’s distraught mother quickly places a bounty on the animal. The ad runs in out of town papers as well, drawing a number of bumpkins and idiots to the area. This situation results in a town meeting, where the main concern of the townsfolk is that the beaches be kept open. Brody, whose position is undercut by his status as an outsider, finds himself overruled. The beaches will stay closed for only another 24 hours.
The meeting is interrupted when Quint, a local fisherman and apparent town crank, makes an appearance. He asserts that the shark they’re dealing with is a sizable danger. He offers to hunt it down and kill it, but demands ten grand rather than the three thousand Mrs. Kintner has offered. Having said his piece and ruffled a few feathers, he leaves, knowing his offer will be ignored until the situation grows more dire.
As boatloads of drunken bounty-seekers set out to hunt the shark, Matt Hooper arrives in town. Hooper is a shark expert called in from an oceanographic institute. Present when a large shark is caught, he dismays the locals when he declares that it isn’t the correct animal. Everyone but Brody ignores his warnings.
During the 4th of July weekend, scads of tourists invade the beaches. A shark fin out in the water causes a panicked stampede, but it’s only two kids playing a prank. However, the real shark has entered the nearby ‘pond,’ a shallower area adjoining the beachfront. A man is killed and Brody’s older son Michael is nearly attacked. Brody soon corners the now discombobulated Mayor Vaughn and forces him to hire Quint.
Soon Quint, Brody and Hooper are at sea aboard Quint’s ramshackle boat the Orca. The men’s very different personalities result in understandable friction, although they begin to work together more smoothly as things go along. Eventually the shark makes its presence known. Brody is shocked by how large the animal is, and wants to return to town for a bigger, safer vessel. Quint, however, plans to hunt the shark his way and smashes the boat’s two-way radio, isolating them.
This proves to be a mistake. The shark smashes up the Orca later that night. This has consequences later when Quint pushes the battered craft past its limits and the engine blows. Stranded on a precariously floating refuge, Hooper is forced to enter the water in a shark cage, hoping to inject their quarry with poison. However, the shark smashes the cage to pieces, with Hooper narrowly managing to swim to the sea bottom during the beast’s frenzy.
The huge shark propels itself up from the water and smashes onto the Orca‘s aft section. Quint slides down the tilted deck into its gaping maw and suffers a rather unpleasant end. However, Brody manages to ram a compressed air tank into the shark’s mouth. When it circles around to finish him off, he fires a series of bullets, one of which finally slams into the tank. It explodes and blows the shark to pieces. Hooper resurfaces and the two survivors swim to shore.
There are two unusual aspects to the characters in Jaws, one if which is (depressingly) that they are well-written and well-acted. The characters aren’t, as a rule, given unwieldy gobs of backstory to spout, but instead are vividly etched with pithy and smartly crafted lines of dialogue and, you know, actual acting. This is that rare sort of picture in which every sentence spoken seems to have a function of one sort or other, and oftentimes several. Even more impressively, the few extended monologues the script provides are among the most memorable ever committed to film.
The other notable facet is the atypical employment of three lead characters. Pairs are much more common, resulting in what is commonly known as the ‘buddy film.’ Larger groups also have been gainfully used. Sometimes there are really two main characters, and a third subsidiary one who should more properly be viewed as a sidekick or romantic interest. The Ghost and The Darkness, sort of a Jaws-with-lions, would be an example of this.
Instead, Jaws sports three figures who are of equal weight to the proceedings. What’s interesting is the resultant group dynamic once they are stuck together on the Orca. Unlike the typical movie, where the character relationships are clearly defined and remain largely static, here the ‘power’ structure amongst the three is constantly in flux. Often the three men can’t stand each other, but then they’ll suddenly find themselves working together smoothly. More commonly, though, two of the three are arrayed against the other. Only the two and the one are constantly changing depending on the circumstances and, even more realistically, just at whim.
Brody and Hooper are often arrayed against Quint because he’s generally a prick and eventually because he’s just nuts. At other times, it’s Brody that’s on the outside, a landsman set apart by his awkwardness on the water. This is highlighted during the classic scene in which Quint and Hooper, up to now fervidly antagonistic towards one another, bond while drunkenly comparing their various scars. Standing off to one side, both literally and figuratively, landlubber Brody lamely considers offering up his appendix scar before thinking better of it.
And if neither Brody nor Hooper ever ‘team up’ with Quint, the latter still manages to effectively isolate one or the other at various times by casting his favor about as the mood strikes him. At one point Brody mistakenly loosens the ropes securing Hooper’s potentially explosive compressed air tanks, whereupon they fall to the deck. Hooper cuttingly rebukes Brody’s clumsiness, a rare example of the two being at odds. (This also provides a textbook example of the correct way to provide exposition. The scene allows them to establish the dangerousness of the tanks without bringing the movie to a screeching in the process.)
Quint, for his part, advances his feud with Hooper by castigating the scientist for bringing the dangerous tanks aboard in the first place. While dishing out some typically colorful invective, however, Quint also carefully tracks Hooper as the latter disgustedly works his way towards the front of the boat. Once he’s safely out of hearing, Quint leans forward and quietly informs Brody not to pull any more ropes without asking for permission first.
This also works the other way. Brody, not exactly a sure hand at sea, is given a predictably menial succession of tasks. The worst of these being to constantly ladle buckets of malodorous chum, or bloody fish guts, into the boat’s wake to attract their quarry. Tiring of this, Brody asks when Hooper (shown playing solitaire on the piloting deck) is going to take a turn. “Hooper drives the boat, Chief,” Quint replies. Quint might not have overmuch respect for Hooper’s skills and soft lifestyle, but chumming is a landlubber’s chore.
The least colorful of the main characters—which serves to make him the picture’s backbone—Brody is the picture’s audience identification figure. A cop who left the big city to pursue a more peaceful life (Irony Alert!), Brody is, metaphorically and literally, out of his depth in dealing with the shark. It is in overcoming these limitations that he ultimately becomes the film’s hero.
Brody has a bigger handicap than his nautical inexperience, though. In fact, he’s a bit phobic about the water. Typically, the film establishes this in a nice smooth manner and then blessedly fails to take the idea too far. Brody is more than a little uncomfortable on the water, but he doesn’t evince a paralyzing, Vertigo-like dread of it. However, if he doesn’t like the water in general, you can imagine how he feels about it with a killer shark added in.
Nor does Brody serve any real function on the expedition. Quint assigns him only those chores requiring an unskilled hand, and even those he occasionally messes up. During a crisis, he’s either a non-factor or actually adds to the problem. At one point he uselessly employs his service revolver to punch some small and completely ineffectual holes into the shark’s hide. Worse is when he positions one of the lines attached to the shark behind where Hooper is standing. The shark’s movements pull it taut and Hooper’s legs are pinioned against the aft of the boat and nearly crushed before he’s freed.
Which raises the question of why Brody’s out here at all. In another film it would just be because he’s the Good Guy. Here, however, his motivations for heading out to sea are entirely believable. Brody is the least complicit member of the town’s conspiracy to cover up the shark attacks. He’s not only new in his job, and thus without much of a power base, but he’s also considered an outsider on an island split firmly between lifelong residents and everybody else.
Moreover, as he readily admits, he’s no expert on maritime issues. When the coroner abruptly changes his finding on the cause of Chrissie’s death, Brody can either accept the situation or resign. He stays, despite suspecting that some chicanery is afoot. His shamed expression when Hooper examines Chrissie’s paltry remains and angrily announces, “This was no boat accident!” readily confirms this.
Still, at the time he didn’t know for certain how she died. Much less was he confident enough to defy people who’d lived with the sea all their lives. Even had he elected to, he lacked the leverage necessary to force his employers to close down the beach. Again, the character shadings here are unusually precise. In hindsight, Brody’s choosing not to contest keeping the beach open constitutes a moral failing. Yet his decision to go along to get along, especially at a stage in which his fears are both unproven and systematically derided, remains entirely understandable.
