The Great Movies, volume 2: Jaws
As a 9 year old boy during the summer of 1975, I witnessed the single greatest entertainment experience of my life: my father took me to see Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Now this was in September of 1975 and the movie had opened earlier in June and was already a phenomenon the world over, so I was a little late to the party. But by then I had pumped so much information out of my friends who had already seen the movie that I knew the entire story inside and out. I mean, I knew it all: I knew about each victim of the shark, I knew about the tiger shark that was caught and erroneously thought to be the killer, I knew how it ended, …everything. I remember my teenage neighbor saw the movie and when he came by to tell us about it, I was finishing his sentences, knowing everything he was saying about the movie. And I distinctly remember him saying, “I don’t know why to still want to see it, you know it all already.”
Ah, but that was just it; I hadn’t seenit yet, experienced it with my own eyes. I already knew it was the greatest adventure story I had ever heard. But to actually see the events unfolding on screen…well, that was something I had to behold for myself. And so that September, I finally talked my dad into taking my brother and me to see Jaws. My uncle Jim came along with us. And when the lights went down and that awesome John Williams music started, I was already a goner. What made Jaws so special for me was that beyond all possible hope, it lived up to my expectations. I had never before so eagerly anticipated something and all experience since then has taught me that nothing can ever live up to the hype. Well, Jaws did. And it still does for me today.
Based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel of the same name, Jaws tells the simple story of the town of Amity, a tidy Long Island beach side community that relies on the summer tourist trade to keep it going through the long, cold winters. When the body of a swimmer killed during a late night skinny-dip is found on the shore, the coroner tells the police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) that the girl was the victim of a shark attack. When Brody responds by ordering the beaches closed, Amity’s mayor, worried that such a move will kill the summer tourist business, convinces the coroner to change the official cause of death to a boating accident. Brody does not agree but has no choice but to go along. Days later when a young boy is killed by a shark in front of numerous beach goers (including Brody and his family), Brody is proven correct and a town meeting is called. After Brody announces that the beaches will be closed, the attending citizens panic and the mayor decrees that the beaches will only be closed for 24 hours, much to Brody’s chagrin. The meeting is then interrupted by a loud screech as one of the great movie characters of the 70’s is introduced; for running his fingernails down a blackboard is the local shark fisherman, known simply as Quint. He informs the town that the shark is a big problem and one that he is not willing to risk his life over for the standing $3000 reward. He will find and kill the shark, he says, for $10,000. The mayor is dubious and vaguely promises to consider the offer.
The character of Quint is played by the late, great Robert Shaw, and he is absolute perfection playing a salty old fisherman who has his own personal demons and reasons for hunting and killing sharks. It is a tour de force performance that remains etched in the memories of many, many film-goers. How we has overlooked for an Academy Award nomination is one of the great mysteries of the 70’s, right up there with the leisure suit. Anyway, back to Amity and it’s little shark problem.
Except that it’s not a little shark problem, it’s a BIG shark problem. When local fishermen haul in a large tiger shark, the mayor is convinced the killer has been caught and that the beaches are safe again. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus), a shark expert called in by Brody, examines the remains of the first victim and determines that the tiger shark cannot be the killer. He proves this with a quick late night autopsy on the tiger shark. He and Brody, who by the way is deathly afraid of the water (the fact that he lives on an island is a running joke throughout the movie), head out to see if they can find any sign of the shark at night. Hooper’s sonar gear picks up a large object, but it is not the shark; it is the half-sunken boat of victim #3, a local fisherman whose body Hooper discovers in a truly shocking scene. And that’s not all Hooper finds. He also finds a tooth embedded in the hull of the boat. It is the tooth of a great white shark and it is huge. Unfortunately, Hooper drops the tooth when he is startled by the appearance of the victim, and neither he nor Brody can convince the mayor to close the beaches again. For tomorrow is the 4th of July, you see, the biggest day of the summer for Amity’s tourist season.
Of course when the holiday arrives, Mr. Shark makes an appearance and kills a boater in the estuary, nearly taking Brody’s son with him. A highly peeved Brody forces the mayor to hire Quint to kill the shark, for the summer season is over in Amity. No one will be swimming there until the real shark is killed. Brody convinces Quint to take him and Hooper along for the hunt. Right away there is a clash between Quint’s old school ways and Hooper’s technological approach to finding the shark. Brody, who is scared out of his wits to be on a boat in the first place, is caught in the middle. And here is what separates Jaws from the average thriller: the characters are real. You believe that there is a Quint, and a reason that he behaves the way he does. Same for Hooper, the quirky, educated guy that has a razor sharp wit. And Brody, the everyman, is a flesh-and-blood character as well, a man that you hope and pray somehow survives this saga and returns to his family safe and in one piece. These are not the cardboard cut-out characters you find in modern day thrillers, they are real personalities. And it makes all the difference in the world.
