Monday, June 28, 2010

Jaws 35th Anniversary: A Retrospective


I was a happy kid once, living by the ocean in beautiful Santa Barbara, spending my summers at the beach, playing in the waves and the sand.  Those days are over now.  I don't go near the ocean anymore; in fact, I live in the Arizona desert, as far away from the ocean as possible.  My fear of the ocean started in the summer of 1972, when my friends and I would sneak into the Fox Theater, or the Granada Theater during the summer and watch the summer blockbusters.  That summer I snuck into Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and my summer beach life changed forever.  A bit melodramatic, it is of course; however, the effect Jaws had on the movie going audience and myself should not be understated.  Roy Schieder (The French Connection) is always stuck in mind as Police Chief Brody and Richard Dreyfuss (American Graffiti) as Matt Hooper, the know-it-all shark expert and the relationship that these two characters form with Quint, played by the phenomenal Robert Shaw, fixing themselves forever in the minds of filmgoers everywhere.  Shaw dies three years later; Jaws and the character of Quint is the film that people remember him the best.

An Idea Comes to Fruition

The 25 Year Anniversary Edition of Jaws is the last distribution of Jaws available to consumers today.  In the DVD is a set of bonus material that covers the creation of the film including interviews with the author, the producers, the director, the actors, and crew.  As time slips away, and as our favorite actors, and directors, get older and leave us -- the DVD serves as a reminder of the care and attention that the cast and crew put into making this film.  However, before the film, there was a novel, and based on the interview with the novel's author Peter Benchley, he says that he was, offered a few dollars by his editor Tom Congdon to write a story about a 1964 shark attack but modernize the story and setting.  Completing the book but without a name for his work, and with the book just about to go into production, the one-word title that they could all agree on, was simply Jaws.  During the writing of the novel, Benchley wrote an extremely detailed account of the shark attacks.  During the adaptation to film, writers removed several subplots, and tightened the story line to fit in an hour and a half, with the actors polishing the lines themselves.  The interview with Benchley discusses his involvement with the film.  When watching the DVD, take note of the reporter on the Amity beach during the Fourth of July weekend.  He walks up the beach toward the camera giving a play by play of how the island town of Amity has a shark problem.  That newscaster is the Jaws author and screenwriter, Peter Benchley.

Moving Into Development

Steven Spielberg had finished his first film, The Sugarland Express, and prior to that directed the psycho terror film, Duel.  Starring Dennis Weaver as the hapless traveler believes the driver of a tractor-trailer is pursuing him, and his journey home from a business trip becomes a "duel.”  Even in Duel, you do not know the driver, as you never see his face.  In Spielberg’s mind, after reading over the treatment for the film, he felt that he was doing a sequel to Duel noticing that both Duel and Jaws have the same amount of letters and the themes were similar.  Taking on the project was like an omen from above, however, Spielberg ran into enormous problems immediately.  The producers felt that they already had their star, the shark, and they just needed solid actors, not big-name actors - mind you, just solid players to augment the shark.  What they got instead was a memorable cast.  The shark was another problem the young director had to face, not revealing the immensity of the great-white shark in Jaws until past the halfway point enhancing the tensions, and like Houdini, Spielberg taunts the audience with the reveal until the exact right moment.  The reason why he did not show the shark wasn’t for the dramatic effect that it caused and set as the standard of horror films to come.  The reason Steven Spielberg did not show us this creator the size of a large U-Haul trailer, simply was because the mechanical shark did not work most of the time.  Quoted in the Making of Jaws featurettes, As much as Spielberg maligned the mechanical effects department, he praises them for making his career.  Having three different semi-functional versions of the shark, this limited the crew to the depth of water that they could film the shark.  The track that the shark road on required no more than thirty feet in depth, so the fish could shim underwater, then rise to the proper height.  Standing in the crows-nest, Quint, orders Brody to "chum," throw bait into the water, and for Hooper to slow down the boat.  Brody with his back turned to the ocean, does not see the shark rising out of the water, and when he does, the response is not only a movie classic but the line Schieder utters takes its place with Apollo 13's “Huston, we've got a problem” line.  What Brody says as he backs into the cabin where Quint is standing, is "We're gonna need a bigger boat."  Quint's reaction in nonplussed and natural, he orders the two into an attack plan.

