[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: The sudden resolution at the end of Steven Spielberg's Jaws is one of those great, absurd movie moments that makes me really giddy, that never fails to put a grin on my face. It's a (literally) explosive climax to a film that, despite its reputation as a nonstop fright-fest, isn't liberal with these kinds of grand, cathartic gestures. I realize that's maybe an odd thing to say about a movie that's credited with being one of the very first summer blockbusters. In 1975, buoyed by a massive national marketing campaign and one of the earliest applications of the "wide release" distribution strategy, Jaws quickly achieved unprecedented commercial success, becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Although Jaws' record was surpassed just two years later by George Lucas' Star Wars, another harbinger of a changing Hollywood, the success of Spielberg's film was a big factor in shifting movie distribution from slow release patterns and word-of-mouth hype to huge marketing pushes and national saturation.
In retrospect, Jaws the film (as opposed to its marketing) is an unlikely candidate for such an important place in movie history. It is a thrilling, scary, often darkly funny movie, a great and entertaining movie, but its sensational content aside, it doesn't have a whole lot in common with what we now think of as summer blockbusters: grandiose effects spectacles with massive budgets, amped up as loud and fast as possible. In comparison, Jaws feels like a very classical film, a taut thriller where the first half is a succession of build-and-release suspense/horror sequences, and the second half is exclusively about three men in a boat, alternately bullshitting in the cabin and chasing a killer shark. The special effects are rough, the shark is often unconvincing, and indeed Spielberg and his crew were plagued with problems involving the mechanical sharks. The effects limitations led to what turned out to be a brilliant aesthetic as well as practical decision: the shark is often not shown, especially in the first half, where the briefest glimpses of a fin or a tooth-filled maw, coupled with indirect evidence of the beast's viciousness and tremendous size, are sufficient to induce dizzying terror.
This is a long way from Transformers: technologically of course, but also in spirit. Although Jaws wound up ushering in an era where bloody, explosive spectacles dominate the summer moviegoing season, Spielberg's film is clearly working on a much smaller scale. The film is rooted in Hollywood classicism, populated with idiosyncratic characters who have plenty of room to speak and interact in between the action/horror set pieces. About the closest the film comes to modern blockbuster territory is the improbable mayhem of the climax, but by that point a moment of excess after two hours of simmering tension and restraint feels more than earned. That climax can still make me giddy, over thirty-five years after the film debuted, because it's a true catharsis, a product of an era before blockbuster filmmakers strove to make every moment seem cathartic and overpowering. Unlike successors that pummel viewers with nonstop "thrills" for two hours or more, Jaws modulates its violence and action with Hitchcockian suspense and quiet character moments, and as a result its bigger notes (like that irresistibly grin-inducing final showdown) hit that much harder.
Jason Bellamy: I see where you're coming from. Thirty-five years after its release, the effects of Jaws are glaringly dated, but the effect of Jaws remains vital. There are numerous reasons for this, and the Hollywood classicism is just one of them; also worthy of being mentioned up front are John Williams' score, which in its own way might be the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and mankind's timeless natural phobia of the ocean. (There's a chicken-or-egg debate to be had when it comes to attributing our fear of sharks—did Jaws tap into it or create it?—but I think we've always been innately aware that man is a land animal by nature and that we're vulnerable, in all sorts of ways, in water), and yet as far as Jaws feels from the Transformers series, I have no doubt that they're related, because in the end this is an overpowering effects film, too.
As much as the brilliance of the suspense and horror are tied to what we don't see, which was inspired at least in part by what Spielberg was too embarrassed to show us (the malfunctioning mechanical shark), Jaws is ultimately reliant upon its big whammy of a special effect: that massive shark head that chews through the stern of the Orca and then rams its way into the ship's cabin. Spielberg gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of showing the effect of the shark without utilizing the shark effect itself, but for all of that foreplay to pay off, eventually he had to bring the suspense to climax by giving us a physical representation of the shark that lives up to all that is suggested by the scene in which the skinny-dipper is thrust around like a ragdoll, or the scene in which the dock is split in two, or the scene in which the shark manages to dive deep below the surface with three barrels harpooned into its skin. Without the mighty mechanical shark to provide the exclamation point, all of Spielberg's much praised suspense would be nothing more than a run-on tease, or, worse, an unintentional joke.
Thus, to some degree what's changed in the decades since Jaws premiered isn't the blockbuster filmmaker's need to fill the screen with incredible, impossible awesomeness so much as the amount of incredible, impossible awesomeness it takes to (metaphorically speaking) "fill the screen." To put it another way, filmmakers like Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan and Roland Emmerich are adjusting for inflation. Whether that works is another matter. Indeed, as you implied, the typical modern blockbuster is so jammed with (supposed) awesomeness that it often throws off our sense of scale, allowing the extraordinary to become ordinary, which defeats the purpose. Still, there's no denying that Jaws is like the modern blockbuster in at least one crucial way: it attempts to overpower us through an effect-based visual that in order to succeed must be awesome beyond the scale of our imagination.
