“Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. Y’know, it’s… kinda like ol’ squares in a battle like, uh, you see in a calendar, like the Battle of Waterloo, and the idea was, shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, and sometimes the shark’d go away… sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then… oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces.” -Quint (Robert Shaw)
“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all. Now, why don’t you take a long, close look at this sign.” -Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus)
“Smile, you son of a BITCH!” -Chief Brody (Roy Scheider)
Do you remember the first time you saw Jaws? For me, sometime during my childhood is when I first encountered the manhunting Great White Shark chomping his way through people swimming in the ocean surrounding Amity Island. An indiscriminate killing machine, the shark terrifies an entire small town over a 4th of July weekend celebration. How many generations have been afraid to go into the water because of visceral fear summoned by this movie? Every time I waded or swam in the ocean as a kid, I could hear John Williams’ famous score and could recall the legendary opening sequence where a teenage girl is pulled under water during a night time swim by an unseen menace. The music starts slow with ominous chords and crescendos to an intensifying forte.
Reportedly, Steven Spielberg, upon being offered the chance to direct “Jaws”, agreed upon one condition: that the shark would not be shown for the first hour. Therein is a lot of the brilliance of Jaws. The horror is off-screen, lurking beneath and any one can disappear into the watery abyss at any moment. Are characters even safe on a boat? ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat,” says Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) famously to the shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw).
“Jaws” did something to the collective American psyche that cannot be undone and stands as one of the greatest horror/ thrillers of all time. Deservedly so. The film made history in other ways as Spielberg released the movie originally on June 20, 1975. This practically invented the summer blockbuster for Hollywood. Of course, this rocketed Spielberg to stardom and with future career offerings such as “Close Encounters with the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” upcoming, he would be transferred to legendary status.
Based upon Peter Benchley’s book (which I haven’t read), the killer shark movie opens at a night time bonfire on the beach. Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) decides to go for a night time ocean swim and is violently pulled under water. Upon finding her remains later, Chief Brody debates with local Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) about closing the beaches. The mayor objects using his smooth manipulative tone we might expect from a government leader and tells Brody to blame the tragic death on a “boating accident”.
All hell breaks loose when a child Alex Kinter (Jeffrey Voorhees) is attacked and killed while people are swimming one day. His mother, Mrs. Kinter (Lee Fierro), puts out an ad that is widely spread around that gives a $3,000 bounty on the shark’s head. Suddenly, people are coming through Amity Island from all over trying to kill Jaws and collect the money.
Spielberg has the reputation of being a sentimental filmmaker that pulls on heart strings. This description would fall on him later in his career. With “Jaws”, he seems to meet the criteria for the uncompromising 1970s filmmakers who surprise audiences. Not too many directors would have children murdered in a bloody eruption that spews out of the ocean while the boy’s lifeless body is thrown around like a rag doll but such is the fate of Alex Kinter. It meets all the merits of a shocking death scene that may come close to the surprise of Alfred Hitchcock killing off his leading lady (Janet Leigh) in the middle of “Psycho”.
With the epic bone crunching violence and horror, if you watch “Jaws” again you will notice it has an unusual tone. At times the dialogue is funny and characters joke around with each other. During the third act on Quint’s boat, oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and Quint brag about their various scars like soldiers exchanging stories of war wounds. With a dramatic intensity, Quint shares a tale with Chief Brody and Hooper about the fateful USS Indianapolis struck by Japanese torpedoes in World War 2: “You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist…You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest…” Like your grandpa telling scary stories by the campfire, a beam of flashlight casting his face in contrasted shadows and light.
Regarding this tricky tone, noted film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you.” Lesser films could not pull off the balance of sheer terror and light-hearted laughs but Spielberg walks that fine line like the best ever.
I have probably seen “Jaws” more then 10 times in my life. The movie never gets old, the music building the suspense is still creepy and it is still a masterful ride. Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, the American Film Institute’s top 100 American films of all time, and the New York Times’ Top 1000 movies of all time, “Jaws” is worthy of all the acclaim.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)