Chrissie's last swim

Jaws starts off strong with a classic horror film opener.  After some drunken partying on the beach, a couple leaves the safety of the crowd.  Chrissie, the girl teasing  a boy on the beach, into following her into the dark, the boy barely able to stand he is so drunk, The girl strips off her clothes, silhouetted in the moonlight, runs for and dives into the ocean swimming away from the boy, who is now down and out for the count.  The girl, a strong swimmer is about halfway to the first buoy, when she pauses, looks around, thinking her friend is there with her, but he is not.  Too drunk to swim, he collapses on the beach.  The opening of Jaws is a classic; Composer John William's tension-building score, the tuba slowly pumping out notes, first slowly, as the director starts moving the camera towards the girl faster.  The scenes become shorter, the editing cutting faster, then William's tuba scores speed up until the cellos take over for the climax.  From below, we can see the young girl’s perfect figure, her body dark, cast in the shadow, the large shape of the shark darkening our view.  She feels a tug at first, then suddenly the shark pulls her down below the surface of the ocean, still dazed she screams, arms flailing in the air, the water around her turns dark with her blood.

Amity not Amityville

Set in a small Martha's Vineyard type island setting of Amity, big-city cop looking to ease into retirement, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) finds himself in the midst of the July 4th holidays, and in trouble with the mother of all sharks.  Brody fights with his new bosses, the town mayor, played very officiously by character actor Murray Hamilton (The Drowning Pool), and town leaders who want to keep those summer tourist dollars flowing.  In several scenes, the mayor refuses to allow the Chief of Police to close the beach, explaining the dead girl as a boating accident, or a fisherman's busted up boat as being alarmist.  Vaughn tells Brody, "You yell 'Barracuda,' everybody says 'Huh?  What?'  You yell 'Shark,' we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”  During a beach scene when the shark swallows the Kintner kid, and threatens the chief's children.  We see the mayor as Hamilton plays him, the true bastard that he is, only thinking politically about himself.  This motif will arise again in horror films such as Alien and Aliens.  Bringing in experts to help the Chief of Police with the shark problem, is biologist Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), at a town meeting, and Quint the town's shark killer, offers his services as a bounty hunter, and the shark is his prey.  The mother of the first boy victim offers $3000 for the capture and killing of the shark that killed her son.  Quint, however, wants $10,000 for the fish plus $200 dollars a day whether he catches the fish or not.  Forced by Brody, Vaughn, the town's mayor signs an order agreeing to pay Quint his price to catch the shark.

A film about characters

Ultimately, Brody and Hooper end up working together on the colorful Mr. Quint's boat the "Orca," as they set sail against the beast.  The film takes place in three acts, with the first being on the island of Amity (amity means friendship), the second The beach scenes and Hooper and Brody's attempt to determine if the shark caught is the right shark, it isn't of course.  This event and the last shark attack on the beach, leads to the third and final act on board Quint's small ship, the Orca.  Although the film revolves around Roy Scheider's character, the man out of his element, in the third act he serves as the anchor that holds two potential adversaries together to form a bond between the three of them.  Brody takes a subservient role in act three, which in itself can also be broken down into three segments.  First, the characters embark on their journey and the setting of Quint as the dominant character for the third act.  Secondly, Quint assigns Hooper as second seaman despite Quint's inspection of Hooper's hands, determining him to be a "city boy who counts money."  Finally, Brody, who fears the water, Quint assigns him to the lowest level of seaman aboard the Orca, as Brody cannot even tie a proper knot.  The first day out depicts the three working together on the boat, despite the tension Shaw's character forces on the two by giving orders and demanding they carry them out swiftly.  Quint derides Hooper for equipment he needs to catch the shark, where as Quint relies on intuition and experience.  Later as Matt Hooper proves himself to Quint as able, Quint gives him more responsibility, as driving the boat.  The end of the first segment of the third act comes when we see the shark for the first time.