EH: What makes Jaws special, in my opinion, is the way it balances those (necessary and satisfying) sensational moments with more nuanced effects, effects that don't require large-scale mechanical constructions or demolitions experts but are no less special. Spielberg's first film, the made-for-TV thriller Duel, managed to create menace and foreboding from very little, using camera angles and judicious editing to frame an ordinary truck with an unseen driver as the terrifying embodiment of masculine violence and random destruction. Jaws has a more inherently frightening villain, but it similarly creates most of its effect through pure filmmaking bravado.
The opening sequence, after the credits, is a perfect example. The film begins with a gorgeous nighttime scene as a group of young summer tourists have a party around a fire on the beach. A guy and a girl catch each other's eyes from across the campfire and run off across the dunes, the girl stripping in silhouette, laughing as she runs, the guy stumbling drunkenly after her. Anyone who's seen a few horror or slasher movies know that only doom is awaiting them in the dark, as it always does for young people who run off into the night to have sex. The imagery is dim and shadowy, the dark blue of the sky blending into the denser darkness of the water, which could hide anything, but the mood of these opening scenes is initially as poetic as it is foreboding. The sight of the girl's head bobbing in the water is chilling, as are the point-of-view shots from beneath the water. Those shots, ostensibly from the shark's perspective, recall the underwater shots in Creature From the Black Lagoon, one obvious old Hollywood reference point for Spielberg's film, announced right up front in these early scenes. As these moody images slowly lead towards the horrifying moment when the girl first feels a faint nibble below the water and then begins frantically thrashing around, John Williams' infamous dun-dun-dun-dun-dun shark theme starts stealthily creeping into the music, increasing the sense of dread.
Later, the girl's hand washes up on the beach, the first evidence of the shark that will soon terrorize the area, and Spielberg delivers a sensational closeup of the detached hand with crabs scuttling all over and around it, a horrifying image that reinforces the impact of the opening sequence. But Spielberg leads into this gory image patiently, with a shot of the police officer who'd discovered the hand, blowing a whistle to summon help. The whistle slides out of his slack mouth as he sits weakly in the sand, facing away from his discovery, which is hidden from the audience as well by the tall dune in the background. Spielberg understands that this shot, in which we feel the horror through the policeman's reaction without knowing precisely what he'd found, is just as important as the explicit closeup that follows, if not even more so.
JB: That's very true. And it leads us to what I think is the biggest difference between Jaws and the modern blockbuster: its recognition of the significance of the loss of human life. Consider for starters that you can count on one hand the human deaths in Jaws: 1) Crissy, the skinny-dipper at the outset; 2) Alex Kintner, the boy on the inflatable raft; 3) Ben Gardner (memorably discovered after the fact); 4) the guy in the dinghy on "the pond"; and 5) Quint (Robert Shaw), the film's Captain Ahab, whose death seems inevitable from the very start. That's it and that's all. Five deaths. That's all it takes for "Jaws," the shark, to be one of the most fearsome monsters in movie history, and it takes less than half that for the shark to be monstrous: other than the town's mayor and the touchingly fearless kids, no one in the quaint beach village of Amity is too crazy about going in the water after Crissy's and Alex's deaths—and it's Crissy's death alone that sends this story into motion and the water-phobic police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), into panic mode. By today's blockbuster standards, five deaths isn't the sum of the carnage; it's the remainder of a much larger equation.
And yet what's so striking about Jaws isn't the modesty (in number) of the carnage. It's the sincerity of the horror that the carnage creates. When the police deputy, who in appearance and slumped posture in that early scene always reminds me a bit of John Cazale, comes across what's left of Crissy, yes, his crumpled reaction beautifully heightens the tension of the reveal, as you noted, but it also reminds us of the significance of Crissy's death. A shark has taken a beautiful young woman and shredded a night of (quasi)innocence into gruesome death and dismemberment. Through this single death, Jaws achieves the kind of impact that the Transformers films level entire cities in search of. And why? Because Jaws doesn't treat Crissy's death as a prelude to or sideshow of tragedy. It treats it like a tragedy in its own right.
This appreciation of the significance of death is further reinforced by the scene in which Brody's apparent triumph—some fishermen have captured what they believe to be the deadly shark—is undercut by the arrival of the second victim's mother, Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro). Clad in black, apparently coming straight from the funeral, Mrs. Kintner walks through the parting crowd at the bustling dock and slaps Brody on the face, chastising him for allowing the beaches to stay open in the aftermath of the shark attack on Crissy, thus leading to the death of her son. Most films would be unlikely to include such a scene, but even fewer would allow Mrs. Kintner's slap to linger like Spielberg does. In the next scene, we find Brody eating a quiet dinner with his wife, clearly overcome with guilt and shame. Make no mistake, Spielberg is accomplishing other things with these scenes, too. He's increasing our terror. He's bonding the audience with Brody. He's increasing Brody's personal investment in the shark hunt. And, true enough, later on Spielberg will quickly move on from the death of the man in the dinghy without pausing to reflect. Still, Jaws avoids treating its human victims like they are merely targets in a carnival shooting gallery, made for annihilation, as so many modern blockbusters do. In one scene, in fact, Brody walks past some kids on the boardwalk playing a video game in which they blast away at attacking sharks until their quarter runs out. That shot pretty well sums up the modern approach to blockbuster death and destruction, as well as Spielberg's awareness that real killing is never that casual.