Until, that is, a second attack occurs. Most horrible is that the victim is a child, Alex Kintner. Except for Quint’s speech about the Indianapolis, the film’s most dramatic scene involves Brody being confronted by Alex’s mother. This occurs after Mrs. Kintner offered the bounty that attracted the aforementioned swarm of drunken yahoos. In most films, therefore, her strict utility to the plot would be over and she would simply disappear from the proceedings.
Not so here. Mrs. Kintner finds Brody among those surrounding the slain shark, which the town assumes to be the killer. She’s come to examine the animal, which was, after all, caught because of her bounty. Despite this, I imagine most audiences are surprised to see her again, and presumably many viewers had outright forgotten her. Some, no doubt, still didn’t recognize who she was when she first arrives on the scene.
Brody’s mood is celebratory. He believes like everyone else that the dead shark signals an end to the killing. Suddenly, though, a silence falls through the crowd, all the more manifest in contrast to the din that preceded it. Looking up, Brody sees Mrs. Kintner approaching the scene. Her gait is unsteady and she’s dressed all in black. Seeing Brody, she turns and moves in his direction. When she reaches him she draws back her mourning veil to look him straight in the eye, then rears back and sharply slaps him across the face. Far worse that this, however, is the measured speech she then delivers.
“I just found out that a girl got killed here last week, and you knew it. You knew there was a shark out there. You knew it was dangerous, but you let people go swimming anyway. You knew all those things, but still my boy is dead now. And there’s nothing you can do about it. My boy is dead. I wanted you to know that.”
The actress hired for this small but pivotal role is perfect. A truly plain woman, she projects a loneliness here that suggests her son was the only person she really had in her life. The anger, pain and grief communicated in this brief sequence are truly shocking, especially in a genre in which the aftermath of sudden violent death is usually completely ignored. I’ve spent a good portion of my life watching horror movies, and have quite probably witnessed tens or even hundreds of thousands of ersatz deaths. I can’t think of one other movie that so effectively conveys the pain such a death could cause, and can barely think of any that even attempted to do so.
The key point, though, is that Mrs. Kintner’s rage at Brody isn’t unjustified or merely lashing out at the handiest target. (There’s raw incomprehension mixed in her speech, too. She just can’t quite grasp how her son can possibly be dead if someone had knowledge that could have kept him alive.) The quiet manner in which she delivers her accusation, with icy precision and barely stifled tears rather than screaming and ranting, seem designed to keep him from avoiding this truth. Moreover, her central point remains true even after the shark is killed at the end of the movie. Alex Kintner is still dead, and nothing Brody can do will ever change that.
Her piece said, Mrs. Kintner is hauled away to begin whatever life she has left. Whereupon Vaughn—obviously by our lights more to blame for Alex’s death than Brody was—tries to offer some consolation. “I’m sorry, Martin,” he says. “She’s wrong.” Brody, however, can no longer avoid the truth. “No, she’s not,” he quietly responds. What sets Brody apart from the Mayor and other town leaders is that he can’t ignore his complicity in what’s happened.
As understandable as Brody’s actions were under the circumstances, it’s still fairly daring for a film to assign its central character this sort of blame*. On the other hand, it again provides Brody with an extremely credible reason for joining Quint in hunting the shark. Yet despite the fact that Brody’s motivation is already more three-dimensional than that of most movie characters, even now the film doesn’t have him forcing the issue of hiring Quint. That only occurs after yet another attack, during which his own son is nearly killed.[*Too bad the later Spielberg would allow a character in Jurassic Park: The Lost World to ignore his own much greater and far more direct responsibility for a rather larger number of horrible deaths. If Spielberg had had the same sensibilities back when Jaws was made, Hooper would have been a radical environmentalist sabotaging Quint’s boat and tossing people to the shark in order to keep the Noble Beast from being killed, and been patted on the back by the film for doing so.]
Aside from his realistic moral failings, the most unusual aspect of Brody as a film hero is that he’s a family man. Nor is his family just a token bit of character background, hauled out once or twice for effect. We spend a lot of time with them. Spielberg early in his career had a real feel for lower middle class families, as was demonstrated also in E.T. and Close Encounters. Sadly, he seems to have lost this facility in the years since, but here it’s on full display.
One of the myriad ways the movie improves on the book is in its depiction of the Brodys’ marriage. As noted earlier, a large section of the source novel centered on a bored Ellen initiating and conducting an affair with Hooper. In the film, however, the Brodys share a patently wonderful partnership. They are clearly two people who actually like one another and enjoy spending time together. Its easy to overlook stuff like this, but some of the best acting in the film is provided by Scheider and Lorraine Gary, who plays Ellen, as they capture so precisely the natural rhythms of a couple who’ve been together for a long time.
Spielberg also once had an amazing affinity for portraying children. (Sadly, this proved another talent of his that withered with time. The kids in his two Jurassic Park movies, for example, are clearly ‘movie’ kids. You don’t believe in any of them for a minute.) Here he draws extraordinarily natural performances from the young boys playing the Brody brothers, Michael and Sean. The interactions of the family members are easy to overlook, but intriguingly precise upon examination.
Take the scene where Michael comes in from the backyard with a bloody cut on his hand. His obvious glee in his gross but negligible injury is spot on, as is Ellen’s reaction. She briefly feigns the disgusted expression she knows Michael is seeking and then expertly ministers the injury with the calm of a mother who’s seen many a scraped knee and other minor wound over the years.
The most memorable father/son sequence, meanwhile, is when a depressed Brody (this after the Mrs. Kintner episode) notices young Sean miming his actions at the dinner table. There’s some great acting here, especially from Scheider, as Brody takes comfort from their play while also being all the more aware of Mrs. Kintner’s grief at her son’s death. Spielberg , meanwhile, cannily stations Ellen in the background of the scene. Gary does some nicely subtle reaction acting here, despite the fact that it’s not the sort of thing you’re likely to notice until you’re watching the movie for the third or fourth time.
I also like the scene when Michael is taken to the hospital following his near escape from the shark. He’s already clearly rebounding from the shock induced by the incident, but watch Brody as he carries Sean around. The younger boy is clearly exhausted from the turmoil and all the fear generated that’s been generated. Half asleep, he still clings to his father’s neck. Brody, for his part, has put his hand under the boy’s shirt as he reassuringly massages the lad’s back. This is a tiny detail, that a parent comforting his child would put skin to skin rather than massaging him through his shirt. But that’s what makes the film what it is-the tiny details.
If there’s one element I would change about Jaws, and it’s a pretty minor one, I’d have Richard Dreyfuss slightly tone down his performance as ichthyologist Matt Hooper. Hooper is the character most evidently of his time, i.e., the early ’70s. His unruly long hair and beard is one sign of this, his anti-authoritarian streak another. Confronted with authority figures he doesn’t respect, especially dishonest or shifty ones like Mayor Vaughn, Hooper reacts like the fashionably radical ’60s college kid he presumably was.
The overbearing Quint also rubs him the wrong way. After one run-in with him, Hooper bugs his eyes, sticks out his tongue and delivers an off-color Italian hand gesture. These antics are cute the first couple of times around, but are some of the movie’s very few elements that don’t wear well. (Still funny, though, is when Quint crushes a beer can in his hand, a manly act back when the containers were made of tin rather than aluminum. Hooper sarcastically reacts to this machismo by crushing a Styrofoam cup in return.)
Another display of this righteous anger occurs after Hooper examines Chrissie’s remains. Staring furiously at the obviously embarrassed coroner, Hooper famously sneers, “This was no boat accident!” Then there’s the bit where he and Brody confront the mayor after they’ve found the sunken boat of a local fisherman, Ben Gardner.
The scene works fine for those who aren’t thinking about the era in which it was made. However, those who do appreciate the picture’s historical context can almost see Hooper comparing the oily and evasive Vaughn to Nixon in his mind. Indeed, there are probably only two things keeping Hooper in town. One is the realization that this particular shark must be killed. The other is an awareness that Brody, obviously the only guy in town intent on seeing this done, is utterly unprepared for the job.
