Jaws is one of the best movies ever made. It stands alongside Hitchcock's Psycho as an example of a near-perfect thriller, and like so many others it has me consistently bewitched and terrified each time I watch it. Just 27 years old when he made Jaws, his sophomore feature film, Spielberg managed to conjure up an absolute masterpiece that is celebrated globally even today, almost 40 years since it's original release.
Based on Peter Benchley's best selling novel of the same name, it's the story of an island called Amity. It's a sleepy and slow paced hamlet for ¾ of the year, Amity comes alive in July as sun-seaking vacationers descend upon it's pristine beaches. This quiet life was part of the attraction for Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who recently brought his wife and two kids to the island to take up a post as Amity's Chief of Police. Brody, formerly a New York City police officer, fled the big city with its high rates of violent crime and Amity looks to be the perfect candidate for his kids to grow up in a safer environment.
“You yell barracuda, everybody says, "Huh? What?" You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
Amity relies heavily on the income generated over the summer months when boat-loads of tourists arrive for the 4th of July Annual Regatta, and its Mayor is very conscious of this fact. So, at the discovery of an unusually large great white shark prowling the shores of the summer holiday hot-spot, Mayor Vaughan swings into action, refusing to allow Brody to close the beaches despite two deaths in the space of a week. Brody finds himself hog-tied by the politics, and as a newcomer to the town, his suggestion of closing the beaches also upsets many of the town's folk who have businesses that rely on the tourist trade. This animosity turns to concern when a young boy, Alex Kintner, is killed by the enormous shark just off the shore one sunny day in front of thousands of holiday-makers.
After the mourning mother of the young boy posts a reward of $3,000 for the capture of the shark, an Army of haphazard locals head out to sea to try and snare the shark and bag the reward. Recognizing the dangers of an angry mob armed with dynamite and other similarly inappropriate ordinance, Brody is left desperately trying to keep them from causing further disaster by blowing each other up by accident. One group of hapless seafarers catch a shark they believe to be the one that killed the boy, and that's all the mayor needs to hear to put further pressure on the police chief to re-open the beaches. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus), an oceanographer called in from the mainland, convinces Brody that the shark they caught is highly unlikely to be the shark that killed the Kintner boy, and that the real threat is still very much at large. Brody wants to keep the beaches closed and hire local seafaring loner, Quint (Robert Shaw), to catch the shark.
"I'll catch this bird for you, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish."
And so, Quint, Brody and Hooper set sail aboard Quint's run down fishing vessel, The Orca, to catch this monster of the sea. The mainly wooden boat looks as though it's seen better days, but Quint is a man who knows the water, and Brody seems in awe of the rugged fisherman. The trio embark upon an adventure that will prove to be much, much more than they anticipated, and they quickly discover that they may have bitten off more than they can chew when the shark starts biting chunks off their boat.
At the time of its release, Jaws was unquestionably the most successful box office hit in history. The first movie ever to gross more than $100m, and that was in the US alone. It gave rise to the concept of the Summer Blockbuster; an accolade that, today, means nothing in terms of quality outside of visuals. It saw more success than anyone could have imagined, outselling The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, The Sting and even The Sound of Music, and that's before the movie even left the shores of the United States.
Critically acclaimed, and at the time widely acknowledged as the most successful movie of all time, it was not without its production difficulties. Originally supposed to be a relatively quick shoot, lasting 60 days off Martha's Vinyard – an island just off the coast of America near Rhode Island, Spielberg's insistence that it be shot at sea rather than in a tank saw the movies schedule overrun by almost a hundred days. Of course this decision was the right one, but it proved costly and producers Zanuck and Brown had to dig deep to keep the picture going. This also didn't help the fact that instead of miniatures, Spielberg wanted to use a full size mechanical shark. They soon realised that the three full size mechanical animatronic sharks they had built didn't like salt water at all. The shoot was plagued by problems with the sharks not working, and Spielberg is well documented as saying that it became something of a nightmare for him throughout. In real terms, these problems basically amounted to the shoot time tripling and the budget doubling, from 55 days at $3.5million to 159 days at $7 million. Just wow.