EH: In that respect, it's notable that when Mrs. Kintner slaps Brody, blaming him for the death of her son, he doesn't protest but admits that yes, he does feel responsible. Spielberg doesn't allow his hero to come out of this with completely clean hands; he knew that there was a shark in the water, and that it had killed someone already, but he caved to political pressure from above and went along with the alternate boating accident explanation. After Alex Kintner's death, that slap resonates for quite a while, and so too does the mayor's quiet, shamed admission that his own kids were also on the beach that day, a devastating admission that's almost as affecting as Mrs. Kintner's slap.
That scene on the docks, when the first shark is caught, is just so great in general. The mood is ostensibly celebratory, but it's undercut not only by the lingering sadness of the two deaths so far, but also at a meta level by the knowledge that the movie has more or less just begun, so of course the actual killer shark is not dead. Spielberg cuts away from the dock celebration to Quint, pulling into the harbor on his own boat, laughing, as though to say, "Ha-ha you know the movie's not over yet, right?" There's a certain dark humor to this scene, in that the audience, merely by virtue of knowing they're watching a movie, has access to information that the characters couldn't possibly know. The characters, unaware they're in a story, think that the threat has passed, and only Quint, with his knowing grin, seems to know that it can't possibly be that easy.
As this scene shows, Jaws is distinguished not only by its serious approach to death but also by a balancing sense of playfulness that is often interwoven with the grimmer currents of the film. Even the scene where Alex Kintner dies displays Spielberg's balance of seriousness and dark humor. The way he builds tension throughout this scene is almost playful and comical. Brody is on shore, intently watching the water, but he keeps getting interrupted by townspeople bothering him with petty troubles, to which he half-listens while craning his neck to look over the shoulders of the people he's talking to. Out on the water, Spielberg cuts between multiple swimmers: a woman floating on her back, a couple wrestling and kissing, a dog paddling after a stick thrown by its owner, a kid on a flotation device (the doomed Alex), other kids splashing and screaming, attracting Brody's nervous attention with each squeal or shout. The cutting is lively and playful, knowingly generating suspense that takes the form of a question: Who's going to die? Is it this person? This one? This one? Is the shark going to appear now? Now? Now? Spielberg seems to be having fun drawing out the moment, engaging in some Hitchcockian manipulation, delivering multiple false scares before finally getting to the real deal. The scene is very complex in its tonal blend, with black humor running through the slowly building suspense, before the scene climaxes with bloody horror and then gives way to the sad aftermath.
JB: Yeah, I think one of the big reasons that Jaws is so rewarding over multiple viewings is due to Spielberg's ability to juggle so many seemingly converse moods so adeptly (Hitchcockian, indeed). People rarely refer to Jaws as a complex film—indeed, "complex" is a word that's hardly ever applied to summer blockbusters, unless, as with Christopher Nolan's Inception, narrative convolution is basically the point—but what Spielberg does here is really quite intricate. The scene of Brody sitting on the beach prior to Alex's death is probably the best example. Each time someone passes in front of Brody — blocking his vision of the beach and our vision of Brody—the ensuing camera angle of Brody is tighter. All Scheider really has to do in this scene is look toward the beach, but the cinematography makes Brody's tension palpable. And yet, like you said, humor is just a few beats away: the gray hump headed toward the woman floating on her back turns out to be an old man in a gray swim cap; a screaming woman turns out to be wrestling with her boyfriend; and so on. Back and forth it goes: tension and release, tension and release. At one point in the sequence, Brody has to crane his head to peek over the shoulder of one of the islanders, and in the reverse shot both the man in the foreground and the people frolicking in the water in the background, over the man's shoulder, are in focus. In that shot, we fully sense Brody's preoccupation with what's happening in the ocean and the intensity of the distraction he feels from everyone else.
Brody is fearful. Of the water, we're told, but it's deeper than that. In some sense, Jaws is a study of the human response to danger and fear. There's a terrific sequence in which Brody is flipping through a book, reading about sharks, and he is so absorbed by the images, so gripped with fear, that he leaps in surprise when his wife sits down beside him, which in turn startles her. Brody laughs at himself, at his fear, but when he hears that his son is playing on a small boat tied to the dock, his fear instantly returns. That's where the scene really gets interesting. As Brody yells at his son to get away from the water, his fear seems unreasonable, overprotective, and we can sense that his wife thinks he's overreacting. But then Brody's wife casually opens his book, and the first image she sees is an illustration of a shark tearing into a small boat, and now she's the one screaming at her son to get off the water. That sequence is principally designed for a laugh, but it's deeper than that: the wife's response perfectly exemplifies how quickly our sense of security can be shattered. Is her fear reasonable? In a sense, of course it is: a shark has killed someone. And yet, what is she responding to? Actual danger, or perceived danger created by an illustration in a book? Although the man-eating shark is real, what we see from the wife is typical fear of the unknown, wherein a lack of familiarity increases one's level of distrust and paranoia.