Despite his tilting at authority, however, Hooper proves to be a brave and selfless man. “I love sharks,” he enthuses to Mrs. Brody, but yet he turns down a cherished research trip in order to see this shark destroyed. This aspect of the situation, however, is wisely underplay. At one point Hooper is heard on the phone telling his colleague, “There is no need for me to come to Brisbane when I have a great white shark right here!” Injecting a note of self-interest in Hooper’s motivations is a nice touch and provides a rare bit of nuance sadly missing in the vast majority of movies today.[Note: Kudos to correspondent Bill Leary, for picking up on the fact that the equipment Hooper brings aboard the Orca is designed to kill the shark while leaving its body fundamentally undamaged. It therefore seems likely he was hoping to preserve the body for research and/or display purposes. I’d still think killing the shark would be his primary objective, but if he could do so while so preserving the beast, who could blame him?]
Hooper displays almost appalling personal courage when he eventually goes underwater in the shark cage—which, now that he’s seen his quarry in action, will obviously prove of dubious protection—after Quint’s actions strand them at sea upon the barely floating Orca. So frightened that he literally can’t summon the spit to clear his scuba mask, he still pursues the plan because there’s nothing else they can do. (Now if only he had thought to attach a lanyard to the poisoned needle-tipped spear he intends to use.)
Hooper’s role is to balance Brody and Quint. Like Brody, Hooper is determined to help kill the shark simply because it needs to be killed. Quint, on the other hand, is only hunting the shark for the reward money, at least at first. Also, like Brody, Hooper finds Quint initially obnoxious and crude and eventually dangerously obsessed.
On the other hand, Hooper shares with Quint a knowledge of the water and what lives in it. This is something Brody not only lacks but wants no part of. Hooper even possesses a bit of Quint’s myopic outlook. In a funny scene, Hooper tries to get Brody to walk out onto the Orca‘s vulnerable extended forecastle as the shark circles the boat. The sheriff quickly retreats, and with some asperity, when he learns that Hooper wants him there to provide scale for the pictures of the shark he’s taking.
Another attribute of Hooper’s character, which is touched upon enough to be significant but not beaten into the ground, is that he’s wealthy. To Brody this remains largely a momentary curiosity. “How much [are you worth]?” he asks initially. “Personally, or the family?” Hooper replies. This non-answer is delivered with the air of someone who’s been asked the question many times before.
Its obvious Hooper isn’t comfortable with the way people judge him differently because of his money. Certainly it’s not a factor in his favor with Quint. “You got soft hands, city hands,” the fisherman angrily jeers when Hooper asserts his expertise in seamanship. “You’ve been counting money all your life.” Since it’s obvious that Brody will insist on taking Hooper along, Quint mockingly says they’ll use him as ballast.
Quint is a product of a time and place in which a poor man became what he was ‘supposed’ to become. In Amity, that’s a fisherman. Had he been born in the hills of Pennsylvania, he’d have become a coal miner. Chances are that, except for his stint in the military, Quint has spent his entire life on Amity Island, and not the part where the townsfolk live, either.
Hooper, meanwhile, has grown up knowing he had the freedom to choose what he wanted to do with his life. Not just because he doesn’t have to earn a living, but because he can actually use his money to facilitate his interests. For instance, at one point he and Brody go out on a huge boat he owns, one stuffed with all the latest technological doodads.
In the end, Hooper and Quint’s initial hostility towards one another is triggered by the same fears. Quint treats Hooper with derision because he assumes the college-educated world traveler will look down on him as being an ignorant hick. Hooper, meanwhile, is defensive about being judged as a dilettante because of his money. “I don’t need this ‘working class hero’ crap!” he angrily replies after Quint makes the crack about his city hands. Still, his exaggerated reaction to Quint’s contempt indicates his own uncertainty about whether Quint doesn’t have a point.
This leads to one of the film’s neatest little scenes. Quint has hooked something big on a piano wire line. Quint thinks it’s the shark; Hooper is equally sure it’s a marlin or other sport fish. He follows Quint’s orders but is clearly relishing an opportunity to prove Quint wrong about something. However, the unseen fish escapes when it bites through the nearly unbreakable line.
Quint shoves the severed wire in Hooper’s face and orders him “not to tell me my business again.” Hooper sullenly responds that the broken line doesn’t prove anything. “Well, it proves one thing, Mr. Hooper,” a now clearly pissed-off Quint replies. “It proves that you wealthy college boys don’t have enough education to admit when you’re wrong.” So saying, Quint turns his back on him and stalks off.
This is when Hooper sticks his tongue out at the retreating Quint. However, the interesting thing is that it’s Hooper who’s in the wrong. The broken line clearly validates Quint’s belief that he had hooked the shark, and Hooper knows it. What’s nice is the way Hooper’s attempts to prove Quint wrong end up with Hooper backing into the very stereotypes he’s trying to overcome. It’s also another instance of the film providing its protagonists with realistic yet not fanciful flaws, so as to keep them grounded and more believable.
Despite being compelling characters here, Brody the lawman and Hooper the scientist were too generic to be truly said to have inspired many proxies amidst the flood of subsequent Jaws knock-offs. However, the film did fashion from the source novel two characters who would be repeatedly and blatantly cloned in seemingly hundreds of other movies.
In a way, Brody and Hooper are more impressive achievements than Quint. That two such stock characters—the conscientious cop, the determined scientist—hold their own opposite this Crude, Boozing, Melodramatic Nutbag with a Dark Secret is a testament to the script, to Spielberg’s direction and especially to Scheider and Dreyfuss’ acting chops.
On the other hand, in many ways Jaws is Quint’s movie. Brody and Hooper want to the kill the shark, but only for Quint does the hunt represent a personal quest. In many ways, the expedition is a personal battle between him and the shark. Brody and Hooper are, at best, tools to help him defeat his opponent. At worst, they’re nuisances that threaten to screw the whole thing up.
Quint’s dominance over the proceedings is particularly impressive because of his comparative lack of screentime. We meet Brody about five minutes in, and after that we seldom leave his side. Hooper actually shows up about seven minutes later than Quint, but basically attaches himself to Brody and remains on camera for most of the remaining running time.
Quint, in contrast, makes an appearance about twenty minutes in before all but disappearing for the next three quarters of an hour. He’s only briefly seen during this period, driving his boat by as a crowd buzzes around the strung-up carcass of the dead shark. Quint’s reaction, recorded in a long shot, is a smug smile. Aside from Hooper, he’s the only one who knows the real killer fish is still alive.
Quint’s absence during most of the movie’s first half, admittedly, is mitigated by two factors. First, he’s afforded one of the most dramatic and memorable introductions in cinema history. In the midst of the town meeting the babble is cut short by the wince-inducing sound of fingernails being dragged across a blackboard. (One gets the idea that Quint’s general relationship with the town dwellers is well represented by this.) The townspeople turn and there he is, sitting next to a cartoonish chalk drawing of a huge shark engulfing a stick figure man in its maw.
That’s pretty great stuff right there, but Quint then delivers another of the film’s compulsively quotable monologues:
“Y’all know me. Know how I earn a livin’. I’ll catch this bird for you, but it ain’t gonna be easy. Bad fish! Not like going down to the pond and chasing bluegills and tommycocks. This shark, swallow you whole. No shakin’, no tenderizin’, down you go. And we gotta do it quick, that’ll bring back your tourists, put all your businesses on a payin’ basis. But it’s not gonna be pleasant! I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, Chief. I’ll find him for three, but I’ll catch him, and kill him, for ten. But you’ve gotta make up your minds. If you want to stay alive, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter. I don’t want no volunteers, I don’t want no mates, there’s too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”
Actor Shaw must have died and gone to Ham Heaven (which, unfortunately, he actually did in real life not long after the movie wrapped) when he got a gander at all the juicy material he’d be chewing onscreen. Still, he’s the perfect Quint. There’s a lot going on in this scene, and he nails all of it.
There’s a whole undercurrent here suggesting a strained relationship between Amity’s fisherman community and the middle class folks who make a cleaner, softer living off tourist dollars. Quint, for his part, must represent every stereotype the town leaders hold about the fishermen. He’s loud, crude, obnoxious and forthrightly contemptuous of them, their airs, the manner in which they earn their living and their laws and regulations. (When Brody eventually comes to him, part of Quint’s expanded list of demands includes getting the town’s zoning board off his back.)
