Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Jeffrey Kramer, Jeffrey Voorhees, Lee Fierro, Robert Nevin, Susan Backlinie
Screenplay: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based upon the novel by Peter Benchley
Synopsis: During an all-night beach party on Amity Island, Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) goes for a swim and is dragged to her death by something beneath the water . The next morning, Amitys police chief, ex-New Yorker Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), goes to the beach with Chrissies boyfriend, who reported her missing. The two men hurry along the sands upon hearing a frantic signal from Deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), who has found Chrissies body whats left of it. The medical examiner lists the cause of death as "shark attack". Upon hearing from Hendricks that Amity has no "Beach Closed" signs, Brody orders him to make some. Hendricks tells Brody that a group of scouts are doing a mile swim off the island. Brody rushes to the local ferry in an attempt to head the boys off, and is cornered by Amitys mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), the medical examiner (Robert Nevin), and some businessmen. Vaughn tells Brody that he doesnt have the authority to close the beaches; and that Amity being "a summer town", anything that might keep visitors from the beaches will damage the local economy. At the mayors prompting, the medical examiner changes his verdict to "boating accident". The Brodys go to the beach, where the locals twit Martin over his refusal to enter the water. A boy named Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) convinces his mother (Lee Fierro) to allow him ten minutes more in the water. As he plays on his raft, he is grabbed from below and dragged beneath the water amidst a plume of blood. A panic ensues. As parents pull their children from the water, Alexs mother is left to stare at her sons shredded raft . A town meeting is called, where the business community reacts angrily to Brodys insistence on closing the beaches. A fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) interrupts the meeting with an offer to catch and kill the shark for a fee. Mrs Kintner offers a bounty on the shark. That night, as Brody reads up on sharks, two townsmen attach a bait on a chain to the end of a jetty. Sure enough, it is taken and with sufficient force to smash the jetty and knock one of the men into the water, from where he barely escapes with his life. The next day, as swarms of fisherman take to the water, Brody meets Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute. Hooper examines Chrissie Watkins remains, and scornfully dismisses the notion of a "boat accident". Meanwhile, a tiger shark is killed. The townspeople celebrate, believing their troubles over. Hooper, however, says that it cannot be the shark that killed Chrissie Watkins. Inviting himself to dinner at the Brodys, Hooper convinces Martin to help him cut the shark open. They do so, and find no human remains. To the terror of the water-fearing Brody, Hooper insists on the two of them going out to look for the shark. The men locate an abandoned boat. Hooper dives beneath the boat to examine its hull. He finds a gaping hole in it, with a huge tooth, that of a Great White shark, embedded in the wood. The next instant, Hooper recoils in horror, dropping the tooth, as a human head drifts towards him . Hooper and Brody make another attempt to convince Vaughn to close the beaches, but in the absence of further evidence, he refuses. Another fatal attack occurs. Brody forces Vaughn to agree to the hiring of Quint. The fisherman reluctantly accepts Hooper and Brody as his crew, and the three men set out to hunt the killer.
Comments: In many ways, Jaws is a remarkably simplistic movie. It plays out as a classic three-act drama, moving from A to B to C without digressions, without subplots, and without telling us anything about the characters that we do not absolutely need to know. And it is this very simplicity that gives the film so much of its power. As a mean, lean, stripped to the bone thriller, Jaws provides an object lesson in tension-building that a great many modern film-makers (the contemporary version of Steven Spielberg included) would do well to heed. The other lesson that the film provides another one apparently lost on the current generation of horror directors is that good writing and good acting will carry a film over any deficiencies in its special effects. (Conversely, not even an effects budget of countless millions can dispel the lingering odour of sloppy writing and cardboard characterisations.) It is interesting to speculate on what kind of film Jaws would have turned out to be had Bruce the Mechanical Shark been all that Spielberg hoped, and if the director had not, by the devices very limitations, been forced to convey the sharks presence by suggestion rather than directly. My opinion is, not half the film it ended up being. The fear that informs Jaws is that of the unseen, not the seen. The countless shots at water-level, the views from underneath of those vulnerable, churning legs, the smashed jetty and the yellow barrels being effortlessly dragged through the water all drive up the fear levels in a way that an explictly-seen shark would not. From an invisible terror to a glimpsed one, from a glimpsed one to one present in wonderfully choreographed shock shots, the slow build-up to the full revelation of the storys monster captures the audiences imagination to such an extent that when the shark is finally fully revealed, its somewhat rubbery nature is simply not important. The other things that make all this work are, firstly, the setting by the time the shark really attacks, we, like Martin Brody, are longing for a bigger and more substantially built vessel and secondly, that the film has taken so much care in the development of its three central characters.