Of course, lack of familiarity doesn't always lead to fear. It can lead to foolish bravado, too. The reactions of Brody and his wife stand in contrast to that of Amity's population of dick-measuring men, who respond to the shark hunt as if it's a game, overloading small boats with men, guns and beer. They're fearless, so long as the danger is abstract and unseen. But in a subsequent scene, Spielberg observes what happens when danger is imminent. When a dorsal fin crests the surface of the ocean near the beach, it's every man, woman, and child for him or herself, as everyone in the water goes stampeding toward dry land, at one point knocking over and trampling a fully grown man. That the dorsal fin turns out to be made of cardboard, belonging to two snorkeling kids pulling a prank, further underscores what seems to be the film's point: our emotional response to danger, our sense of fear or security, is often out of balance with the actual danger at hand.
EH: That's a good point. Back in our conversation about Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day, I suggested that really great horror movies don't just provoke reactions of fear, they're also about fear. You can see that in Jaws in the way that Spielberg cleverly manipulates the audience's fear so that sometimes we're responding to genuine threats and sometimes it's not so clear. The dorsal fin prank is a good example, especially since it's immediately followed with a scene in which the real shark's fin appears, heading towards "the pond" to threaten Brody's kids. I love that shot of the fake shark fin unobtrusively appearing in the background behind two bathers; it's so casual that it takes a moment or two to even register, and when it does it's utterly chilling, a moment of surreal calm before the chaos begins. Once again, there's some meta gamesmanship going on here: the people on the beach respond more slowly to the second threat because, having been pranked already, now they're suspicious of being fooled a second time. But the audience's reaction is the opposite, partly because we know how narrative works: the second shark fin is unlikely to be another prank because that would be narratively pointless, whereas following a fake scare with a real one is a common horror movie device. Once again, Spielberg uses such extra-filmic knowledge to place the audience a few beats ahead of the characters in the film, ramping the levels of fear up and down as though he's conducting an orchestra of emotions.
You're right that this film is about fear and the loss of security. Sometimes the tension builds only to be released, generating fear from the unseen shark and then refusing to resolve the tension, letting the fear of the unknown linger. At one point, two local fishermen try to catch the shark by leaving a hunk of meat dangling in the water off a dock. Predictably, the dock gets pulled apart and one fisherman falls into the water, desperately struggling to make it back ashore ahead of the shark. A large fragment of the dock floats along in his wake, presumably pulled by the shark that's chasing him, and the editing emphasizes that this is a chase sequence, with the detached piece of dock standing in for the unseen shark the same way Quint's yellow barrels will in the film's second half. We can't see the shark, so watching the dock float along the surface, growing closer and closer to the floundering man, we can only assume that the shark is closing in and will soon devour yet another hapless victim. But then the man makes it back up onto the dock, after multiple shots of his feet dangling tantalizingly in the water or just above it, and the dock floats harmlessly back to shore nearby, seemingly pulled only by the tide. The scene ends with an unspoken question, leaving it ambiguous whether the shark was ever chasing the fisherman or if it had simply slipped off to sea again after tearing the dock apart.
This scene underscores just how much of the film's effect depends on the viewer's imagination, tweaked and manipulated by Spielberg: a shark could pop up at any moment, but just as often the threat fails to materialize. As you say, the men of Amity don't fear the shark as long as it remains abstract and unseen, but Spielberg counters their unwarranted confidence with the idea that sometimes we most fear precisely those things which are unseen and unknown. The unknown often provokes anxiety and uncertainty, and Jaws remains so destabilizing because it's never certain if and when the shark is lurking in the water nearby. As viewers, we often have to rely on indirect clues to guess at the shark's presence, like a fin sticking out of the water or something being pulled along in the water by the shark below, but Spielberg takes care to include scenes that call into question such indirect evidence. The film is about the ways in which fears can be amplified and warped by the imagination, which inevitably leaps to wilder and wilder conclusions when confronted with an unseen, unpredictable threat. Much of the film's first half is about misdirection, making our fears turn out to be foolish or exaggerated in comparison to what actually happens. And then, when the tremendous shark finally begins appearing with its gaping jaws and huge head, Spielberg suggests that sometimes our fears do come true, sometimes the monsters of our imaginations might make the leap into terrifying reality.