Given this, it’s pretty clear that Quint is deriving a huge amount of satisfaction from the present circumstances. He knows they won’t deal with the shark until they are absolutely forced to, and even rubs their faces in it with that crack about trying to play it cheap. He further communicates his contempt by ignoring the politicians and his fellow islanders and directing his speech to Brody. (Hence the “Chief.”) He’s hugely enjoying the knowledge that they’ll eventually have to come crawling to him. They’re in his world now, and he takes great delight in the fact.
Still and all, he’s a fisherman. He’s not in any hurry, especially since he’s not particularly concerned with saving lives. As we’ll learn, Quint has intensely personal reasons for hunting and killing sharks. However, he also prides himself on being a professional. He’ll go after the shark when he’s being paid to do so, and not a moment sooner.
Looked at from this standpoint, you understand why Quint disappears for such a long time. He’s after a large bounty, and his speech is the bait he sets to get it. When the bait is offered, a fisherman patiently lies back until it’s swallowed. In fact, given his certainty that the town will have to come to him eventually, he’s probably enjoying watching them try to avoid the fact.
Eventually, of course, he’s proven right and the hunt is on. What ultimately saves Quint from being just a second-rate Captain Ahab (as he was in Benchley’s book) is the aforementioned monologue he delivers about being a crewmember aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was the vessel tasked in World War II with delivering the Hiroshima bomb out to the Pacific.
On the way back to the States, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese sub. Since their mission had been so secret, no SOS was sent and thus it was nearly a week before they were rescued. After the ship went down almost immediately, some 1,100 men where stranded in the water, sans even lifeboats. Soon sharks started to appear, great masses of them. By the time rescue forces did arrive, only slightly more than three hundred men made it out of the water alive.
Quint’s monologue is too long to be quoted in full, but here’s perhaps the most memorable passage: “Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and ‘spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.”
He concludes his tale by announcing “I’ll never wear a life jacket again.” By which he means he’d rather drown than be killed by a shark. Indeed, when the Orca begins to founder later, he tosses life vests to Hooper and Brody but doesn’t don one himself. Unfortunately, this doesn’t save him from what he fears most.
The Indianapolis speech provides a harrowing yet extremely convincing explanation for Quint’s obsession with hunting sharks, and makes his eventual mania during this hunt believable. The film certainly wouldn’t be the same in the speech’s absence.
Not that Quint is nuts, in a strict sense, when the expedition begins. After a while though, he begins to see that this particular shark is something greater than he’s ever gone up against before. Even after spending his entire life at sea, he’s unprepared for this animal, and from the start the shark’s behavior puzzles him. “He’s either very smart or very stupid,” he muses after deducing that it’s swum down under the boat. He quickly decides it’s the former.
Later Quint has managed to attach three barrel-laden lines to the beast. “He’s trying to go under!” Hooper reports. “I tell ya, he can’t with three barrels on him!” Quint scoffs, although he sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself of the fact. “Not with three barrels he can’t!” But go down the shark goes. (There’s a throwaway line earlier when Brody, after reading up on sharks, tells Ellen “People don’t even know how old sharks are. I mean, if they live two, three thousand years.” If so, then presumably the one they’re after is a very old and crafty shark indeed.)
Eventually it’s clear that for Quint this is no longer a shark, but rather the shark. The literal incarnation of all his fears and demons. As such it’s not merely enough to kill it. He must best it as well, and do so on his own terms. Thus his smashing of the Orca‘s radio when Brody, realizing the fix they’re in, tries to call for additional help. Its only here that Brody and Hooper begin to realize Quint may prove as dangerous to them as the shark itself.
Smashing the radio is Quint’s first action that imperils their lives, as it strands them without recourse to outside rescue. However, his mania eventually throws away their chance to kill the shark and instead leaves them at its mercy. This occurs when the enraged shark finally starts chasing after them instead of leading them further out to sea. Like his nemesis Quint, the beast is done with the cat and mouse stuff. Heading back to the island, Quint will let the ocean itself do its work. “We’re gonna draw him into the shallows,” Quint exalts, “draw him in the shallow water, gonna draw him in and drown him!”
However, Quint pushes the Orca, previously damaged by the shark, too hard. Hooper warns him that he’ll blow the engine, but Quint is beyond rational thought at this point. His victory has to be a total one*. Unfortunately, Hooper proves right and the engine indeed goes up, taking a portion of the boat with it. Moreover, without the engine-driven generator they have no pumps to jettison the water they’re taking aboard.[*Note: Correspondent Bill Leary notes “I though it significant that he doesn’t simply ignore Hooper [when he warns Quint to slow the boat], but jams the throttles against their stops over and over again.” Indeed.]
This leaves them stranded on the water, slowly sinking and a sitting duck for the shark. This finally brings Quint around to his senses, although it’s a little late for that to help much. Tacitly admitting that he’s screwed the pooch, Quint turns to ask Hooper about the latter’s ‘fancy’ gear, including the shark cage Quint had earlier roundly mocked. To Hooper’s credit, he doesn’t take the opportunity to further humiliate Quint, despite the fact that his actions have potentially doomed the three of them to horrible deaths.
Unfortunately, for Hooper to inject the poison into the shark, he needs to get the needle into the soft tissue of the beast’s mouth. This he fails to do, and the shark makes quick work of the shark cage, although Hooper manages to evade the animal and swim to the sea floor to hide. After tearing up the cage, the shark turns its attentions to the Orca. Propelling itself out of the water, it lands on the aft deck, whereupon Quint meets his gruesome demise. In the end, it’s left to the ocean-phobic landlubber to figure out a way to destroy the beast.
Facets of the Quint character show up in several zillion of the bajillion Jaws knock-off that continue to be made even today, nearly thirty years later. Sometimes it’s Quint’s status as a professional fisherman/hunter that is aped (Jaws 3-D, The Last Shark, Alligator, Alligator II: The Mutation). Usually, though, it was his obsessive nutbaggery that gets emulated (Blood Surf, Beneath Loch Ness, Crocodile, Grizzly, etc.). Another, more amusing trait often copied was Quint’s thick accent. His Irish brogue was, I’ll admit, often replaced with another sort entirely—Scottish in Beneath Loch Ness and The Last Shark, Cajun in Alligator II: The Mutation—thus providing the viewer with no end of cheesy amusement.
The final character we’ll examine, Mayor Vaughn, inspired more imitations than even Quint. Every film along these lines, and quite a few more with entirely different plot concerns, seem to feature a Vaughn. The definition of which would be an authority figure who thwarts the hero from doing what must be done, usually for Base Financial Reasons.
In Jaws, Vaughn is more subtly drawn than nearly all of his rotely villainous clones. Most of the latter are forthrightly one-note in their evil, Vaughn isn’t evil–he just doesn’t know how to step up to the plate and deal with what’s occurring. His strategy seems to based on the hope that a problem will go away if everyone ignores it long enough. Of course, the ramifications of ignoring this situation are pretty malign, including the death of Alex Kintner.
Even so, we should exhibit a little understanding of the man’s position. For instance, there’s little indication that Vaughn is in a much better position to close the beaches than Brody is. This is made clear by his constituents’ near-revolt during the town meeting. It’s true that he never shows much backbone in trying to do the right thing, but he’s still a more finely-shaded character than almost all of those that followed in his footsteps.
Vaughn is, in sum, an oily, glad-handing hack. This leaves him poorly positioned to deal with the present circumstances, as it’s difficult to schmooze a shark. Vaughn’s such an innate politician that he even politely responds to Quint, a figure obviously disdained by the town’s upper crust, while calling him “Mr. Quint.” No need to antagonize a voter, not even one unlikely to cast a ballot and even less likely to cast one your way. In a town in which kids breaking fence pickets after karate class constitutes a municipal crisis, he’s in his element. The shark thing, though, that’s beyond him.