Once aboard Quint’s boat, the fabulously rickety “Orca”, the chase is on. The Orca is one heck of a set piece, a character in itself where you witness some of the most intense action you can imagine. It becomes a claustrophobic nightmare for Brody, while Quint and Hooper are completely in their element. The level of suspense during the hunt is propelled by Spielberg’s impeccable directing and John Williams’ soaring musical score, which rightfully won an Oscar.
Quint is able to harpoon the shark and has a floating barrel tethered to the harpoon. The drag from pulling this barrel will tire the shark and keep it from diving. The men decide to stay out at sea overnight in order to keep an eye out for the barrel. Chasing their fear away with a few drinks, they begin comparing scars and telling stories and it is here we learn of Quint’s dark past. A sailor during World War II, his ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine and 1,100 men were adrift in the water for days. Sharks quickly arrived and began devouring the sailors in plain sight. Witnessing many friends killed in the most horrible of ways, the young Quint would survive and go on to become a shark fisherman, taking private revenge against the beasts that still haunt his dreams.
The shark interrupts their drinking and before too long, the hunters become the hunted. Quint continues to harpoon the shark, but is awestruck when the shark continues to dive, even with two, then three barrels attached. The great white turns the tables on the men, ramming the Orca repeatedly and springing several leaks in the hull. Quint, finally rattled, heads for shore, the shark chasing them all the way. When Quint stubbornly refuses to slow down, the engine overheats and finally blows and the Orca is left listing dead in the sea, taking on water. Brody, who can’t swim, faces the realization that he is likely to either face his biggest fear, drowning, or be eaten by the shark. In a last ditch effort to save their hides, Quint calls upon Hooper’s modern equipment to kill the shark.
Lowered into the water in an anti-shark cage, Hooper is immediately set upon by the shark. The cage is no match, and soon the shark’s head is inside the cage and the mouth is reaching, straining to get a bite at Hooper. But the shark gets tangled in the cage’s tethering lines and Hooper is able to swim to the ocean floor, where he hides among the rocks. Brody and Quint, unable to see what has transpired in the water beneath them, desperately haul up Hooper’s cage, only to find it mangled and empty. The shark then surfaces, leaping out of the water and onto the back of the Orca, plunging it beneath the waves. The weight of the shark tips the boat up and Brody and Quint hang on for dear life. When one of Hooper’s scuba tanks rolls onto his hand, Quint loses his grip. Brody catches his hand, but cannot hang on. Quint slides down the deck of the Orca, straight into the mouth of the shark, where he meets his gruesome fate.
Brody witnesses Quint’s horrific demise and the Orca starts sinking. Stuck in the cabin of the sinking boat, Brody fights to free himself when the shark rams through the glass and into the cabin with him. Facing the gaping maw of the shark, he picks up Hooper’s spare scuba tank and tosses it into the shark’s mouth. The shark retreats and Brody climbs out of a cabin window and onto the bridge, only to see the shark circling him and getting ready to come in for the kill. With Quint’s old rifle, he climbs the mast and takes aim at the shark, and more specifically the air tank wedged into it’s jaw. As the shark approaches, the mast sinks ever lower until Brody is at water level. Firing shot after shot and quickly running out of time, he takes aim and gets off one last shot that pierces the scuba tank, exploding the shark into a huge geyser of flesh, blood and sea. Hooper surfaces, learns of Quint’s fate and he and Brody rig a couple floatation barrels together and paddle back to shore.
Wow. The audience as a whole finally exhaled.
If you weren’t around in the mid 70’s, it’s hard to picture just how much Jaws became a part of pop culture. It was at that time the highest grossing movie in history. It shaped everything about the sumer of ’75. It was in every magazine, on every news stand and merchandise was in stores everywhere. There were Jaws posters, lunch boxes, models, games, magnets, stickers, t-shirts, you name it. The poster was used as a metaphor in political cartoons, it was parodied in other movies, it was talked about in every neighborhood. And this was unprecedented. As a young boy who had been addicted to monster movies as a kid, you can imagine what an impact this had on me.
Jaws was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won 3 of those awards, for Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Editing. It was not like many of today’s empty blockbusters, which thrive despite being critically lambasted. Jaws was a huge critical success as well as a popular smash, and it gave Steven Spielberg the right to make virtually any movie he wanted. We all know how his career has turned out. But of all of his many successes, I still maintain that Jaws is his finest moment. It is not only a masterpiece of action and suspense; it also has a terrific sense of humor and it is perfectly paced. At just over 2 hours, it never feels long.
I still think back to that day in September of ’75, when I was a young boy who finally got to see the most anticipated event of my 9 year old life and it actually exceeded my wildest expectations. When my dad sat beside me in the darkened theater, chuckling softly at the scary parts so that I wouldn’t be too afraid. When, to paraphrase the late, great critic Pauline Kael, I lost myself at the movies.