Universal Studios had it's own ideas as to who should be cast as the main protagonists, but Spielberg, all credit to him, stuck to his guns and refused Charlton Heston and Jan-Michael Vincent for the lead roles, much to the dismay of studio execs. Quite a bold move for a relative nobody in the movie business. Time would prove this decision to be Spielberg's second best on the movie. The best decision, despite the budget and time issues it created, was to do it at sea rather than in a tank.
An important factor for the director in choosing to shoot at sea was to convey a sense of being cut-off. According to Spielberg, he believed that no matter what direction he pointed his camera, you should not be able to see land for the simple fact that he wanted the audience to feel as cut off from land as the characters in the movie were. He was worried that if there was land in shot at any point, as soon as things start to get a little intense the audience would wonder why they didn't just turn the boat around and head back to the land we keep seeing in shot. Without land in shot, this thought never really occurs to us. It keeps the whole thing as believable as he intended. What's really interesting is that they only had to travel 12 miles to sea off Martha's Vineyard to achieve this. Remarkable.
Spielberg pretty much shoots the movie from sea level. Most scenes where there's swimming involved or floating on the water are shot with the water lapping half way up the lens of the camera. It's a great effect because it's how we tend to experience the water when we're in it. We can't quite see the horizon, and we're constantly aware of a huge abyss beneath us. Let's face it, every time you're in the water and you feel something brush your foot, it's a lie to say that you don't instinctively think it's a shark or some other malevolent monster that wants to eat you or do you harm. Spielberg plays with this ingrained thought process brilliantly.
"This shark, swallow you whole."
It's interesting that, looking back, we can acknowledge that the production woes they faced while filming probably inadvertently helped the movie. Look at it this way – if Jaws was made today, it would be a wildly different movie. For a start, you can bet your ass we would have seen a lot more of the shark - simply because with digital special effects, you can pretty much make the shark do whatever you want. How about taking this one step closer to reality; what if Spielberg, restricted by the era in which the film was made, didn't have such problems with the mechanical shark? What if it just worked? Sure, the production time would have been closer to what they intended, and yeah, budgets might have not drifted so far into the red, but the movie would have suffered immensely because you can be damn sure they would have used it a lot more. As it is, the movie is 55 minutes old before we get our first real glimpse of the shark, and what that means for us is that the tension leading up to that moment is electrifying. None of the thrills up to that point are cheap, and Spielberg has to work his butt off to get you where he wants you. He couldn't show you the shark, but you had to believe it was out there. He manages to get us to buy into the horror just by showing us a wide shot of the ocean, or a well framed expression on Quint's face. He achieves this with a deft skill, and that is a rare trait in a director.
Not seeing the shark is far more effective at making us feel nervous, but only because Spielberg has thought things through properly. He hasn't come at it haphazardly, and the first act is wonderfully orchestrated. He is courageous and bold in his approach, and boy does it pay off. A perfect example is the scene on the Pier where the two fishermen hook the Sunday Pot-Roast as bait, chain it up and let the tide take it out. What happens next is utterly terrifying, as the shark takes the bait and pulls half the pier a good fifty feet out, with one of the fishermen trapped on the driftwood. Not seeing the shark here is of paramount importance. We watch in horror as the wreckage of the pier slowly turns and menacingly starts to chase the stranded fisherman, frantically swimming for his life as his buddy desperately urges hi “Trust me Charlie, don't look back – Swim, Charlie - Swim!”. It's literally the scariest piece of wood I've ever seen.
Throughout the movie, we're treated to directorial flare as a result of restricted means. Spielberg wanted to do the Kintner boy death scene in one sustained shot, but this would prove extremely difficult, since it had to give us everything from Brody's point of view. Spielberg realised that without showing Brody's facial expression and reaction, it simply wouldn't have worked. He gets around this problem with an amazing idea that sees bathers with different colour bathing suits walk in front of the camera, act as the wipe-off and wipe on between shots. The wipe from left to right lets us look at Brody, and right to left, lets us look at what Brody is looking at. He uses the colour of the bathing suits to maintain consistency, and the effect is that the scene feels unbroken and seamless. All of this clever camera wizardry leads up to that famous “Trombone Shot”, used very effectively here as Brody sees the Kintner boy enveloped in a rolling swathe of black fins and exploding blood. Hitchcock would be proud.