Vaughn’s not a complete dunce, either. Earlier I mentioned that it was Brody that forced the issue on hiring Quint to kill the shark. Chances are that, just out of stubborn islander pride, the merchant townsfolk on the town council would otherwise have still dragged their feet on this rather than admit that they need Quint to save them. Brody, however, doesn’t have any such baggage, and he rather ruthlessly gets Vaughn to sign off on the hire.
This in fact corresponds to why Brody, an off-islander, was hired as Chief of Police. “We didn’t need someone with old feuds or family ties,” Vaughn explains. “We need someone to referee these things.” Admittedly, this point is a bit of a cheat, as the clip where this is said was left on the cutting room floor. It’s too bad, since it ate up but a few seconds and serves to tie things together nicely. In any case, those interested can see the footage in the Deleted Scenes section of the Jaws DVD.
Vaughn also has one of my favorite bits of dialog in the movie. “It’s all psychological,” he offers after Chrissie’s death. “You yell ‘barracuda,’ everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell ‘shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” And he’s right. Unfortunately, though, a shark is what they’ve got, and it’s a doozy.
It’s easy to assign illicit motives to Vaughn’s action. One might just assume that he’s trying to perpetuate an outright cover-up when Hooper suggests examining the dead shark’s stomach contents. Sharks having a slow metabolism, Hooper explains, which means that if this is the right animal, Alex Kintner’s remains should still be inside it. (This is one of the few areas where the film loses me, as I find it hard to believe that the announcement of Mrs. Kintner’s bounty, the advertisements, the arrival of the out of state yahoos and the catching of the ‘Little Shark’—see below—could all have occurred in the 24 hours Hooper indicates.)
Although Vaughn’s rejection of Hooper’s suggestion rouses our immediate suspicions, there’s really little reason not to take his stated reply at least partly at face value. “Look, fellas, let’s be reasonable, huh?” he grimaces. “This is not the time or the place to perform some kind of a half-assed autopsy on a fish. And I am not going to stand here and see that thing cut open and see that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock!”
The scene that really humanizes Vaughn, however, is when Brody corners the dazed mayor and pressures him to sign off on hiring Quint. This latest fatality, witnessed by hundreds of vacationers on the crowded beach, has left Vaughn staggered by the realization that the tourists they so heavily rely on will not coming back for in foreseeable future.
In an attempt to cling to familiar concerns and regain some semblance of control as he prepares to sign Brody’s proffered voucher, Vaughn mumbles about saving August. This is too much for even the normally kind Brody, who finally lets him have it. “What are you talking about? Larry, the summer is over! You’re the mayor of shark city! These people think you want the beaches open!”
This finally brings about the lucidity Vaughn was trying so desperately to avoid. “Martin,” he stammers. “My kids were on that beach, too.” The realization that he endangered his own children so as to perpetuate the notion that the waters were safe is a bitter one. It’s not that he did so consciously, but rather that he so badly wanted there not to be a problem that he risked his own offspring rather than confront the truth.
Jaws didn’t strictly invent any of the clichés examined below, it merely re-popularized them and bunched them together in a handy unit. Aside from maybe the ’50s big bug epic Them! and Hitchcock’s proto-slasher Psycho, I can think of few films whose basic template was so slavishly aped by so many knock-offs.
On the other hand, your classic genre movies, especially those made since the late ’60s, generally haven’t invented the tropes they pass like DNA down to their inferior cinematic offspring. Instead, they merely crossbreed them in interesting ways. James Cameron provides an obvious example of how one can take familiar plot elements and fashion them into something newly iconic by adding some intelligence and wit.
The Terminator features killer androids, time travel, a soldier from the future, and other venerable sci-fi plot devices. It especially borrowed from a comparatively obscure Harlan Ellison-penned episode from the original Outer Limits program, Soldier. (The debt was so obvious that Ellison later successfully sued to get his name attached to Cameron’s film.) The plot involved futuristic soldiers cast into the past, where their battle continues.
Aliens, meanwhile, takes the monster from the original film, adds an Alien Queen to the mix, and borrows more than a bit of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers. Being a good fan (and perhaps learning from the Ellison episode), Cameron acknowledges the debt by employing phrases right from the book, like “bug hunt.”
So is it with Jaws. Most, if not all, of the plot devices mentioned below were used before, and more than a few times. However, they had never been assembled in quite this way, although they would be so assembled many, many times subsequently. Which proves, as do Cameron’s movies, that it’s not the material, it’s the execution.
The First Victim
Needless to say, horror movies had been killing off necking (and more) teenagers since at least the ’50s. For a mainstream film of the ’70s, though, Chrissie’s death still had a sizable amount of edge. Her swimming naked in the surf would have provided a bit of a charge (even if we don’t really see anything), and the brutality of her demise remains shocking even now. Still, in essence the scene had been done hundreds of times before.
Again, it’s what you do with your staple elements that counts. Chrissie’s death is affecting because it focuses on her; the shark remains entirely off camera during the attack. It’s her we’re watching, her terror, her pleading and pain. The scene is perfectly executed technically as well. One nice moment occurs before the attack. Swimming on her back in one distant long shot, we can’t see her until she raises one leg straight up in the air. Once erect, it looks a bit like a shark fin.
As with the opening scene of Halloween, another ‘template’ movie, many of the films that emulated Jaws replayed its first sequence much more crudely. (To make up, usually, for the radically inferior talents of their makers.) In these, unlike in their model, the victim’s nudity would often be fully on display. Frequently the victim(s) was/were killed while actually in the act of sex.
For instance, in Piranha II: The Spawning, a scuba diving man and woman decide to do the nasty underwater. Unfortunately, they choose exactly the wrong place for going so, with predictable results. Aside from being pretty gross, the film remains known largely for two things. It was the first film directed by the aforementioned James Cameron (!), and featured the wonderfully ludicrous idea of flying piranha fish. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen these babies wobbling around on wires before gorily tearing their current victim’s throat out.
A fun bit of trivia involves William Girdler’s Grizzly (a.k.a. Claws), perhaps the single most slavish redo of Jaws. (Which is saying something.) For the film’s first victim they hired an obscure actress named Susan Backlinie. Ms. Backlinie’s previous claim to fame was that she played Chrissie, the first victim in Jaws!
Closing the Beach
Or, to be more technical, not closing it. This trope, involving some greedy, malign and/or moronic authority figure who refuses to heed the heroes’ demands to close something or other so as to save lives, has seemingly been used zillions of time since Jaws. The reason given is inevitably some financial one, and this is inevitably portrayed as base, even on those occasions when it’s objectively valid.
Examples include a festival held by a real estate developer (both Piranha and Fangs), the transported London Bridge exhibit in Arizona (Bridge Across Time, starring David Hasselhoff [!]), a sailing regatta (The Last Shark [a Euro Jaws rip-off so blatant that Universal successfully sued to keep it from being shown in the States], fellow Euro Jaws rip-off Tentacles and Jaws 2), a national park (Grizzly), a shore side resort hotel (The Great Alligator, Up From the Depths, Piranha II: The Spawning, Shark Attack III: Megalodon, etc.) and so on and so on.
In Jaws, the hero goes along with the decision rather than fighting it. Brody’s resultant culpability in Alex Kintner’s death, while comparatively slight and eminently understandable, is then used to partly motivate his going to sea to hunt the shark. In most films, however, the heroes’ moral rectitude remains unblemished. This remains true even when it’s the direct actions of the ‘heroes’ that result in several or even dozens of deaths. (See Piranha, Man’s Best Friend.) What happens instead is that the situation is employed merely to establish the craven venality of that film’s Mayor Vaughn analog. And unlike in Jaws, these miscreants occasionally end up getting themselves ‘ironically’ killed (The Last Shark).
The Little Shark
The ‘little shark’ is meant to make the intransigence of the hero-ignoring authority figures, and/or the continued complacency of the public, just a tad more plausible. Basically, something or someone like the Killer Whatsit is caught or killed. This allows those in authority to declare the crisis over, with only the heroes knowing better.