JB: That brings us back to the shark itself, the malfunctioning contraption that Spielberg famously nicknamed Bruce, after his lawyer. We've already touched on how the clumsiness of the shark encouraged Spielberg to predominantly rely on mystery rather than spectacle, but the primitiveness of the mechanical monster had another significant effect, too, in that its limited maneuverability also forced Spielberg to slow down the action in a way that amplifies the film's horror. Judging by most modern blockbusters, you'd think "slow" and "action" are mutually exclusive qualities, but Jaws proves that they aren't. Indeed, there's something absolutely chilling about the casualness with which the shark haunts, hunts and harms, the best example being the attack on the man at the pond, when in a terrific bird's-eye-view shot we see the shark approach the man from below, its mouth open, its pace unhurried, its target obvious. The shark doesn't thrust itself at its prey. Rather, it recognizes it has the upper hand and proceeds accordingly, less a high-strung velociraptor in Jurassic Park than an eerily calm Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. On the most basic level, this restrained pace has the benefit of ensuring that the action is comprehensible, and that's no small thing (after seeing the trailer for the most recent Transformers film, I marvel that the series' fans can apparently tell the difference between the good bots and the bad bots during fight scenes where all I see are tumbling scrap heaps). But beyond that, the slowness of the shark's actions enhances our awareness of its primal indomitability. This is a shark that sits at the top of the food chain and knows no fear. To borrow from Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, when I see this shark slowly opening its mouth to snare the boater, or casually lifting its head to eye Brody as he throws chum into the ocean, "I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy; I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature."
And that leads us to the film's almost excruciating realism. Certainly it's a stretch when near the end of the film the shark leaps onto the Orca's stern and, in one motion, starts it sinking, but when I say that Jaws has excruciating realism, I'm not so much referring to what is or isn't possible or even plausible. Instead, I'm referring to the way Spielberg grounds this film in reality. For instance, the second time Brody flips through his shark book, Spielberg alternates between shots of Brody looking at the book (its pages reflected in his glasses) and the book itself, which includes photographs of actual sharks and the aftermath of actual shark attacks, the most gruesome image being the last one: a thigh with a healthy arching bite out of it. Later, when Richard Dreyfuss' Matt Hooper enters a cage and descends into the ocean, Spielberg inserts a few tight shots of actual sharks, which allow him to get around the clumsiness of "Bruce." And in between, Robert Shaw captivates when Quint tells the true-to-life story (embellished, of course, as are all fish tales) of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by the Japanese in World War II, leading an unknown number of momentary survivors to be attacked and killed by sharks. In these scenes, and others, many of which were shot on an actual ocean, Spielberg continually reinforces the idea that this could happen, that this shark isn't larger than life but simply really fucking big. So many modern blockbusters thrive on escapism. Jaws comes at us from the opposite direction, as Spielberg does his best to blur the line between fiction and reality until, at least momentarily, we can't tell the difference between them.
EH: That's a telling line, because in so many ways Jaws is very far from realistic. We may see the "overwhelming indifference of nature" in the shark's unblinking eyes and stiff, inexorable movements, but in fact it's so blank and unfeeling because it's not alive at all, just a poor facsimile of the real thing. The film is not so much realistic as it is physical; its effects are rooted in tangible reality rather than existing solely in a computer, as the shark doubtless would be were the film made now.
More importantly, what's realistic about the film is the way people react to the threat of this not-so-realistic shark, and the way they interact with one another. Shaw's Indianapolis monologue is riveting, but it's not the only example of the film's surprising facility for non-shark character-building. The entire second half of the film shifts the focus away from the seaside community besieged by the shark, and onto the three men who go out onto the ocean to kill the creature: Quint, Hooper and Brody. After the first half of the film establishes the stakes of the shark threatening this small tourism-focused community, the cast is whittled down to three men whose archetypal character traits complement each other: the grizzled veteran tough guy, the intellectual eager to prove himself, and the reluctant authority figure. The film becomes all about not only their attempts to kill the shark but about their interactions and the ways in which they come to respect and admire each other.
Late last year, Adam Zanzie wrote about Jurassic Park, claiming that it was Spielberg's Howard Hawks movie, specifically comparing it to the John Wayne safari adventure Hatari!. I disagreed in the comments, arguing that Spielberg's dinosaur film, while a great action flick, is too plot-driven to ever be comparable to a languidly paced Hawksian hangout movie. On reflection, I'd cite Jaws, not Jurassic Park, as Spielberg's true Hawksian movie, with its emphasis on the theme of male bonding under pressure, its alternation of action scenes with character-building, and its quirky characters spouting idiosyncratic dialogue. I think Adam was right, though, to pinpoint Hatari! in particular as a key film for Spielberg, since that film's sense of free-wheeling masculine adventure winds through much of Spielberg's work. It's a key aspect of Jaws that goes hand-in-hand with its horror: the almost boyish sense of wonder that's so recognizable in so many of Spielberg's films and that crops up here in the way he celebrates the heroic expedition to catch the shark. Everyone remembers John Williams' creepy two-note shark theme from this film; it's easier to forget the oddly jaunty, upbeat adventure themes that propel much of the film's second half, capturing a very different mood. Spielberg wants us to be scared by his film, but he also wants us to be awed and excited.