Jaws is an interesting contradiction. It certainly isnt character-driven, yet without its characters, it simply wouldnt have the same impact. Martin Brody is one of filmdoms more interesting heroes, inasmuch as he is not, by any of the usual definitions, particularly heroic. Throughout the film, Brody is a man living in fear fear of the water, of boats, above all of the creature he has to destroy; and it precisely because of this that he becomes one of the screens great audience identification figures. This is no wish-fulfillment he-man, dealing with crisis after crisis without getting his hair mussed or missing an opportunity for a wisecrack; this is a real human being confronting his (and perhaps the audiences) very worst nightmare, and overcoming it just barely. Allowing Brody to be so frankly scared (I love not only the original "bigger boat" line, but Brodys ensuing, increasingly desperate pleas of "Were gunna get a bigger boat now, right? Right?) is a bold stroke, but it pays off. We know that this man is no coward, and his terror increases ours ten-fold. Roy Scheider gives a wonderfully detailed yet understated performance as Brody, one all the more meritorious for the way he manages to hold his own in the face of the infinitely more flamboyant contributions of Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. Dreyfuss was a wise casting choice as Matt Hooper. As the films resident shark expert, he has the unenviable task of delivering most of the expository dialogue, which he does via a string of rapid-fire speeches, something Dreyfusss inherently hyperactive persona makes seem natural rather than forced. (As for the accuracy of what Hooper tells the audience, thats another matter entirely.) Hoopers growing fascination with the monstrous shark menacing Amity is also credible, as is his volunteering to go beneath the water to confront the creature, despite, like Brody, having to battle his terror of the animal in the process. The third member of the shark-hunting trio is, however if youll forgive the expression a very different kettle of fish. Whereas Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss strive throughout for naturalism, Robert Shaw as Quint gives new meaning to the expression "old salt", to the extent that for a considerable time, his performance teeters on the brink of outright caricature. What rescues it is a scene of stunning power, one of the outstanding set-pieces of modern cinema one which, incredibly enough, consists of nothing but dialogue.
Re-watching Jaws, it occurred to me that one of the films great merits is the lack of contrivance amongst the characters that is, that they didnt find it necessary to re-write the story in order to shoehorn a "female lead" into the proceedings. Too damn many films these days particularly action movies - suffer from this sort of thing, generally for no better reason than to get some breasts onscreen, or give the hero something to rescue, or fight over. With respect to Jaws, I can think of nothing more obvious or lazier than for the Matt Hooper character to have been turned into a woman, probably complete with the traditional "Why, youre a girl!" scene. ("Mattie Hooper", anyone? This is, by the way, one of the very few genre films out there where the marine biologist isnt a woman.) Had the writers succumbed to this temptation, they would have destroyed what is ultimately, perhaps, the films greatest virtue: the dynamic between the three main characters; for Jaws, like Zulu, or The Great Escape, is one of the cinemas great exercises in male bonding. From the moment the Orca pulls out of port (ominously framed in the jaws of a shark), it is the shifting relationship of the three men on board that is the films most powerful aspect. Once at sea, Brody and Hooper are stripped of their professional authority. Quints open contempt of his companions - particularly of Hooper, who is jeeringly labelled "college boy" results in some simply unforgettable incidents (Hoopers satirical crushing of his foam cup, for example) as the two shark experts jostle for the position of alpha male. (Brody is never in the hunt, as evidenced by his ineffectual attempts to tie the sheepshank knot that Hooper tossed off so casually an effort that fixates him to such an extent that he doesnt even notice that Quint is strapping himself into the fishermans chair .) The ice is not broken between them until after their initial encounter with the shark, a sequence highlighted by that first great shock appearance of the creature as it looms out of the water behind Brody, and by the wonderful moment when Brody simply refuses to go anywhere near the ships "pulpit", despite Hoopers frantic orders. (How nice that such sensible behaviour is ultimately rewarded!) As night falls the three men retreat inside, at which point we get the simply hilarious "Ill show you mine if you show me yours" scar-comparison scene, a truce finally being called as Quint offers Hooper a drink, and Hooper drinks it to Quints leg. (Brody, of course, is here more of an outsider than ever perhaps because he chooses to keep his scars to himself. In one brief, fascinating moment, the police officer lifts the edge of his jumper and contemplates his lower abdomen, then drops the garment and says nothing. Was there a specific incident that led the New York cop to leave the big city?) This sequence culminates in one of the most extraordinary speeches in all cinema, when Quint reveals that he was a survivor of the sinking of the Indianapolis. Mere words cannot capture the power of this scene. There is no false emotion here, no explosions, no car chases, none of the stuff that these days is held to constitute "drama" just a man talking, recounting a real-life nightmare beyond the comprehension of most human beings. It is an absolutely chilling experience.