In the dumber films, this occurs even when the authorities know the situation is unresolved. This might make sense if they were at the same time covertly doing something to get the real Killer Whatsit. However, all too often they continue to foster a state of affairs wherein more people will inevitably be killed. This is true even when their proffered motivation is to avoid financial harm to the area. Frankly, that’s pretty stupid no matter how you look at it.
An example of this occurs in the execrable Beneath Loch Ness. There the authorities, hoping to salvage the lake’s tourist season—hmm, that sounds familiar—declares a dead ‘Nessie’ to be the monster who had eaten the previous victims. (Hilariously, this actual corpse of the famous Loch Ness Monster draws practically no attention from the larger world.) However, the heroes sneak in for a peek, and find the animal all chewed up by Something More Sinister.
This means the authorities here know there’s still a ravenous man-eating monster in the Loch, but intentionally cover up the fact. It’s not so much that this is so exaggeratedly evil, which it is, but that it’s so stupid. Isn’t it going to hurt tourism more drastically when more and more people are done away with? And this cover up doesn’t seem very sustainable. Can you imagine the lawsuits from the next victim’s family, when it comes out that the real monster’s continued existence was known and fraudulently hidden from the public?
Of course, only the heroes are trying to get at the truth, and only they have the knowledge to establish what it is. Here it’s Hooper who knows that, despite the rarity of killer sharks in these waters, the large man-eater caught by the fishermen isn’t the correct animal. Despite the fact that his evidence is pretty strong—the bite radius indicated by the wounds on Chrissie’s remains doesn’t match that of the killed fish—only Brody is honest enough to pull his head from the sand and try to do something. Also, Brody is a former big city cop. He’s probably worked enough murders to know valid forensic evidence when he hears it.
One of the goofier Little Sharks can be found in the monster-in-a-museum flick The Relic. There the massive creature’s series of horrible and incredibly baroque murders are blamed on a bum found living in the museum’s basement and shot down by the police.
Mrs. Kintner’s bounty results in a largely-drunken collection of idiots seeking to kill the shark. This general scenario provides a film with several plot advantages. First, an opportunity for broad (if seldom very funny) comedy, usually at the expense of stereotypical rednecks. Two, as a plot device it helps to eat up the old running time. Third, and most importantly, it supplies a pool of victims for the Killer Whatsit. (Jaws proves different in that, first, the humor is funny, and second, none of the yahoos get themselves et.)
Examples abound, although sometimes it’s just the idea of killing something that attracts the yahoos, rather than a financial reward. Such a party of morons appears in King Kong Lives, and meets a predictable fate. Idiot hunters swarm the forest in Grizzly, and as in Jaws, kill a lesser animal used by the film’s Mayor Vaughn analog to declare the emergency over with. A boatload of dumb kids set out to hunt The Last Shark.
Closer to the mark is Up From the Depths, a sad-yet-typically-desultory example of the breed. Centered around a giant, man-eating ‘prehistoric fish,’ the film reaches a juncture where, as the eminent Dr. Freex of the Bad Movie Report details, “…the manager of the resort…places a bounty on the Beastie’s head. This leads to a herd of drunken tourists manning boats with a motley collection of weapons, including spears, crossbows, and a homemade flamethrower.”
Sometimes the expendable yahoos aren’t actually hunting the menace, although that’s certainly more Jaws-y, but rather are merely cavorting someplace to provide a handy plethora of victims. The Great Alligator, Piranha II: The Spawning, Alligator and Piranha (the latter two both written by John Sayles) all fit this bill.
Pulling a Quint
As noted earlier, many of the film’s rip-offs sported a Quint/Ahab-esque type character. (See the grieving Scottish fisherman/father in Beneath Loch Ness, the grieving husband/father in 1978’s Crocodile, the loony, haunted veteran/helicopter captain in Grizzly, the haunted fishing captain in Blood Surf, etc.) However, here I’m talking about an act by that character, and one that endangers the other characters, the better to facilitate the manquÃ© Quint’s obsessive quest to destroy the film’s Killer Whatsit.
In Jaws, obviously, it’s when Quint destroys the Orca’s radio to keep Brody from calling in for additional help. These near-psychotic acts occur more rarely than the above cited clichés, but still appear with some frequency. Usually, they entail keeping the other characters from calling in outside authorities, as in Jaws. Others do more than simply place their fellows in risk, they actually use them as bait to draw in the whatever it is.
Unlike the other clichés, I can’t immediately think of many examples off the top of my head. Admittedly, that’s partly because this particular cliché is somewhat less prevalent than the others. However, it might also be because by now these movies are all starting to merge together in my head. I’m pretty sure the Quint knock-off in Blood Surf keeps the others from escaping. Anyway, if anyone wants to provide such examples, please do so.[Note: My illustrious colleague Lyz Kingsley, founder and proprietor of And You Call Yourself a Scientist! (it’s good to know people smarter than you), nominates the Jon Voight character in Anaconda. He indeed pulls a Quint on his putative comrades, albeit his goal is to capture the titular menace rather than kill it.]
Actually, keeping the heroes from killing the Killer Whatsit so as to make money off of it is probably the most recurring cause of Quint-Pulling. The robot Ash in Alien is programmed to sacrifice the ship’s crew if they come across an alien life form. Burke actually maneuvers to get Ripley impregnated with an alien in Aliens, so as to have a surviving specimen for the same malign corporation to experiment on. See also Sabretooth.
This seems as good a time as any, therefore, to mention one cliché Jaws wisely avoids. Which is that no time during the film does anyone suggest capturing or saving the shark rather than just killing it. Not even naturalist and shark aficionado—or should that be a-‘fish’-ionado, ha ha, I’m so funny—Hooper.
Another standard variant, as Bill Leary notes, is to involve characters in a mission while holding its true goal from them. This is, in fact, part of what’s going on in the above sited Alien and Aliens. Bill suggests the Kirbys from Jurassic Park III as an illustration. Less benign examples include evil Guv’ment SpOOks and assorted corporate types so tricking innocents in such films as Boa, Predator, Ice Crawlers, Sabretooth, Python II and even Rambo: First Blood Part II. In the latter films, these naive individuals are at best considered expendable and more often targeted for elimination once the mission is accomplished.]
It All Comes Together
As I noted before, you could hardly ask for a better cast than the one appearing here. This is the sort of film where you can’t imagine anyone else playing the parts, even those actors seemingly suited to them. (More on who almost played Quint in a bit.) Roy Scheider is Brody, Richard Dreyfuss is Hooper and Robert Shaw most definitely is Quint. The other major players, such as Lorraine Gary and Murry Hamilton, are equally definitive.
As for the supporting players, they’re played cannily enough as to seem real people rather than actors. (I especially like the woman, seen only once early on, who plays Brody’s secretary.) Perhaps the only stiff performance in the entire film, including the one-line bit players, comes when Spielberg gives author Benchley a cameo as a TV reporter. Filming a remote, he issues a beautifully pretentious and awful report. “Amity Island has long been known for its clean air, clear water, and beautiful white sand beaches,” he Ted Baxters. “But in recent days, a cloud has appeared on the horizon of this beautiful resort community. A cloud, in the shape of a killer shark.”
As noted before, every single scene in the film has a purpose and is wonderfully executed. Chrissie, for example, is involved in four scenes: When she leads her prospective beau away from the beach party, her brutal death, the finding of her remains on the beach and finally Hooper’s examination of them and subsequent angry reaction. Each of these sequences is spot-on perfect.
The film is full of small details that stick in the mind. Hooper bringing two bottles of wine when he arrives uninvited at the Brody house. The Louisiana license plate he pulls from the Little Shark’s gullet. When he describes the shark tooth he saw as “…the size of a shot glass.” The humorously vandalized billboard. Quint’s drawing of a shark on the blackboard. Mayor Vaughn’s horrible sports jacket with the little anchor pattern. The kid playing the ‘Killer Shark’ video game. And so on and so on.
The dialogue in the film is another area worthy of fannish enthusiasm. Aside from the numerous quotable monologues and lines people still reference nearly thirty years later—”This was no boat accident,” “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” etc.—there are the bits you don’t notice until after several repeat viewings.