Let's remember though, that Steven Spielberg had only really directed two movies prior to climbing on board for Jaws, and neither had seen a huge degree of commercial success at the time. It's perhaps something of a schoolboy error, or maybe even greed, that leads him to fall foul of one of the oldest mistakes in the book. This first act ends with a huge fright for the audience in seeing a decapitated head bob out of the hull of Ben Gardner's chewed up wreckage. Even watching the movie back today, conservatively guessing for around the 15th time, I still jump a little - but he's peaked too early. During the second and third acts, where we have a little more visibility of the creature (though not to the point of being gratuitous), the shocks that he orchestrates for us are somehow lessened by the impact that the Ben Gardner shot had on us. We're on the back-foot, our guard is well and truly up and we just don't trust him. We're spoiling for a fight with the terror we know he's capable of inflicting on us. We're looking around every corner with apprehension; at every ripple in the water with a sense of foreboding, tensing up in preparation for what he's going to throw at us. The result of all this is that the shock factor is lessened. The film's fright-o-meter should be going through the roof at the point where the shark rears it's toothy head out of the water and almost takes Brody's arm off while he's chumming, and sure, it's a scary moment, but the way it's framed, makes it a little telegraphed, and I blame Ben Gardner's head for that entirely - remove that scene at the end of the first act and I'm putty in your hands, Mr Spielberg; but after that, I'm taking everything you put in front of me and putting distance between me and it.
"You go in the cage. Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark's in the water. Our shark."
Let's not forget that Jaws is, after all, a character piece. Without the characters in it, this movie is nothing but a monster movie. Credit, in part, here goes to Benchley for his incredible novel, the first novel for the author, and the first novel about a giant fish (Oh hush, you pedants - whales aren't fish). However, it's how the screenplay is written that affords us the time to get to know about these characters, and really care about them. Casting is sublime too, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing these iconic roles now, but it wasn't always set in stone as to who would climb into the enormous shoes of Brody, Quint and Hooper.
Brody is the Chief of Police. He's a family man who came from New York City where he was a cop. Seeking a slower pace of life and a less criminal environment for his kids to grow up in. He's a snake-like, sinewy man, who is extremely believable as the tired and jaded New York Cop. In Amity he struggles to adapt to the lazier pace of life, and often finds it difficult to adjust to the more mundane problems the townsfolk bring to his doorstep. Kids Karate chopping the white picket fences is hardly what he's used to coming from the big city, nevertheless, he's happier here than waking up to murders and robberies everyday.
What's immediately interesting about Brody's character is that he's afraid of the water. Not because of sharks, but because he can't swim. There is a brilliant duality in this that, as the audience, some of us can really relate to. Scheider is very natural in his apprehension of the sea, and this carries through in everything he does, such as his reluctance to buy his eldest son a boat, or perhaps his unwillingness to enter the water when he's frantically trying to get everyone out. He's no David Hasslehoff in Baywatch, that's for sure. He's believable and realistic.
Priority number one for Brody is keeping the people of the island safe. He's a proud man, and he only has the safety of the people in mind. Frustratingly, this is something that a lot of the islanders have a problem with, including the town's Mayor (Murray Hamilton). So used to being able to bully the chief of police is he, that he finds the new Police Chief to be something of a nuisance for wanting to close the beaches. Showing a great bravery in sucking up his fears and worries, we genuinely feel for Brody as he embarks upon the ill fated hunt aboard The Orca.
"Well, if we're looking for a shark we're not gonna find him on the land."
Then there's Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus). Originally lined up to play the part of the rich-boy oceanographer were John Voight or Jeff Bridges, which would have made for a very different experience in my opinion - but Dreyfus is exceptional. Matt Hooper is the enigmatic and bright-eyed Scientist, called in by Brody from the mainland as an oceanographer, specialising in sharks. His demeanour exudes confidence and he carries a slightly affable “know-it-all” presence. His knowledge in the field is indisputable, and his sarcastic attitude toward the islander's denial of any prevailing danger after a ten foot shark is caught, is that of a man who knows he's right. Brody recognises this in Hooper, and the two join forces to convince the Mayor to shut down the beaches anyway.
