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.