When Brody’s deputy informs the Mayor about the first attack, he concludes, “I’ve got to batten down the beach.” I really like that ‘batten.’ While not himself a fisherman, the deputy is an islander, and hence would naturally employ nautical terminology in his vocabulary. In contrast, Brody’s outsider status is again displayed when he incorrectly refers to the Orca as a ‘ship.’ Later, however, after spending some time aboard, he notably correctly calls it a boat.
Even better than getting these touches right is that the film doesn’t demand you notice them. Quint could have disgustedly corrected Brody’s use of the word ship, making us ‘get’ how he used the wrong term, but he doesn’t. Bad writers often forcibly draw your attention to their cleverness in such a manner, thereby compromising whatever effect it might have had in the first place.
The quality of the writing is evident, as you might expect, during the film’s dialogue-driven scenes. Potentially a stumbling block in holding the audience’s interest, these passages are instead crisp but never terse. The sequence where Hooper shows up at the Brody home is a nice example. The scene is longish, at least for this movie, but flows smoothly enough that it races by. In an objectively short amount of time it accomplishes an amazing number of things.
Brody’s intoxication, obviously rare, indicates how hard he’s taken Mrs. Kintner’s speech. We get some skillfully delivered exposition on Hooper’s background, including how he became interested in sharks. There’s some typically sharp dialog. (“I’d like to talk to your husband,” Hooper tells Ellen as he enters. “So would I,” she replies, as Brody broods in the foreground.) Brody asking Hooper questions on shark behavior allows us to be filled in at the same time.
This latter aspect is sped up by the fact that Brody’s already done research on sharks. Seeking confirmation more than general knowledge, his efforts allow him to ask precise questions that require short, direct answers. Thus we’re spared the typical long-winded Scientist’s Discourse on Arcane Matters. As a side issue, it also speaks to Brody’s conscientiousness. While waiting for help, he still readies himself as best he can.
The scene deepens our understanding of the Brodys while also providing us a much better feel for Hooper. He’s aggressive and rude enough to just show up at their home, despite practically being a stranger, not to mention commandeering some dinner sitting unattended on the table. (This is presumably Brody’s uneaten meal, another nice touch.) On the other hand, he’s polite enough to have brought the bottles of wine with him. “Red and white,” he shrugs. “I wasn’t sure what you’d be having.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s fish. The fact that Brody’s drinking just for the sake of getting hammered is indicated when he blindly grabs and opens the thus inappropriate bottle of red wine. His companions wisely let it go when he pours them a small taste with exaggerated politeness.
However, there’s a nice character reaction moment when Brody opens the bottle and immediately pours himself a full eight or ten ounces of the stuff . “You should really let that breath….” a pained Hooper begins, before surrendering to the fact that appreciating the wine’s fine bouquet doesn’t rank high on Brody’s current list of priorities. (This is before we learn of Hooper’s wealth, but in retrospect that’s probably a pretty fine grade of wine Brody swills down.)
Seeing Brody’s state, Hooper knows it’ll take a bit of time and effort to coax him out of his funk. He works towards this sideways by making some charming conversation with Ellen, who plays along as she’d also like to have her husband snap out of it. The scene also indicates Hooper’s essential respect for Brody. He’s prodding at him, but only because he knows Brody is the kind of guy whose nature is to do the right thing.
When the opportunity presents itself, however, Hooper brings the conversation around to the Little Shark, still proclaimed to be killer fish. Time is short, as the Mayor has ordered the carcass dumped at sea in the morning. Hooper still wants to go cut the fish open, and he’s come here to see whether Brody is the kind of guy he suspects him to be. Hooper’s instincts prove correct. Brody puts down the wine and begins to act with a reinvigorated determination.
In the end, the scene lasts exactly as long as it should. In the hands of another director and different actors, this sequence could be a boring layover between the Shark Bits. Instead, it entertains and moves the picture along at the same time. You know a film is well constructed when scenes like this are as interesting to watch, even the sixth or tenth time around, as the killer shark stuff.
Which brings us to the film’s most provident bit of luck. Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck had optioned Peter Benchley’s novel while it was still in galleys, before it was published and became a runaway bestseller. The critical decision they made towards the success of their picture was offering the director’s chair to a young Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg wasn’t a kid, exactly, as he was nearing thirty. Nor was he in a strict sense a novice. He’d been working in television since 1969, occasionally directing long-form programs like Columbo. Probably his most remembered early assignment was helming a segment of the pilot movie, one starring Joan Crawford, for Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery.
By the early ’70s Spielberg had graduated to TV movies. He created a bit of a stir with his first, 1971’s Duel. This starred Dennis “McCloud” Weaver as a lone motorist traveling barren Western highways, untroubled until he finds himself targeted by the psychotic driver of an 18-wheeler. The film was released theatrically in Europe and garnered Spielberg some early good notices.
His next two telemovies were more forgettable. So was his first theatrical feature, 1974’s Sugarland Express, a rare dramatic vehicle for Goldie Hawn. However, it was produced by Brown and Zanuck, and they were impressed enough with the director’s work to then offer him Jaws. Spielberg, figuring the project was similar in some respects to Duel, accepted the assignment. Thus was history made, for Jaws was a movie that literally transformed the entire movie business.
Spielberg’s instincts for the project weren’t perfect. The role of Quint, for instance, was first offered to Lee Marvin. Marvin providentially turned it down. Still, it’s hard to fault Spielberg on that choice. Quint seems a tailor-made character for Marvin to play, and what director wouldn’t want to work with such a legend?
Sterling Hayden was the next choice. Only after he passed did Robert Shaw end up with the part. One can certainly see Marvin or Hayden as Quint, and no doubt they would have done a great job. However, Shaw is so perfect that it’s hard to believe another actor could have possibly done quite as well.[A more severe example of this sort of thing involved John Carpenter’s Halloween. The role of Dr. Loomis, eventually played by Donald Pleasance, was first offered to Christopher Lee. I certainly have nothing bad to say about the commanding Lee. Still, one can immediately imagine what a markedly different Loomis he would have delivered, and you have to assume it would have been to the detriment of the movie.]
Spielberg also lucked out in other ways. I’ve heard over the years that the shark was meant to be more of a physical presence in the movie. Supposedly the reason this changed was that the production’s mechanical sharks, collectively nicknamed ‘Bruce*’ by the crew, seldom functioned. If this is true, it was one of the most fortuitous technical problems in cinema history. The oblique way in which the shark is used is one of the film’s hallmarks. (See Jaws 2, whose shark spends much more time on camera to much less effect.)[Note: Jabootu’s Minister of Proofreading, the admirable Mr. Carl Fink, reminds me that the shark was supposedly named after Spielberg’s lawyer, one Bruce Ramer. The tale is possibly apocryphal, but it’s amusing none the less.]
On the other hand, the quite in-depth and truly interesting ‘making of’ documentary found on the Jaws DVD suggests otherwise. As interviewed there, Spielberg maintains he meant to keep the shark largely off camera from the start. Now, this could simply be a small example of rewriting history years after the fact, a hallowed pastime in Hollywood. However, it is true that the malevolent semi driver in Spieberg’s Duel was also kept almost entirely out of sight throughout that picture. This created a disconcerting impression that Weaver was being victimized by the monstrous truck itself rather than by some garden-variety screwball.
Even so, my guess is that had the ersatz shark(s) worked with greater reliability, ‘Bruce’ would have indeed spent more time onscreen. (Although to what degree obviously remains an open question.) In any case, since the film works so well the way it is, you pretty much have to assume any such change would have been detrimental.
Yet all the film’s success can’t be credited to an atypically kind Lady Cinema protecting Spielberg from his own miscues. Jaws is, when all is said and done, a beautifully directed film. The compositions are generally understated yet always effective, the blocking of actors is superb (imagine how much work went into figuring what to do with the three leads as they spend nearly half the movie confined on a small boat), the camera movements, pans, zooms, reveals and similar matters masterful. It’s simply a great piece of work, and examining the film from that angle reminds you of things a director does—like the aforementioned blocking—that even movie buffs seldom think about.