From this point in the film the action takes over, as the three men must somehow find a way of killing the monstrous shark before it can kill them. The character touches continue throughout, however, both in the positive sense Quint finally asking Hoopers help, for instance and in the negative, as when Quint stops Brody contacting the Coast Guard by smashing the radio, revealing that his life experiences have left him, not just eccentric, but (as Brody puts it) "certifiable". (As with the Spring-Loaded Cat© in Alien, there is a startling "Thats where they got it from!" moment here: Jaws would seem to be the origin of the much-abused convention of theres-only-one-radio-and-oh-gosh-its-broken.) The drama then escalates as set-piece after unforgettable set-piece unfurls before us Hooper in the cage (a real nightmare episode), the sharks attack on the boat, Quints bloody end, and Brodys nail-biting last stand. And even if the sharks demise is somewhat improbable (not to mention scientifically suspect), it nevertheless makes for a hugely satisfying conclusion.
Jaws is a film that plays upon our most primal of fears. It does so through a series of brilliantly orchestrated scare scenes. The opening sequence of the film is by now the stuff of legend, with Susan Backlinie swimming her way into motion picture history. (Actually, what struck me upon re-watching this film [which was, of course, released three years before Halloween, and five before Friday The 13th] is how much the opening scene, with the kids drinking and smoking, and then skinny-dipping, looks like it was lifted from a slasher film; a reminder that, like Alien, Jaws is in many ways just a superior body count movie.) The terror of sharks goes deeper than just the fear of the unknown, or of what might be lurking beneath us in the water; it is the randomness of attack that adds so many extra layers of dread. This aspect of the situation is brilliantly captured throughout the film, particularly in the death of Alex Kintner. Of all the people in the water, why him? There is no answer; and somehow this makes his abrupt and violent death even worse. One of the most effective scenes in the film is the aftermath of Alexs death, with panicked parents dragging their children from the surf and Mrs Kintner left standing alone, staring at that ripped and bloodied raft as it nudges the shore. To the human psyche, there is something in all of this infinitely more horrifying than the prospect of, say, death in a car accident no matter how more likely that is to actually happen.
The randomness of the violence in Jaws also highlights a dramatic deficiency in many of the horror/thriller movies made since that time. As I pointed out with respect to Alien, creating a situation in which the audience cannot tell who will be the next to die is a simple yet enormously effective way of generating tension. Unfortunately, this is something that doesnt seem to have sunk in with the current crop of horror directors and writers, most of whom are unable to create characters who do not, from their very first moments onscreen, divide themselves up into "Obvious Victims" and "Obvious Survivors". Then again, perhaps Im being unfair in blaming the film-makers alone here. The scapegoating of "da movies" for all of societys ills has created a climate where the making of genuinely disturbing films is actively discouraged leaving us with the absurd situation of living in an era of reassuring horror movies. Sigh .