JB: Sure. And, like Quentin Tarantino after him, Spielberg clearly wants us to enjoy Jaws not just as adventure but as a movie adventure. That is, for all the ways Jaws is grounded in realism, it has another foot (fin?) planted in celluloid staginess. We've already identified a few scenes that match that description, like the equally tense and comedic early beach sequence, or the mishap when the villagers go fishing for the shark with meat that's been set aside for a winter roast. But perhaps an even better example is Quint's arrival into the story. As some of the townspeople sit in a classroom at a hastily arranged town hall meeting, debating whether to close the beaches, Quint sits quietly in the back of the room until—SCREEEEEEEEETCH—he announces his presence by dragging his nails across the blackboard. That, in and of itself, makes for quite a colorful introduction, but the topper is that while the others were debating the safety of the beaches, Quint has managed to surreptitiously draw a cartoon on the blackboard of an enormous shark with a tiny stick-figure human in its mouth. Spielberg gives us a few shots of befuddled villagers staring at this odd man in the corner, and then he slowly zooms in on Quint, who casually snacks on crackers while warning them about the shark and offering his services to catch it. "I don't want any volunteers," Quint says. "I don't want no mates. There are too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing."
From that scene forward, Quint is more oversized than the shark he's chasing. Robert Shaw is tremendous, giving a performance so memorable, so vibrant, so flamboyant yet restrained that when I noticed on IMDb that he didn't receive an Academy Award nomination I went scrambling to the AMPAS database to see who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year—out of surprise more than outrage, to be clear. (If you're curious: George Burns in The Sunshine Boys, Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Burgess Meredith in The Day of the Locust, Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon and Jack Warden in Shampoo.) The tale of the plight of the Indianapolis is of course Shaw's/Quint's signature moment, with Spielberg keeping the camera steady as the overhead lamp in the Orca sways with the ocean's current, enhancing the scene's eerie tone. Quint's eyes are fixed on Brody, off camera, and when Quint describes the sharks attacking the survivors, Spielberg doesn't cut and Shaw doesn't blink.
As I implied earlier, Quint is just a wooden leg short of being Captain Ahab, so there's no question that he's an archetypal character. But watching Shaw in Jaws makes me appreciate the degree to which Quint seems to have shaped the modern cinema version of the fearless and hell-bent dangerous hero. For example, when the shark cracks the ship's hull and the Orca starts taking on water and a small fire breaks out, Quint's unflustered reaction—he calmly tells Brody to put out the fire without even looking in its direction—reminds of Robert Duvall's Kilgore four years later in Apocalypse Now, kneeling amidst warzone explosions without flinching, a move that's been emulated ad nauseum ever since. Quint, like the shark he's chasing, can't seem to imagine losing the fight, even while he is thrilled by the stubbornness of his opponent. Of course, at the movies, that kind of confidence gets you killed. And so when Brody eventually reports Quint's death to Hooper, it's a confirmation of the inevitable.
EH: Quint, more than Brody (the ostensible lead) or even the shark itself, is really the defining character of this film. It's Quint's rugged, snarling masculinity and casual self-assurance that make the biggest impact out of the human cast. And if the film's most memorable and oft-quoted line is Brody's "You're gonna need a bigger boat," it's Quint's indifferent reaction that really solidifies the mix of humor and terror in that famous line. Quint is so focused on his work that he can't even spare a glance or a word in response, while all Brody can do is back slowly away, repeating his words with even more desperation this time: "You're gonna need a bigger boat, right?"
Quint's unblinking intensity also serves as a contrast with his two companions on the shark hunt, who represent very different masculine archetypes. Quint is defined by his toughness, his grim determination, the working man's confidence that's grounded in a lifetime of doing everything for himself. Hooper naturally clashes with Quint, initially, because he embodies an opposing archetype, an intellectual whose ironic, twinkly-eyed demeanor and readiness with a quip is very different from the older man's gruff, abrupt manner. In one scene, after Quint makes a show of chugging a beer and crushing the can in his fist, Hooper responds by drinking down a small Styrofoam cup and crushing it, sarcastically mocking the other man's hyper-masculine competitiveness. It's a clever visual joke that suggests that even if the two men are very different in how they express their masculinity, they are essentially competing on the same grounds.
This point is driven home by the scene where Quint and Hooper compare scars, competing and accumulating a grudging respect for one another as they realize that they both have lots of wounds from lives spent on the water. There's an element of homoeroticism to it as the two men undo their clothes, wrapping their legs over each other, laughing and baring their chests, bonding and growing closer, both physically and emotionally. Brody is left out of this masculine closeness, standing nearby, glancing momentarily at the scar on his own stomach but remaining silent, aware that his own meager wounds (like this appendectomy scar) don't belong in the competition. Quint and Hooper have both led wild and eventful lives, had lots of girls, and have the scars to show for it, including Hooper's half-joking baring of his chest as evidence of a broken heart.
