Here is my contribution to the Spielberg Blogathon sponsored by Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly at Medfly Quarantine. Enjoy the post and check out other contributions to the blogathon.
Back in 1975 I found myself in Philadelphia for a three-day orientation program before shipping off to three years in the Peace Corps in Morocco. I had grown up in California, and this was my first experience with an eastern city. I saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, with John Huston sitting on the steps, taking a break from filming a documentary. Seeking a last chance to see an American movie before traveling overseas, I happened upon a matinee of Jaws playing downtown. The director’s name was vaguely familiar. Oh, yeah, that’s right; I remember watching and loving the TV-movie Duel. Give it a try, I thought. The poster sure made it look like fun.
Inside the vast cinema, I slipped into a seat and watched the ending of The Eiger Sanction (that was back in the days of double features). Then Jaws began.
The music plays, and you’re taken right in. Very clever! I found the opening scene gruesome. You never see the shark, but with all of Chrissie’s desperate thrashing around, with all her horrid shrieks, your imagination vividly pictures what is happening under the surface of the water.
As serendipity would have it, I now live on Cape Cod and have spent a lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard. But back in 1975 the locations in Jaws were totally alien to me. Having grown up near the Pacific and the beaches at Half Moon Bay, I was totally surprised to find tranquil beaches where you could swim without having to surmount huge waves. How quaint! And how quaint were those narrow streets and shingled buildings in Edgartown, which stands in for the town of Amity.
Throughout the first half of the film, Spielberg continues the pattern of revealing the shark sparingly. He builds suspense without showing the shark, but the shark’s power and menace are clearly established. The beach sequence is a superb mixture of gimmicks: the fat woman walking into the water; the dog that goes missing; old Harry gliding through the water with his bathing cap; the sudden squeal as a guy raises his girlfriend on his shoulders – and all of this seen through Chief Brody’s eyes, his vision interrupted by passing vacationers. It’s all a tease, and Spielberg is a master of the visual tease. When the shark attack comes, it’s an abrupt geyser of blood. Brody, fixed to the beach by his paradoxical fear of the water, is transfixed. “We know about you, Chief.” “That’s some bad hat, Harry.” Spielberg employs Hitchcock’s Vertigo effect to draw the transfixed Brody toward the horror. Why not! The whole sequence is a feast of Hitchcockian devices. Oh, and Alex’s Kintner’s mother is superbly cast. She looks exactly like a former teaching colleague of mine who lives on Cape Cod.
I remember enjoying the scene in which the two islanders go fishing for the shark one night. One of the guys stabs a hook into “my wife’s holiday roast” and tosses the slab of meat off the jetty. Roast, right! That hyperbolic chunk of flesh is horsemeat if I ever saw it. This is just one of Spielberg’s expedient lapses in logic, for the sake of effect, that would find their way in the many Spielberg movies to follow. He likes the comment about “my wife’s holiday roast,” but the meat doesn’t look like a roast. And what holiday is he talking about? The 4th of July? No one on a Martha’s Vineyard-like island cooks a roast for 4th of July. But who cares? “Come and get it!” For Spielberg, it’s all about effect. A parallel cut to Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) paging through shark books establishes what the two fishermen might have in store for them. (Nowadays, he’d surf the Net.) We see photos of the horrific effect of shark bites. Cut back to the two guys on the jetty. What follows is a clever use of the broken, floating jetty to suggest the size and strength of the shark, and to show that the humongous thing is coming back for another midnight snack.
Then Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from Woods Hole steps in. I love his little friction with the idiots in the sailboat. Their brash attitude toward a stranger’s advice is typical of the denizens of Massachusetts. Hooper is conveniently endowed with a research vessel that takes him and Chief Brody out onto the water one foggy night.
Hooper puts a wet suit on and goes into the water! Into the water! The viewers behind me picked their feet up off the floor and put them on their seats! Hooper finds the wreck, and what we get is one of the most effective starts in film history. I jumped out of my seat. The viewers behind me were unhinged.
Finally, we get to see the shark – in daylight. First we get the false alarm with the kids and their cardboard fin. Once again Spielberg goes for effect and says to hell with logic. The two boys surface, facing the beach, totally convinced they have fooled everyone. Then they turn and see boatloads of guards aiming M1s. But if the boys were swimming from that direction, wouldn’t they have been aware of the boats above them or around them? They certainly would have heard the motors underwater.