The shark attack scenes form the thrilling backbone of Jaws, but it is not those scenes alone that make it work. The film builds upon them with its acting, its dialogue and its technical achievements. In addition to the three central performances, valuable contributions are made in all of the supporting roles. Lorraine Gary is thoroughly credible as the worried Ellen Brody; while Murray Hamiltons Larry Vaughn is one of the screens great weasels (and just check out that wardrobe!). The minor parts are filled with wonderful character actors, and this contributes to Amitys genuine small-town feel, which in turn makes the debate over closing the beaches plausible. The screenplay is an excellent piece of work (indeed, the quality gap between the writing in the novel and that here makes you wonder just how much Peter Benchley really contributed to the film), full of unexpected humour and eminently quotable one-liners. Not only has the "bigger boat" line since entered the general vernacular, but Jaws also contributed a memorable phrase to the B-Movie glossary namely, Richard Dreyfusss contemptuous "This was no boat accident!!" - now likely to be flung at pretty much any gross autopsy scene you might care to mention. (Surprisingly, the one in Jaws itself is quite discreet the body is described, not shown.) Then theres my personal favourite line in the whole script, Ellen Brodys hilariously awkward conversation-starter: "My husband tells me youre in sharks." The films atmosphere is the result of a careful fusion of cinematography, lighting and production design. The latter is particularly effective, not just in creating a believable Amity, but upon a much subtler, even psychological level: there is an almost complete absence throughout the film of the colour red except, of course, for the red, red blood of the victims .
However, of all the technical achievements in this film, two stand out: John Williams score, and Verna Fields editing - both Oscar-winners, and rightly so. Is there a more instantly recognisable musical sting than Williams da-dah? I dont think so. Try playing this movie with the sound down. None of the big moments have anywhere near the same impact. Nor, for that matter, do most of the smaller ones. The film is filled with shots of the empty ocean that are made frightening purely through the use of those chords. That said, the score is nowhere near flawless; I find the "jolly seafaring music" that accompanies many of the barrel scenes to be gratingly inappropriate. However, these shortcomings are far outweighed by the scores virtues. Verna Fields editing, on the other hand, is well nigh perfect. It is her contribution as much as anything that makes the film work, building tension with its rhythms, giving significance to the most fleeting of shots, and above all, disguising the deficiencies in Bruce the Shark for as long as it is humanly possible.
Alas, poor Bruce! Still, even if its true that hes not the shark he should be, I honestly believe that in the context of the film he serves his purpose more than adequately. The only time when his artificial nature really becomes uncomfortably apparent is when we get our first good look at him as he attacks the boat and this is not just because we do see him clearly, but rather because that scene is juxtaposed with the underwater scenes involving real sharks which were, it almost goes without saying, filmed by Ron and Valerie Taylor. (My objections to Bruce are biological, not artistic: (i) his snout is the wrong shape; and (ii) he lacks the ability to pull his lips back as he thrusts his teeth and gums forward a thoroughly ghastly little trick which I personally believe lies at the root of a lot of peoples horror of sharks.) But Bruce is not the films only technical shortcoming. Frankly, I cant remember watching another major studio production that contains as many continuity errors as Jaws and they must be blatant, because thats not the sort of thing I usually notice. Apart from relatively minor points, like watches appearing and disappearing, and blood splashes moving around, there are things you cant believe werent noticed at the time, like the extra rings that suddenly appear on Chrissie Watkins hand after her body is found; or the fact that the fourth victim sprouts a shoe after having his leg bitten off; or the unbending of the shark cages bars. And then we have the two biggies: the confusion over the dates of the killings Alex Kintner is supposed to have died on June 29th, yet Crissie Watkins death is clearly listed as July 1st and even over the number of killings! After Matt Hoopers encounter with the severed head (its a great shock scene, but really, that prosthetic head - ! Ive always thought it was a big mistake to give the audience a second look at it), he and Brody confront Larry Vaughn in another frantic and of course, unavailing attempt to get the beaches closed. In the midst of this, it is claimed that there have been two victims so far. Well, by my count, Ben Gardner makes three. A flub of this magnitude draws attention to itself. My feeling is that, initially, the boat scene was supposed to contain Hooper finding the Great White tooth only; and that after the event, Spielberg saw the opportunity of including yet another spectacularly nasty scare scene in his story, and did so without bothering to re-shoot the subsequent confrontation scene.