This includes directing the actors. I’ve seen a lot of movies and ponder them more than the normal person does (to say the least), but even I fall into the trap of assuming that actors are alone responsible for their performances. After all, Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw are all accomplished thespians, so naturally their performances are this good.
What changed my mind was watching Jaws 2. TV veteran Jeannot Szwarc takes over the directorial reins, and his background helming TV episodes is quickly in evidence. His direction is competent, but sterile, lacking Spielberg’s flair and certainly his craftsmanship.
However, I was most struck by how much less effective Scheider and Gary are as the Brodys, especially since they had played the parts before. Presumably at Szwarc’s request, they play the characters just a little more broadly, with the kind of mugging facial expressions meant to insure that the viewer ‘gets’ what’s going on. It’s not as if I wasn’t expecting a generally inferior film to start with. Even so, this particular aspect of things caught me completely off guard. (More on this next week as we examine the film at greater length.)
Jaws is also a masterpiece of pacing. Even this early, Spielberg had an expert sense of timing. Look at the scene where a diving Hooper is examining Ben Gardner’s sunken boat. He’s examining a ragged hole torn in the boat’s hull when suddenly Gardner’s corpse comes floating out. Even after seeing the film a good half dozen times, I’m still caught just slightly off guard when this hoary shock effect occurs. The timing of it is that good. Spielberg also can’t resist also giving us a good look at the ganglia waving from Gardner’s now-empty eye socket.
Moreover, I can still remember seeing the movie for the first time in a theater. (Hey, if you can re-release The Exorcist and whatnot to theaters around Halloween, why not Jaws? C’mon, Universal, it’s free money.) I literally jumped out of my seat for perhaps the only time in my life during this scene—although the first good look at the shark was close—and I’ve never heard so loud a collective audience scream in my life.
Other interesting directorial moments abound. The ‘pull-away zoom’ shot on Brody’s face when Alex Kintner is attacked is, admittedly, diminished by the fact that every kid that’s ever gone to film school was shown Vertigo and told “Rip this off.” Don’t get me wrong, it still works here, but it’s not as effective as it once was.
However, let’s go back a bit in the same scene. The camera is set a fair distance back from Brody, looking squarely at him as he scans the beach. Rather than smoothly zoom in towards him in the standard fashion, Spielberg has extras walk directly in front of the camera, effectively blocking our view for a second. Then, after they’ve passed, he instantly jump cuts to a tighter shot of Brody. This occurs several times in succession and kicks the feeling that something’s about to happen up a notch.
Even though Spielberg had been working for a while, mostly in TV, it’s interesting how fully realized his technique is here. You don’t have to be an expert to tell that this is a Spielberg picture. All the familiar touches are there. His trademark falling star appears in the sky at one point.
The compositions have his fingerprints all over them, especially the classic image of the Orca leaving port, as shot from Quint’s fishing shack and framed through a gaping set of skeletal shark teeth. In lesser hands, the obvious symbolism would make the shot risible. Here’s it’s chilling.
Another Spielberg trademark is utilized during Quint’s speech at the town meeting. The camera focuses on him from the back of the room, and the shot moves towards him and grows tighter as he continues to speak. This continues until the end of the monologue, at which point Quint is framed in a tight close-up. Admittedly, here this is intercut with a similar tracking shot towards Brody—to indicate that he’s the only one really hearing what Quint is saying—but Spielberg uses this motif in seemingly every film he’s done.
A memorable short example would be the scene in Raiders where Denholm Elliot (playing another Brody, Malcolm, this time) expresses to Indy his trepidation about searching for the Ark of the Covenant. “Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost ark,” Malcolm warns. “It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.” By the time he hits the end of this little speech, the camera has is tightly framed on his distraught face.
The technique is displayed at greater length when Richard Attenborough, as industrialist John Hammond, delivers his long and rather dreadful ‘flea circus’ monologue in Jurassic Park. (Sadly, the sort of sharp, snappy dialog found in Spielberg’s early work isn’t as often found in his later films.) In a way it’s disconcerting to see Spielberg still resorting to the same bag of tricks nearly thirty years later, especially as they’ve grown a bit stale over the decades. Still, we’ll always have 1976-1982. As for 1941…we’ll call it a mulligan.
Finally, I’d be remiss were I not to mention the essential contribution to the film made by composer John Williams. Spielberg and Williams have continued to work together, and I believe Williams has scored every Spielberg film since this one. And like Spielberg, Williams will probably be best remembered for his work during this period. Not just for Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders and ET, but for his marvelous Superman score as well. Oh, yeah, and he did some little picture called Star Wars, which I guess still has a bit of a cult following.
Jaws ranks among Williams’ most memorable work. He surprised Spielberg with the extremely basic shark theme (“…duh, duh…duh, duh…duhduhduhduhduhduh”), but it remains one of the most recognizable horror themes in movie history, right up there with Bernard Herrmann’s screeching shower scene music for Psycho and John Carpenter’s Halloween theme.
That’s the obvious observation. However, the next time you watch the film listen to the terrific music that plays during the scenes on the Orca as they hunt the shark, early on when the whole thing’s still an adventure. The music is rousing stuff and helps lend this part of the film its exhilarating feel. Williams’ music is so integral to the film’s identity that if someone else scored the picture, it’s quite possible few would remember the picture today.
Of course, it helps that Spielberg knows how to use Williams’ music. The shark theme is heard as the film opens, accompanying a shark POV shot as it glides under the water. The music is then used to indicate the shark’s presence throughout the film, even when it’s not visible to the audience.
This pays off when we get our first real look at the beast, as it unexpectedly rears out of the water behind the Orca as Brody is bitching about having to toss chum into the water. The reason the shark’s appearance is so startling is that we haven’t heard the shark music, after being thoroughly conditioned to link the two. Pavlov would have been proud.
Meanwhile, an earlier use of the score in this manner is in the scene where two kids use a fake shark fin to precipitate a panic on the beach. Speilberg subconsciously cues the audience that the real shark isn’t around by forgoing the music that otherwise, to this point at least, heralds the presence of the shark.
Then there’s the sequence involving the attack on Chrissie. Watch it again with the music in mind and you’ll see how flawlessly Williams and Spielberg work together. The music is as essential to the sequence as Ennio Morricone’s was to the climactic gunfight in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The menacing yet beautiful music as the shark rises up toward his victim, innocently bobbing on the surface of the water. The startling musical sting when Chrissie is first yanked at by the shark. The shrieking strings (a nod to Psycho?) as she’s hauled back and forth through the water. The way the music all but pauses as we cut to the unconscious guy on the beach, confirming that he will be no help to her. Then the resumption of the music as we cut back to witness the rest of the attack. Finally, the way the music completely stops the moment Chrissie disappears under the water. It’s brilliant stuff.
It’s easy to get caught up in the totality of the sequence. As, indeed, Spielberg would have intended us to do. However, that’s the advantage of home video and DVD. It provides the opportunity to watch favorite films over and over again and gain a greater appreciation for their component parts.
As we shall see in the month ahead, including the B-Masters’ Roundtable that’ll accompany the Jaws: The Revenge review, the original Jaws itself followed Hooper’s description of the his beloved sharks: “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks and that’s all.” So went Spielberg’s film, swimming along, merrily eating up huge amounts of box office dollars. Oh, and it made little copies of itself as well, dozens, even hundreds of them. And guess what? Most of them bite, too. Believe me, they bite really, really hard.
I’d like to express my sincere appreciation and humble gratitude for the prodigious work of Mr. Carl Fink, Mr. Bill Leary & Ms. Kimberly Swygert. For some years now they’ve freely offered me the fruits of their learned, extraordinarily kind and mind-bogglingly thorough efforts. Their heroic labors have served to markedly reduce the nearly limitless number of typos and other grammatical errors I would otherwise inflict upon visitors to this site.
On this article especially they toiled away hours of their free time, of their own volition and sans any discernible reward to provide this article a polish and clarity it would never have achieved in their absence. My figurative hat is off to the three of you.