But, no matter, this allows Spielberg to play around with the boy-who-cried-wolf conceit. The Martha’s Vineyard hippie artist (perfectly cast and costumed with red bandana and V-neck sweater revealing a little décolletage), with her wispy little voice, cries, “Shark! Shark!” But nobody believes her. It’s perfect. Brody starts walking, then steps up the pace, then runs in a panic. The young man in the rowboat, perfectly cast, perfect accent, is trying to help the boys on the Sunfish. They are tying a totally needless knot, and the man advises them to “Haul in your sheet,” but the boys are sitting on the sail and the boom is in no position to be raised. (Besides, it’s much easier to rig a Sunfish on the beach and THEN put it in the water!) The guy says, “Are you guys all right?” There’s hardly any wind! But there is a shark, and the poor, helpful rower with the perfect Cape accent gets capsized and chomped for lunch. The camera follows a sinking leg. We see it's severed. A clever shock.
Chief Brody’s son ends up in the hospital. “What about ice cream? … Cawfee!” Now it’s time to get tough. Up until now it’s been a rather derivative monster movie. Monster makes brief, sudden appearances. People die. Blood. But now Quint, played by the talented Robert Shaw, dominates the scene. Once the Orca departs on the quest, and Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gray) fearfully watches the departure through boiled shark jaws, Quint’s obsession with the shark echoes Captain Ahab, the movie becomes Moby Dick. After Quint harpoons the shark, John Williams’s sprightly score turns the pursuit of barrel and beast into a veritable “Nantucket sleigh ride” right out of Melville’s epic. Inspiration turns this sensationalist summer action movie into an unforgettable classic.
Out on the water, it’s just Brody, Hooper, Quint, the Orca, and the shark. It’s a classic sea adventure. And here the cinematography gets artistic. Shooting stars at night. That superb shot of Quint on the bowsprit, backlit by the sun, harpoon gun across the railing.
We also get more character development as the actors warm up to their roles. Brody left New York City because of the crime. (Don’t forget he’s an award-winning marksman. Brief glimpse of trophy on his mantelpiece at home.) We learn how Hooper’s obsession with sharks got started. There’s the great competition over who's got the worst scar. And Quint was aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis! “We formed ourselves into tight groups … kinda like old squares in the battle … like you see in the calendar, like the Battle of Waterloo.”
The editing is phenomenal. Once the action starts, I love Spielberg’s fast cuts, especially his fast cuts to objects doing their thing: barrels flying; cables snapping; scuba diving tanks clattering to the deck; the engine exploding; the pieces of the shark cage being assembled. “I think I can get him in the mouth.” “That shark’ll rip that cage to pieces.” “You got any better suggestions?” Cut from Hooper’s angry face during the argument to Brody’s grim face – but the cage wall rises up in front of him and we realize it’s a straight cut to a new scene. Priceless! (See video.)
The Orca delivers the best performance by a boat. It has a rough and ready personality as it moves through the water after the barrels. It’s full of junk and useful equipment, too: the club Quint uses to smash the radio; the slasher-movie knife; an M1; and Hooper’s scuba tanks. “Damnit, Martin, this is compressed air!” (Duh!) “You screw around with these tanks and they’re gonna blow up.” (Yeah, I think Martin knows that, but thanks for setting us up for the big kaboom, Stevie.) The boat chugs; it smokes; it blows a gasket; burns. It fills with water. It sinks at the stern. Time to smash the transom, sharkie! The boat lists with the crow’s nest just a few feet above the surface. Spielberg may have had trouble with Bruce, but the Orca performs beautifully.
Movie over, I was completely satisfied by what I consider Spielberg’s best film, I left the cinema on that June day in 1975 and went back to the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. Had my last dinner in America for a long while. Flew to Rabat, Morocco, the next day. We bunked in a Moroccan school where we learned Arabic and went through teacher training. Weekends, we ran wild. We frequented an Atlantic beach called Plage de Nation. White sand. A volunteer from Kansas had never seen the ocean before. I swam in the huge waves and thought of sharks.
Postscript: I came home to the States in the late 70s to the Lucas/Spielberg Dynasty. Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Return of the Jedi, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Then, as Lucas worked on extending the Star Wars saga into prequels, Spielberg turned to serious mainstream drama: The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan. To this day, I still consider Jaws, as a dramatic unit, to be Spielberg’s best film. But best is not always favorite; my favorite is War of the Worlds. Despite the impressive qualities of his serious films, I believe Spielberg’s talent lies in his science-fiction and his tales of the fantastic.
“Smile, you son of a bitch!” Boom! And as bloody shark chunks sink into Nantucket Sound, the soundtrack includes the distant, eerie groans of some primordial beast. Here, Spielberg is channeling a device used in Duel (1971). As the truck lumbers off the cliff, it groans like a prehistoric monster. Spielberg does threatening monsters well - truck, shark, tyrannosaurus rex, alien tripods. Spielberg has a talent for the jaws that bite, the claws that catch, and that expertise makes Jaws live on.