Which brings me to something else that occurred to me while re-watching this film. Jaws is not just a first-class thriller; it is also a salutary reminder of what a good film-maker Steven Spielberg was before he became obsessed with the image of himself as "Steven Spielberg, The Worlds Greatest Living Director" or "Award-Winning Director Steven Spielberg", whichever it is. There is stuff in this film that you simply cant imagine Spielberg directing today most obviously, the death of young Alex Kintner. If that scene were filmed today, the victim would probably be an Evil Businessman, or a Cold-Hearted Lawyer, taking a break from his usual pursuit of persecuting Widows And Orphans; and his death would occur only after endless minutes of screentime spent labouring the fact. (Oh, wait, wasnt that Jurassic Park?) Certainly, its hard to imagine Spielberg offing a kid these days, least of all with the casual cruelty that underlies Alex Kintners death; still less can you picture him gasp! - killing a dog! (A kid and a dog in the same scene!? no-ones pulled that since Hitchcock!) These days, on the contrary, Mr Spielberg seems to spend most of his spare time digitally air-brushing Anything Nasty out of his back catalogue. (Apropos, how long will it be, I wonder, until everyones favourite "violence played for laughs" scene, Indy versus the swordsman in Raiders, is also removed from our screens ?) This hard edge is not the only thing that Spielberg seems to have lost since his early days; another is his talent for economy in story-telling. Watching Jaws, the viewer is struck by the lightness of the handling of Martin Brodys backstory. We know hes scared of water, we know hes scared of boats but were never told why. And it is not necessary that we know why; it exists, and that is enough. If that plot thread were to be built into a modern Spielberg film, in place of Jaws beautifully efficient throwaway explanation ("Theres a clinical term for it, isnt there, Martin?" "Yeah, drowning."), wed probably get a fifteen-minute flashback detailing exactly what happened to Martin Brody in his childhood to instill him with this fear the whole sequence being accompanied, more likely than not, by the strains of "Hearts And Flowers". The almost total absence of any subtlety or ambiguity in Spielbergs later films is the major reason why Ive gone off him as a film-maker. I suppose it might be true that hes "The Worlds Greatest Living Director"; personally, I liked him a lot better when he was just a kid having fun.
The legacy of Jaws has been two-fold, neither aspect being anything to celebrate. Jaws was by no means the first "rogue animal" film, even as Alien was nowhere near the first "something on the loose in the dark" film; but like Alien, it used its various elements so skillfully that it seemed like the first; and there has scarcely been a rogue animal film made since that doesnt owe something to The Adventures Of Bruce. (Some of them owe rather more than others, of course, from the Italian clone LUltimo Squalo, sued out of American cinemas, up to 1999s Deep Blue Sea, which proves that it takes more than CGI sharks to make a successful thriller a lot more.) Lets see: apart from the three actual Jaws sequels, theres Orca, and Grizzly, and Claws, and Crocodile, and Killer Fish, and . Now, admittedly, these films dont exactly represent high art; however, most of them are mindlessly entertaining, particularly if, like me, you get your jollies out of watching stupid people being eaten by big scary animals; so theres been no real harm done there. No, it is the second legacy of Jaws that I regard with an involuntary shudder: for Jaws gave rise to the summer blockbuster .
Up to and including the year 1975, the American summer was regarded as a cinematic dumping-ground, the time of year when producers got rid of films for which they had no real expectations, the assumption being that no-one would really want to spend a nice summer day sitting in the dark watching a movie. Jaws changed all that. Its enormous success sent a clear message to the studios, firstly, that people would indeed spend their summers in the dark; and secondly, what they wanted to see there was big splashy action movies. It is this second point that has had such a detrimental effect upon modern cinema. Over the past twenty-five years, summer movies have become bigger and bigger, and more and more expensive and louder, dumber and emptier. Untold millions millions that could be spent making good, interesting, original little films are blown on advertising campaigns intended to lure as many people as possible into the cinema on that all-important opening weekend. Nothing else not the quality of the film, certainly, and not even how many people will see it after that first weekend seems to matter anywhere near as much. In short, summer films are no longer the result of thoughtful film-making, but of cynical manipulation; they are not made, but manufactured. This reduction of film which can be art, no matter how hard that is to believe these days to nothing more than just another product to be marketed (and if Jaws was the first "summer film", Star Wars instigated something even more insidious: the "tie-in") is deeply dispiriting; not least because it seems to be spawning an entire generation of utterly undiscriminating filmgoers, who apparently neither know nor care that most of what is being put before their eyes is a pile of steaming garbage. While every now and then we are offered a flicker of hope (the failure of Pearl Harbor was encouraging, even if it was probably due more to a reaction against the reduction of such an important historical event to the level of a soap opera, rather than to the films actual, ah, "qualities"), most of the time we seem to sinking further and further into the cinematic mire. Jaws is not a particularly profound film, granted, but it is a thoroughly entertaining and exciting one, scary and funny and nerve-wracking in turns. Unlike most of its progeny, it was made by people who cared about what they put their names on and it played to an audience that no longer seems to exist: one that liked a little steak to go along with its sizzle.