Call me Quint

Robert Shaw, I should note, was an excellent actor and his characterization of Quint as an alcoholic pirate of a man perhaps creating one of the most notable characters of his career.  During the filming of Jaws, Shaw was in his late 40s, however, giving off the impression of a man older, wiser, and quite worldly.  Shaw would die of a heart attack three years later.  During an interview with Spielberg on the bonus features of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Jaws, Spielberg mentions that they  rewrote the "Indianapolis" speech  several times starting with a short paragraph and evolving into the haunting speech Shaw gives in the film.  Shaw was the final writer of that speech and most of what he says in it, according to Spielberg is pure Robert Shaw.  The speech for those who do not know is the turning point for the audience in their attitude toward Quint's character.  While Hooper and Quint are showing off their scars, Brody notices a scar on Quint's left arm.  The look on Richard Dreyfuss’s face is classic as the look conveys horror and sadness.  Quint starts the speech with the line "1100 men went into the water.  The vessel went down in 12 minutes, and we didn't see the first shark till about a half a hour...”  Telling the tale of the true story of the USS Indianapolis which sank on July 29, 1945 after delivering the first Atomic Bomb dubbed, "Little Boy" to the Tinian Island.  The Japanese torpedoed the cruiser, and it sank into the Pacific Ocean.  The mission was top secret, and no distress call went out from the ship before it sunk.  Spielberg at 29 years-old knew that taking breaks in action to give characters time to develop would in effect move the story along.  As a director, Spielberg gives Robert Shaw the ability to shine not only as Quint but also as Shaw, the actor.

Three Men and the Sea

Quint's speech ends the second segment of the third act, giving way for the Brody character to develop.  Spielberg’s mechanical shark barely worked and live footage filmed by an Australian couple hired by to show the shark attacking Hooper's cage.  .  The couple compensated for smaller size of the real shark by reducing the size of the cage and using smaller actors filmed at a distance.  Unfortunately, Hooper's smaller sized double, wasn't in the cage when the best footage of the shark attack occurred.  Instead, the scriptwriters reworked the scene to allow Hooper to escape the cage and hide below in the rocks, allowing Spielberg to use live-shark footage.  Brody and Quint, left in the boat after loosing the cage turns into a desperate fight for survival with Quint loosing the battle.  In the end, we see Quint as a metaphor like Captain Ahab, from Moby Dick, consumed by his lust for vengeance and perish in obtaining it.  With the ship sinking, Brody takes on the shark single-handed, already seeing Quint swallowed by the shark and presumably Hooper suffered the same fate, Brody climbs to the highest point on the sinking ship as it lists to its side.  Using intelligence to overcome the monster, rather than brute force, Police Chief Brody fires his revolver at the shark, not to injure it, but to puncture a hole in the oxygen tank in its mouth.  In 1975, filmmakers did not have CGI and the computer technology we have now.  Instead, directors who cared about the movies they made, who cared about the composition of the shot, the lighting, and cared about dialog and actors showing genuine emotion, took the time to get the shot right.

Jaws, A New Direction In Horror

Using Jaws as a framework, horror filmmakers have taken elements of the mindless shark as the perfect killer concept that fuel the horror genre of the 80's and 90's.  In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween the mindless killer is Michael Myers.  Myers brutal tactic of killing off teenagers as they separate themselves from the group is similar in fashion to Chrissie at the beginning of Jaws.  Jason from Friday the 13th also follows the mindless killer motif, killing camp counselors as they break off for some teenaged hanky-panky.  Not until recent re-makes of these classic 80's horror films, do directors work to give Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees a quality that humanizes these characters.  In many ways, adding the back-story creating an understanding of why the killer kills weakens the horror aspect of the story.  Taking a cue from Jaws, Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott in 1979’s film Alien, give their creature similar qualities, "Perfect organism.  Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."

Jaws After 35 Years

35 years after its release, Jaws still holds up as a classic film for many reasons.  Robert Shaw, Roy Schieder, and Richard Dreyfuss are the first three.  John William's musical score not only gives the audience a musical cue when the shark is looming on the horizon, but also creates tension that at times becomes unbearable.  Verna Fields’ editing of the film, is flawless, giving us tight action sequences and long, almost long, loving dialog sequences giving the characters time to develop.  The sixth reason is the shark itself, and its timing, only revealing itself near the end when we as an audience, are dying to see this creature.  Finally, for Steven Spielberg’s ability to pull this project together, despite technical difficulties, a lack of a complete script, and an impending actors strike.  Ultimately, when deciding to read the book or watch the film, pick the film.  In this case the film Jaws, is better than Peter Benchley’s book.


Movie Data
Genre: Adventure, Thriller
Year:  1979
Staring:  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer(s): David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck
Writer: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: 6/20/1975
Originally published by Robert Barbere on Associated Content on June 28, 2010