It's interesting that the character is painted in such a way that it's really easy for us to understand why islanders might not be taken in by him. He turns up with his big-city attitude and breadth of knowledge in the subject, and demonstrates a distinct lack of humility, presenting the facts in a harsh and quite condescending way. Amity Island's inhabitants pride themselves on their disdain for city-folk, and aren't likely to welcome a mainlander coming along and barking at them about how they're wrong. At the same time, we know he's right, and we connect with his frustration. We can empathise with his “fighting a losing battle” dilemma of knowing that the danger is still out there, but it's easy to see how he could have approached it in a slightly more productive way. The fact is that he comes from money, and has a great education, and self-funds oceanographic institute research, so why should he pander to a bunch of back-water islanders when he has such a wealth of experience? He shouldn't, so here are the facts, do with them as you will.
"Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour."
And then there's Quint. From the moment he first appears on screen, Robert Shaw is utterly captivating as the fearsome seafaring loner. He carries a slow and deliberate sense of gravity with him that permeates his bewitching monologues throughout the movie. His character is masterfully constructed, and it's no effort for us to fall hook, line and sinker for Shaw's incredible portrayal of him.
We get our first glimpse of the rugged figure at a town hall meeting. Brody is making an announcement that after the death of the young boy, Alex Kintner, the beaches will be closed. Amidst an uproar of angry confusion, a terrifying sound quiets every voice in the room. At the back of the room, sitting hunched forward, leaning on his knee, Quint tears his nails down a chalk-board. The sound is awful, and everyone in the room winces. Everyone, that is, apart from Quint. With a dirty cap pointed skyward, scruffy and unkempt facial hair, a big round red face, and eyes that burn through everyone in the room, we sit and listen as he delivers his speech. It's almost as though he had silenced us, the audience, as members of the congregation. What's clear almost immediately is that this character is the only one who has an unbridled sense of confidence in a situation where confusion and worry are rife.
Shaw is so damned good in this role that it makes us feel as much a part of the town as the rest of the cast. He commands your attention, and we offer it dutifully. He's strong and mean, but he's the only chance the island has - the patriarchal saviour, and whilst he's feared, he's also lauded as the only hope they have. The only hope we have.
He's intense and brooding, and Shaw's performance brings a welcome colour to the character. In the scene where they're loading up the ship readying for sea, he's giving Brody a hard time, mocking him for turning up clad head to toe in rubber. He thinks that Brody is a city boy and something of an idiot. As Brody approaches the boat looking like a lost little boy who's had a gun thrust into his hands and asked to go to battle, we see Ellen (Lorraine Gary), Brody's wife. Quint sees her too, and as is his natural way, starts to goad her and make her feel awkward. He's a real nasty piece of work, and this is our first glimpse of Quint's malicious nature. Shaw is outstanding here, and Spielberg recalls him improvised the reciting of a poem at Ellen Brody to make her feel uncomfortable - “Here lies the body of Mary Lee; died at the age of a hundred and three. For fifteen years she kept her virginity; not a bad record for this vicinity.” It shows the crude nature of the man absolutely brilliantly. When Spielberg spoke to shaw after shooting the scene, he said that he loved the poem, but if they're going to stand a chance of using it in the movie they would have to clear the rights. He asked Shaw who the poem was by, and he simply replied that he didn't think it'd be a problem to use it, since he got it from a gravestone somewhere in rural Ireland.
Then there's “That Speech”. The USS Indianapolis. Originally only a short paragraph in the script, this speech will, for me, go down as one of the finest delivered in any movie. It not only gives us a deeper understanding of Quint's character and an insight into perhaps why he catches sharks for a living, but it provides a much needed solemness that sits perfectly between the jovial scar comparison scene and the booming thud of the shark physically attacking the boat.
It's delivered by Robert Shaw and directed at Chief Brody, though it's mostly Hooper who is in shot. Hoopers face, utterly transfixed on Quint, mirrors our expression as we watch the words roll off Quint's tongue. It's impossible to look away from the man; you hang on every word. A magical moment in cinema that I dare say will never be forgotten.
“We're gonna need a bigger boat”
Jaws could probably rival the likes of Withnail & I for quotability. This is possibly one of the most quoted lines in any movie ever, and that's saying something. Believe it or not, it was entirely improvised by Roy Scheider. Over the years this phrase become par for the course as language to describe a situation where people are faced with an insurmountable problem, much like I felt when I started writing this review. “I'm gonna need a bigger page...”