Footnote: Perhaps its true that "nobody cry when Jaws die". I have, however, cried over the years for the thousands of sharks that have died as an indirect result of this movie and the misinformation it propagates. There is little, if any, limit to human hubris. Nevertheless, the fact that some people seriously advocate the extermination of the shark because a couple of people each year die while swimming is breathtaking in its arrogance. Australia is generally regarded as the shark attack capital of the world, which may well be true. In practical terms, what this means is that less people usually die each year from shark attack than do as a result of attacks by the domestic dog. There has been on average less than one shark fatality per annum in this country over the past two hundred years. You generally wouldnt know this from reading the local papers, however, which never fail to get as much mileage as they can out of the beleaguered creatures. I remember a headline from a couple of years back: SHARK TERROR! SURVIVOR TELLS "I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE!" A perusal of the article revealed that a medium-sized shark, probably a young Grey Nurse, nudged the surfers board and then swam away. I guess a more accurate description of the incident SHARK GOES AWAY WITHOUT DOING ANY HARM, perhaps wouldnt have sold quite as many copies.
No-one who sees Jaws ever forgets Robert Shaws Indianapolis speech. Nevertheless, the bulk of that speech is historically inaccurate, from the number of people killed, to how they died, to when it happened. The date, inexplicably, is quoted as June 29th, when in fact it occurred on July 29th; which is what youd expect, given that the Indianapolis was involved in the bombing of Hiroshima. Even stranger in the context of the film is that June 29th is also the (obviously incorrect) date given for Alex Kintners death. Weird.
While Robert Shaw gets the films "Oscar-clip" moment (although as it happens, he wasnt even nominated), Ive always liked its explanation of how Matt Hooper came to be fascinated by sharks (as a child, one ate his boat), simply because it accurately portrays how a lot of the biologists and zoologists that I know came to be in their particular line of work. While youd think that a negative experience with an animal would result in a negative mindset, the reverse is very often true. And I am going to wrap up this exceedingly rambling outtro by talking about one of my personal heroes: Mr Rodney Fox.
Most of you do know Rodney Fox, even if youre not familiar with his name. Hes probably the worlds most famous shark attack survivor. Im pretty sure thats him in the book Martin Brody flips through the one with a good chunk of his side missing. In any case, if youve ever watched The Discovery Channel, youve seen him: hes the guy with most of his intestinal tract showing.
Rodney Fox was attacked by a Great White shark off the South Australian coast in 1963, at the age of twenty-three. Had he not been wearing a wetsuit, his body might have fallen to pieces. Apart from having his abdomen ripped open, his ribs were smashed, his lungs and diaphragm punctured, his shoulder-blade cracked, his aorta fully exposed, and his right hand and wrist cut to pieces. It took 462 stitches to put him back together.
Incredibly, Fox not only survived, but three months later he was back in the water. His experience left him not with the horror of sharks that you might expect, but with a complete fascination for them. He has subsequently devoted his life to studying and understanding the Great White shark. His tireless efforts resulted in the species finally being declared protected in Australian waters (lets hope its not already too late), and today, along with his son, he runs an Eco-Tour business dedicated to educating other people about the Great White, and ridding them of their misapprehensions most of which were acquired, needless to say, by watching movies like Jaws.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my kind of human being!