“Come on in the water ...”And, with that, young Chrissie Watkins foolishly skinny-dips into the deep blue, and commits herself to a shrieking date with destiny with such an enduring impact that folks, the world over, are still afraid to go swimming in the sea. With the recent JawsFest taking place in Martha's Vineyard (the real-life shark-afflicted Amity of the movie) pulling in thousands of fans to meet the surviving cast and crew and re-enact scenes, take part in Q and A sessions and gaze longingly at carefully preserved prop fins and severed heads, love and adoration for this timeless classic proves to be even stronger now than it has ever been, thirty years on. Thirty years.Can you believe it? I was six when Jaws came out and, with a scarcely believable Certificate A back then (and still a PG now), it created indelible images and emotions of horror and terror that will remain part of my cinematic heritage forever. John Williams's iconic, yet so simplistic signature tune, Ben Gardner's head lolling into view, the three yellow barrels bearing down upon Quint's stricken boat, the Orca, and that oh-so-flimsy cage descending into the murky depths. These are visions that are now so intricately connected; they almost feel like real, physical memories. Honestly, I can't believe that I haven't really sat comparing scars with college-boy Hooper, obsessive, Ahab-alike Quint and afraid-of-the-water police chief Brody as some tiny little tracking beacon steams steadily towards us through the briny. All testament, of course, to a wonderful screenplay, acting that is matchless and a talent behind the camera that continues to astound to this day.
“This was not a boating accident ...”
Creating the mother of all monster/suspense films, a young Steven Spielberg could have had no idea of the effect the primal fear he was tapping into would have on the world box office, or mankind's collective psyche. He delivered a phobia-frenzy that still managed to maintain a gritty, real-life edge, wholly believable characters, a tremendous sense of man's vulnerability and a great slice of adventure to boot. It made a man of him and created the Blockbuster Event Movie before Star Wars' Imperial Cruiser had even begun to rumble overhead. It may have ruined the summer beach holiday but it fast became the ideal date movie, shaping itself into a pop-culture phenomenon. You may not have seen the movie, but I guarantee that you'll recognise the theme-tune.
“You yell shark and we've got a panic on our hands on the 4th July.”
Carl Gottlieb's adaptation of Peter Benchley's airport-lounge bestseller, successfully ditched the affairs, mob-involvement and all-round soap-operatics that would have sunk the thriller without a trace, opting instead for a character-driven chiller that literally defined the roller-coaster narrative that has since become a summer staple. With input from Benchley himself (even in a cameo role within the film), the shark returned to the fore, becoming the bogeyman, the Beast, the terror that lurks forever at the threshold of Man's knowledge and capability, the thing that cannot be tamed and will always chomp us down to size whenever we get too big for our boots. Jaws is the ultimate nature-fighting-back movie. But, as terrifying as ol' rubbery Bruce is, the movie is best remembered for three other reasons - Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and, of course, Robert Shaw. The excellence of these three acting heavyweights can never be overstated and should be held up as a master class in ultra-realism and the epitome of character. They didn't just play the respective roles of police chief Martin Brody, ichthyologist Matt Hooper and shark hunter Quint - they became them. Sympathetic, credible and completely accessible, this heroic trio, in my opinion, have never been surpassed. The bickering, the bantering and the entire collective endeavour to bring this big fish home for supper is like a cam-corded escapade on board a real-life boat. I truly cannot recall a set of characters that I have ever cared more about. Quint may be obnoxious, abrasive and all-too eager to play up the class divide with rich-kid Hooper who, in turn, gleefully responds with as much arrogance as he can muster - but I wouldn't trust amiable, water-phobic cop Brody's welfare with anybody else. Shaw provides a career-defining turn, exuding the raw, sunburned physicality of an aging tiger. He may pluck a tooth delicately from his own jaw but you could easily imagine him wrestling with a squid, and singing shanties all the while. Hooper may lack stature but, speaking of plucking teeth, check out his gutsy examination of old Ben Gardner's wrecked hull. And then, of course, we get his sacrificial cage-descent to battle the beast. “I got no spit,” he murmurs with a faint smile, the pure dread of his actions like a knife twisting in our hearts. Dreyfuss is magnificent as the wealthy college-boy, well-educated and the complete opposite of Quint's salt-veined working-Joe. He evens manages a little bullying of his own, reminding Brody with a stiff drink that he is drunk enough to go out on a boat to search the shark's feeding area.
“They're in the yahhd not too fahh from the cahh.”
But it is Roy Scheider's portrayal of fish-out-water city cop Brody that anchors the tale. He may be as ignorant and as terrified as we are, but only he can see that “We're gonna need a bigger boat,” on this trip. His interaction with the petty bureaucracy ashore - Murray Hamilton's kids may have on that beach, too, but he simply excels as the mayor of shark city - is often priceless. Maybe in Amity one man can make a difference ... but only if the town elders don't hang him up by his Buster Browns first. His home-life, a soon-to-be trademark of Spielberg's, is so utterly convincing that it often feels as though we are spying on him and his family. The exquisitely crafted scene where he plays mimic with his youngest boy is so touching and human that we truly pray Quint is telling the truth when he promises Brody's wife, Ellen, that he'll bring him home for supper. Look at his childlike joy at finally getting the sailing knot right, or his clumsy appeal for information as to Quint's removed tattoo. When most of us landlubbers know next to nothing about boats, it's a marvellously reassuring, if ultimately futile, sight to see him pump bullets into the shark with his service revolver when all manner of harpoons and barrels just can't seem to do the trick.
