I recently saw a “filmumentary” on Jaws and realized I had not reviewed the greatest summer movie ever made, an astonishing, deep blend of adventure, terror, and action, communicated by Stephen Spielberg’s great eye, the deft casting of three disparate principal actors, and a John Williams score that evokes fear and exhilaration.
Spielberg at the advent of Jaws was hardly a wunderkind. Like William Friedken before The French Connection, Spielberg had a pedestrian resume’ — a Columbo, a few TV movies and an okay feature (Sugarland Express). With a production plagued by everything from the mechanical failures of the shark to the tax problems of star Robert Shaw (if he spent more than a certain amount of time in the U.S. he would face a tax liability, so he was flown to Canada on his days off), Spielberg took Peter Benchley’s piece of summer pulp and fashioned a moving, ingenious film, evident from the opening scene credits, which give us a shark’s point of view in what is the still and peaceful deep, an image followed by the jarring, horrifying massacre of the shark’s first victim, alone, at night, where none of us ever want to be.
Like Friedken in The Exorcist, who prefaces the introduction of the demon in the child only after an hour of exposition, Spielberg waits quite some time to show us the shark in full, making what is happening beneath the water all the more frightening. Indeed, when we see the second fatality (a little boy on a raft), it is from the vantage point of a beachcomber lazing in his chair, a brief, violent act that immediately makes the viewer question, “what the hell was that?”
After Spielberg stuns the audience, he introduces them to poor Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a landlubber from New York who marshals for the summer town of Amity, As the bodies pile up, it is Brody who succumbs to the pressure of the townsfolk dependent on summer dollars, only to be shamed by his malleability. Emboldened and in need of reclamation, Brody is assisted by the articulate and passionate wisecracker, oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and old salt Quint (Robert Shaw). The former wants the scientific find of the century, the latter is a modern Ahab, seeking his white whale, as explained in the famous scene written not by screenwriters Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (a comic writer who presumably penned some of the very funny exchanges in the picture) , but John Milius (writer of Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now and creator of HBO’s fantastic Rome).
The experience of the three men from their separate vantage points, with their different motives and backgrounds, is the fuel of this picture, not the shark. As good as Milius’ Indianapolis speech is, or Shaw’s monologue to the town leaders opened by his nails on a chalkboard, the scene where Shaw’s grit runs up against Dreyfus’s privilege and Scheider’s quiet authority is better:
You’re going to need an extra hand…
Quint turns to see this new voice, and starts walking towards
This is Matt Hooper…
I know who he is…
He’s from the Oceanographic Institute.
I’ve been to sea since I was 12.
I’ve crewed three Trans-pacs —
— and an America’s Cup Trials…
I’m not talking about day sailing or
pleasure boating. I’m talking about
working for a living. Sharking.
And I’m not talking about hooking
some poor dogfish or sand shark. I’m
talking about a Great White.
Are you now. I know about porkers in
the water —
(throws him some rope)
Here. Tie me a sheepshank.
Hooper ties the knot effortlessly.
I don’t need to pass basic seamanship.
Let me see your hands…
He takes Hooper’s hands in his own big bloody fists, and
feels them as he talks.
Ha. City hands. You been counting
money. If you had a $5000 net and
$2000 worth of fish in it, and along
comes Mr. White, and makes it look
like a kiddy scissors class has gone
to work on it and made paper dolls.
If you’d ever worked for a living,
you’d know what that means.
Look, I don’t need to hear any of
this working class hero crap. Some
party boat skipper who’s killed a
Hey. Knock it off. I don’t want to
have to listen to this while we’re
What do you mean ‘We…?’
It’s my charter. My party.
All right, Commissioner. But when
we’re on my ship, I am Master, Mate
and Pilot. And I want him…
…along for ballast.
You got it.
During shooting, Shaw rode Dreyfus very hard, making fun of everything from his star status, stature and his ethnicity. Any hostility was used to great effect on-screen.
As good as these three actors are, they are more than ably supported by Lorraine Gary (as Brody’s wife), Murray Hamilton (as the oily mayor) and a boatload of locals who lend the film a great air of authenticity. Again, kudos to the script, because it allows dignity for Hamilton in the aftermath of his grave error, when, shaken at the hospital, he says to Brody, “Martin . . . my kids were in that water too.”
Finally, Williams’ score is a mixture of dread and adventure, the simplicity of dark repetition (“duh, nuh . . duh, nuh . . . dun dun dun dun dun dun dun”) followed by a near-swashbuckling romp as the men seek their quarry.
I never tire of this film and always find some new marvel or nuance when I watch it. If only the Hollywood shit that is shoveled in summer these days could sport 1/10 of the chops of Jaws, the town wouldn’t be losing its shirt.