Brody, unlike these men, is a family man, settled with a wife and two young sons, and the earlier scenes of comfortable domesticity with his wife suggest a relatively happy, easy existence. He's not made for adventure or action: he hated his job as a New York City cop, overwhelmed by all the crime and violence, and seems to have taken a job as a small-town police chief mainly because it promises to be a cushy position with not much to do. There's irony in Brody being a police officer, because he seems like the kind of guy who requires protection rather than a defender or hero in his own right. Quint and Hooper are, in very different ways, easy to accept as heroic types—the tough guy and the clever, wise-cracking intellectual—but Brody is the audience's stand-in and perhaps Spielberg's as well, the ordinary guy in over his head, who'd be happiest at home with his family. Quint and Hooper live for this kind of intimate encounter with nature's violence, but Brody, yearning for peace and quiet, for domesticity and ordinary routine, provides a subtle link back to the film's otherwise eclipsed first half, to the families and the children for whose sake this expedition has been mounted.
JB: You're right, of course, that Brody comes off like a man who needs security and safety more than like a man who should be counted on to provide it. Jaws is filled with nuances, provided both by Spielberg and Scheider, that evoke Brody's anxiety and cautiousness. In the beach sequences, for instance, Brody runs toward danger while everyone else runs away, but once he gets to the water's edge, he shuffles horizontally. Likewise, in the scene in which Hooper guts the tiger shark, Brody keeps his distance while Hooper reaches his hands inside the carcass to see what it has eaten. Then, when Brody and Hooper first go out at night looking for the shark, Brody wears a prudent yet comically awkward orange life preserver while Hooper dives into the water to investigate the wreckage of a shark attack. Brody is certainly a determined cop, and one who never shirks his duty, but to recall our first edition of The Conversations, Brody certainly isn't a Fincherian character: he doesn't like to get dirty.
So, yes, Brody is the fearful audience surrogate in many respects. But I've always felt that the primary surrogate for Spielberg was Hooper. True, Hooper is a touch too heroic, but he's the character that a then geeky young director with "city hands" seems to have fashioned to undercut macho bravado. You mentioned already the scene in which Hooper crushes the Styrofoam cup, but from his very arrival Hooper is used to undercut "working class hero crap" with sarcasm and intellectualism. Hooper knows more about boats than most of the islanders. He's the one who figures out that the shark that gets caught is a tiger shark (one of the villagers wonders if it's a maco shark, which he pronounces "muh-COH," further underlining his idiocy). He's the one who figures out that it's a great white shark that they're pursuing. He's the one who can't help but laugh when the mayor of Amity refuses to acknowledge the imminent threat. He's the one who turns Quint's challenge to tie a sheepshank knot into a display of his own superiority. In short, he's the man with all the answers. Hooper is the kind of cocky youngster rolling his eyes at the establishment that you figure Spielberg might have been at the time, or at least might have wished he were at the time. But even if that's correct, it's only trivia.
In the end, the most significant character isn't Hooper, Brody or Quint. It's the shark. The shark's character is built of many things, from the mechanical "Bruce," to the footage of actual great whites, to the illustrations in Brody's book, to shots of blood rising to the surface or a severed human leg falling to the ocean floor, but the soul of the shark is provided by John Williams' score. I mentioned at the outset that Williams' famous theme might make for the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and here's why: Can you think of any other score that's more identifiable among the general population? Can you think of any other score that can be recognized in just two notes (DUHHHH-DUN!)? Can you think of any other score that more completely transcends its film to become the soundtrack to real life? (Put a city slicker on horseback and there are a number of Western ditties he or she might hum for the occasion. When we view sharks, however, only one tune comes to mind.) Williams' score is more than just the shark theme, of course. And, indeed, it does well to amplify the adventurousness of the shark pursuit or the menace of the attack on Hooper in the shark cage. But what we remember are those repeating groaning strings, escalating as the shark nears and our pulse quickens.
EH: Williams' score in general encompasses many different moods and tones, but it's no surprise that the shark theme—simple, effective, utterly unforgettable—tends to dwarf the rest of the music, just as Spielberg's masterfully executed suspense sequences make it easy to forget the film's dark comedy, character nuance and thematic depth. As we've been discussing, this film deftly balances many different tones and ideas, and Williams' music does the same. The shark theme, though, is so simple that when Williams first played it for Spielberg, the director thought that Williams was joking. But, as Spielberg himself quickly realized, this pulse-quickening theme is the perfect music to announce the presence of the film's big threat. The music, in its simplicity, its unblinking forward drive, mimics the blank determination of the shark itself.
The shark's character, such as it is, is of course much less complex than that of the men on the boat, and that's part of the film's point. The shark, much like the avian swarms of Hitchcock's The Birds, represents the unthinking, unrelenting force of nature, a primal creature whose only purpose is to stalk its prey and feed. Earlier, I pointed out how Spielberg had derived his point-of-view shots from Creature From the Black Lagoon, but there's a crucial difference. The creature's POV in Jack Arnold's horror classic (and even more so its sequel, Return of the Creature) suggests a psychology that is alien to our own, a relic of an earlier stage of evolution, but nevertheless comprehensible. The creature has desires and perhaps even feelings, especially sexual and romantic feelings; when the creature looks up from beneath the water at a bathing beauty, her legs flailing in the water, we feel the pathetic and impossible yearning of this primitive being. The shark, less a true character than a force of nature, doesn't have any such feelings, and when it looks at a woman swimming in the water, all it sees is dinner.