“You ever have a Great White do this before?”
Spielberg's direction is near-faultless. His mastery of suspense is now legendary - the shark-cage melee, the red-herring fake fin that leads into a pulse-pounding estuary attack, the initial clicking of Quint's reel as he takes miniscule bites from a cracker - yet, his assuredness is completed with the fabulous interplay of actors and real-life townsfolk - the photo-shoot with the wrong shark, the committee meeting (“Twenty four hours is like three weeks”) and Hooper's arrival at the dock amid shark-hunting chaos. He generates a real sense of a busy, ticking harbour, full of crazy old soaks and chum-happy fishermen all eager to put their businesses back on a paying basis. He encourages dialogue that is rapid, rich and earthy, flowing with a naturalism that is beautifully convincing. Forget Howard Hawks' patented overlapping wordplay - these characters talk over, under and around each other, stuttering, stammering and coughing out words as though observed through the lens of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. This level of authenticity serves to heighten the drama by embedding it in a genuinely real, and involving, realm of everyday-everywhere-ville. You might not live on the coast but every living thing still feels threatened if danger encroaches upon its community, its home. Amity lives and breathes ... and, boy, does it need summer dollars!
“You go inside the cage. Cage goes in the water. You go in the water. Shark's in the water. Our shark. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies ...”
We all know the scares ... perhaps even down to the exact second that they will appear. But such knowledge will not help you. Ben's mangled head, the shark breaking water, a massive jolt to the back of the Hooper's cage - timeless jump-out-of-your-seat classics that can never be bested, their power undiminished even after a thousand viewings. But the accolade for most bone-chilling moment comes courtesy of barnacled old Quint when he delivers the now immortal USS Indianapolis tale. I don't care who really wrote this terrifying monologue - many lay claim to it - but I'm with Quint about not putting on a life-jacket again. “Show me the way to go home,” indeed. Another unsettling thing is that Brody's face is actually very similar to the shark's. No, seriously. You look at it - all angular and snout-prominent, and those globby eyes that seem to bulge from the side of his head.
“Smile, you sonofa ...”
Bruce the shark did, and always will, rule the ocean. The sharks of later chomping-fests may have grown and received CG makeovers but, for me, they will never surpass the sheer brutish menace that the original “eating machine” possessed. Bruce didn't care. He'd take out dogs, kids, nubile young beach-babes and kerosene-blooded, machete-wielding madmen. The image of him powering through the sea, a compressed-air canister lodged in his mouth (a throwback to an image that Brody sees in a book) and ragged flesh hanging from those huge triangular teeth is pure, unadulterated nightmare. Shark's POV photography takes us uncomfortably close to his domain, all surging water and dangling limbs, Williams' music providing the pounding of his insatiable heart. His lifeless, black eyes (“Like a doll's eyes”) may forget to roll over white, but they serve to remove all mercy and soul as the most hideous countenance implacably chews through steel wire and pummels cage bars like balsa-wood. He transcends his own raw primal force of nature, becoming almost supernatural with his canny intelligence, single-minded determination to pursue and harass his would-be tormentors and the sheer, bloody ferocity of his dominance. Trust me, Quint, he can stay down with three barrels on him. The only other beast in movies to ever come close to this level of unreasoning savagery is Ridley Scott's Alien. Indeed, both films feature humans isolated in an extremely hostile environment, as another strand of evolution just, well, does what it does. But the big difference is that Great White sharks exist, and our fear of the deep sea is not illogical. Take a swim, ride on a ferryboat, hell, even fly over the ocean and try to not spare a heart-faltering second imagining what would happen if you ended up down there, a three-foot fin breaking the surface close by.
“I just heard that a girl got killed here ... and still you let people go swimming ...”
Jaws is very nearly a perfect movie, in my opinion. It sets out to thrill and excite - just feel the adrenaline-fuelled exhilaration of the barrel chase (“Hook me up another barrel!”) and Brody's sinking last stand - and delivers all you could wish for. It creates wonderful empathy with, and compassion for, its characters and roots them very successfully in the real world. We all feel the agony of Mrs. Kintner when she disrupts the dockside joy of a tiger shark being caught, with a painfully dished-out slap. It's celebrated set-pieces stand the test of the time - in fact, only a few dodgy haircuts and clothes give away its era - Hooper's terrific yacht still looks state-of-the-art even now. Spielberg's direction is incredibly smooth, almost languid for much of the time - just letting the actors get on with it - but when the good stuff arrives it comes with ground-breaking reverse zooms, clever editing and a masterful use of the widescreen frame. The isolation of the Orca upon the vast sea always convinces, the cosy, lived-in feel of Brody's home invites us in(“I brought red and white ... I didn't know what you'd be serving.”) and the attacks spike with an energy that will truly leave you palpitating. Shudder at the size of that shark with stunning overhead shots as it circles the boat, or drags the hapless rower beneath the surface. Scary yet funny, endearing yet shocking - Quint's final face-off with the beast, anyone - and always completely captivating. The dialogue is eminently quotable, too. Just remember, “It's only an island if you look at it from the water.” And, oh, that music. All together now ... DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM.
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