At its most simplistic, it's the story of three men in a boat. A heroes tale that echoes mythological stories such as Moby Dick or David and Goliath. The triangular relationship between Quint, Hooper and Brody is a taught one aboard the cramped and claustrophobic boat. At times it seems as though both Quint and Hooper are in some ways vying for Brody's faith, each coming at the somewhat naive police chief from very different angles.
Of course the real star of the show is the shark - affectionately referred to as “Bruce” on set. Firstly, it's huge. Enormous. Big enough to swallow you whole. Actually, it's about 25 feet. Sharks had been recorded at around 20 – 21 feet, and everything with the mechanical shark was kept in proportion. Lets be frank, you don't see the shark a lot during the movie, but when you do, boy is it a frightening sight. One of the problems that people have with the movie today is the believability of the shark that it hasn't stood the test of time. Naysayers, all of them. Take it from me, it stands up to it's age remarkably well. Sure, these days you get much more realistic stuff with CG, but this was made in the early 1970's. The intention for the film was obviously to convince the world that this was a real shark, and when I first saw Jaws back in the early 80's, I was convinced. It's only when we started to see things like Jurassic Park emerge that the shark in Jaws began to struggle, but for me, it doesn't have anything to worry about.
"And the thing about a shark is he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn't even seem to be livin'... until he bites ya"
When all is said and done, it's because of the shark, and the limited amount of screen time it gets that this movie was such a success. Sure, there are those that will tell you about how the movie falls on its face when the shark bounces onto the boat and starts flapping its mouth, but to them I say that for me personally, when that happens I'm not looking at whether the shark is believable or not because I care more about Quint not dying than I do about whether it looks really real. I'm so invested in the characters that I genuinely don't want them to fall foul of this beast. I'm shouting at the screen for Quint to beat this thing's head with whatever's nearby. I'm tensed up inside, hoping that this time the movie will play out differently and Quint will be saved by Brody demonstrating an act of sheer defiance and bravery, grabbing on to Quint's arm with the strength of ten men and pulling him away from the jaws of death. I want to know what would happen between these two characters who obviously had had a problem with each other throughout the movie, if they both managed to survive. I do not want these guys I've come to care about and admire, to be killed by this huge chomping shark. “Yeah, but don't you think the eyes look all wrong though?” - this movie is wasted on you.
This review would remain forever incomplete without mentioning the music. It takes credit for at least half of the suspense of the movie, and is arguably the most memorable musical theme in history. Incredible for predominantly being just two notes, a mere semi tone apart. Every time the camera points to the ocean with the ominous theme tune thumping away at you, your imagination runs wild. Having not been able to show you the shark perhaps as much as he may have liked due to technical difficulties, the music carries a lot of the burden of suspense. Take away the soundtrack and replace it with literally anything else would be to diminish the movies impact and suspense by more than 50%. The camera can be looking out to sea with no sign of the shark at all in shot, but as soon as you hear that sound of the deep throaty strings you get a sense of terror inside and think “he's out there, somewhere”.
Ok, so theres a lot more in here than just two notes, in fact there's a magical marriage of the sinister element with an almost fantastical set of themes using harps and flutes. The main theme is a relentless, unstoppable sound of deep strings thumping away at you. It's interspersed with huge stabs of very discordant brass and strings, and carried over the top is a menacing French horn theme that personifies the attitude of the shark absolutely perfectly. It's all about instinctual reaction with the shark, swimming along slowly and very powerfully, then suddenly snapping at you and grabbing you. The music tells this story brilliantly, and though it's all subconscious for us, the message is in there.
It's not without it's faults though. John Williams being the King of the March, we find his signature all over sections of the movie where we're given some wildly inappropriate fanfare style heroic blasts that wouldn't be out of place in Pirates of the Caribbean. Though entirely forgivable since the rest of the movie's score is right up there as one of the most memorable and terrifying scores since Bernerd Herrman's shrill signature piece in Psycho.
And so, it's with some regret that I bring this review to a close. There's just so much more to say, but I fear that, by continuing, I may run the risk of losing what few of you made it this far. Suffice it to say that Jaws is the stand out title from my youth, and has stayed with me throughout my adult life. It's a fantastic and powerfully emotive character piece that you'll certainly connect with it on some level, regardless as to whether you like the borderline horror aspects of it.
"Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain. For we've received orders for to sail back to Boston. And so nevermore shall we see you again."
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