In that respect, the shark has more in common with the truck in Spielberg's TV movie Duel, which first demonstrated the director's penchant for teeth-gritting suspense. Just as the protagonist of Duel is pursued and assaulted by a mysterious truck, seemingly for no reason, with no motive or explanation, the characters of Jaws are being subjected to a force beyond psychology, beyond rationality, a pre-modern creature driven by simple impulses. The film is about the loss of control, about the cruelty of nature reminding us just how fragile our seeming mastery of the world really is. This theme is especially enhanced by the setting of the film's first half, the way that the shark disrupts the comfort and leisure of a beachside community dedicated almost exclusively to the tourism industry. There's nothing more modern, more indicative of privilege and comfort, than the idea of a vacation, which only makes the shark attacks even more upsetting: the shark isn't just feeding, isn't just killing, it's undermining one of the primary symbols of status, security and happiness in our society.
JB: You're on to something there, because while many of Amity's leaders and business people initially object to closing the beaches on (understandable) economic grounds, beyond that there's also some pretty thinly veiled anger over the idea that a shark would dare to fuck with the 4th of July. The looming threat of shark attacks, in addition to the attacks themselves, shatters the spirit of innocence, playfulness and, yes, friendship that are Amity's understood brand. Amity, after all, is the place to get away from it all, even for Brody who has arrived there as a result of fleeing New York.
Of course, to some degree setting the action in an oceanfront vacation getaway is a matter of narrative practicality. Peter Benchley, who wrote the original novel and co-authored the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (John Milius, uncredited, reportedly helped to shape Quint's Indianapolis monologue), needed a reason to keep people in the water where the shark could reach them. And having already praised the film's intricacy, realism, theatricality, performances, score and more, it strikes me that the greatest achievement of Jaws isn't just that we believe that Amity's residents and vacationers would continue wading into the ocean after the first attack but, furthermore, that the threat of the shark is almost unceasingly omnipresent.
Truly, soak that one in for a moment: The only thing any of these people need to do to avoid the shark is to remain on dry land. That's it. And that's what makes Jaws so different from The Birds (where going indoors proves not protection enough), or Alien (where the humans are trapped in the same physical space), or Open Water (where the difficulty of getting to dry land is the whole point), or the dozens upon dozens of monster movies in between. The threat isn't omnipresent; it just feels that way. And while that's partially due to the screenwriters' knack for keeping people in the water, it's also due to Spielberg's knack for bringing shark imagery to dry land, whether through Brody's book, or Quint's blackboard illustration, or the Amity billboard of a happy swimmer that's been vandalized to include a menacing dorsal fin, or Quint's business headquarters, festooned with the jaws of his kills. Mentally, we know that dry land is safe. But emotionally Spielberg makes us feel as if the shark is always close by, as if confronting the beast is unavoidable.
EH: That ties back to the scene you mentioned earlier, in which Brody's wife is initially unconcerned about their kids playing in a boat until she sees the picture of a shark leaping out of the water to take a bite out of a similar small boat. There's a certain amount of irrational fear in the response to the shark: yes, the shark is deadly, if one goes in the water, although Spielberg stages several scenes to suggest that dry land isn't always entirely safe either, like the scene where the shark rips the dock to pieces. And then, in the film's second half, the shark increasingly appears as the embodiment of everyone's worst fears made flesh: exaggeratedly huge, implacable, stalking the Orca like prey, eventually leaping up out of the water and onto the boat's deck just like the shark in Brody's book. For the most part, though, the shark is a creature of the water and if everyone had just been willing to stay out of the water for a while then they would have been safe. The town of Amity, though, reacts to this sensible precaution as a violation, not only of their economy but of their deepest principles, their freedom, their whole way of life. There's something un-American about ruining a holiday celebration like this, but the shark tramples over all of it, uncaring, and in a way that's what really shakes everyone up so much. There's a complicated mix of emotions here, ranging from the somewhat irrational terror of the unknown to a sense of entitlement and security so strong that it takes much more blood than it should to wake most of the townspeople up to the threat.
These tangled, surprisingly complex emotions and the at times deeply submerged subtexts of the material may account, in part, for the remarkable longevity of Spielberg's bloody thriller. Jaws helped to usher in changes in the movie industry, but it has remained a pop culture staple for so long not for its historical importance but for its enduring ability to shock, provoke and frighten multiple generations of filmgoers. Iconic lines and images from the film are recognizable even to those who haven't seen it, and its legendary status is unavoidable, but familiarity has done little to dull or disguise the alternately raw and sophisticated thrills of Spielberg's visceral filmmaking.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.