Thursday, July 2, 2015

Film Appreciation - 40 Years of Panic on the 4th of July

Cody Hamman chums out some Film Appreciation for Steven Spielberg's Jaws.

One of the most unsettling sights, to me, is the image of the open water. Nothing but ocean stretching out for as far as the eye can see. That sight is, literally, a thing of nightmares for me. Some people may see the ocean and think of fun and adventure. I think of a bloody, painful death caused by whatever is living beneath the surface. My fear of the water and what's in it is largely thanks to Steven Spielberg's 1975 classic Jaws.

I became a horror fan at a very early age, I could handle all sorts of imagery that most kids would probably be terrified by, but one thing that always disturbed me was seeing the sharks in the Jaws movies. No matter how much people made fun of how fake the animatronic beasts looked, they still got to me. Even looking at stills, like on some Jaws 2 trading cards my brother had, could creep me out.

You'd think I'd be repelled by something that troubled me so. A movie caused me to be plagued by recurring nightmares of sharks throughout my youth, and you might expect that I'd watch that movie once and be done with it. But that's not how it goes with horror fans. I was drawn back to Jaws and its sequels again and again so they could disturb me over and over.

As the years have gone by, my viewings of the Jaws sequels have dwindled, I haven't seen any of them in years, it's been longer for some of them than others. But over those years, my appreciation for the original Jaws has continued to grow.

Before Jaws, Spielberg's calling card was Duel, the 1971 TV movie he had directed about a mysterious trucker chasing a businessman through the desert. He was basically a TV director at this point, aside from the 1974 theatrical feature The Sugarland Express, which doesn't seem to get talked about very much anymore despite being well received. Some very important working relationships were established on that film, and they carried through to Jaws. The Sugarland Express is where Spielberg first worked for producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, who would soon be developing a cinematic adaptation of Peter Benchley's 1974 shark attack novel Jaws.

Spielberg wasn't Zanuck and Brown's first or even second pick to helm their shark picture, but he was the last pick, and it was his talent, and the talents of those he surrounded himself with, that turned the concept of an island community being terrorized by a man-eating, oversized Great White into such a box office sensation that it spawned the summer blockbuster.

Sugarland Express was also Spielberg's first collaboration with composer John Williams, who would provide Jaws with its iconic music. Our first taste of that score comes over the opening titles, during which the shark's P.O.V. swims along the bottom of the ocean.

On a beach, a bunch of young people are partying around a campfire. A girl named Chrissie separates from the group for some nighttime skinny-dipping in the dark sea. I wouldn't even step foot into the water after dark. It's scary enough in the daylight.

The girl swims out toward a buoy, and becomes the first victim of the rogue shark that has made its way to the New England island of Amity. She screams for help as she's violently jerked around in the water by her unseen attacker. For a moment, she's able to grab onto the buoy, the water calms, it seems like she might survive... But that's just a fake-out before the shark finally pulls her under the surface. It is an absolutely terrifying start for the movie.

The hero of the piece is quickly established to be the island's Chief of Police, Martin Brody. Brody has lived on Amity for less than a year, a former New York City cop who was overwhelmed by the crime, so he moved his wife and two children out to this peaceful island despite the fact that he has a phobia of the water - a fear of drowning so bad that he doesn't swim at all and doesn't even like to get on boats.

When the remains of the girl wash up and it's obvious she was killed by a shark, Brody's immediate reaction is to close the beaches. He'll have to make "Beach Closed" signs, because the beaches have never been closed before.

The beaches don't get closed this time, either. It's the wrong time of the year for that. Summer has just started, the big Fourth of July celebration is coming up, it's tourist season. Amity lives on summer tourist money. Closing the beaches and sending people into a panic about a killer shark would devastate the local economy. The Mayor and his cronies shut down Brody's idea, even bribing the coroner to call Chrissie's death the result of a boating accident.

Ignoring the problem just allows the shark to claim another victim, devouring young Alex Kintner in front of a beach full of witnesses. Even after that, the Mayor only agrees to close the beaches for 24 hours, which some islanders still feel is too long.

A $3000 bounty the Kintner boy's mother puts on the shark's head throws the harbor into chaos as fishermen, experienced and not at all, descend on Amity from all over to earn that cash. A tiger shark is caught and killed, and everyone thinks the problem is solved.

Everyone except Matt Hooper, a shark expert Brody has brought in from an oceanographic institute on the mainland. Hooper is allowed to examine what little is left of Chrissie, and determines that the tiger shark's bite radius doesn't match her wounds. This is confirmed when Hooper and Brody slice the shark's corpse open and find no trace of Alex Kintner.

The killer shark is still on the loose, still looking to turn people into lunch.

One of the biggest scares in the movie occurs when Hooper and Brody go out to sea at night and find a wrecked boat belonging to local fisherman Ben Gardner. Hooper dives under the surface to check the boat's hull - finding a hole has been bitten into it, a large shark tooth left behind. And then the corpse of Gardner floats into view through the hole. Hooper freaks out, and every time I've seen Jaws in a theatre the appearance of Ben Gardner has also gotten a vocal reaction from audience members.

The Fourth of July comes, and with it ships full of tourists. The Mayor continues to refuse to close the beaches, so extra summer deputies and shark spotters are put to work; armed men patrolling the coast in boats, helicopters flying overhead.

The day is a disaster, and not just because of the panic caused by a couple kids who pull a prank. The shark attacks again, killing a man right next to Brody's son Michael. We see the shark's fin approaching the man's rowboat. The shark hits the boat with a thud, tipping it over, spilling the man into the water. As he surfaces and grabs onto the boat, an overhead shot gives us our first real glimpse at the killer Great White, 59 minutes into the movie.

The animatronic sharks built for the film famously didn't work very well, which forced Spielberg to find a way around filming them. This causes the sequences involving the shark to be much more effective than they would have been if we were just seeing the shark all over the screen all the time. We saw nothing of the shark when it was attacking Chrissie, we just saw her thrashing and being pulled around. The attack on Alex Kintner is represented with some rolling fins in the distance and a geyser of blood. When a couple men seeking the bounty tie some meat to a dock with a chain, the shark tears the end of the dock off, and as it swims toward one of the men, the dock end being pulled along the surface lets us know where it is.

But here, we see the shark under the water, moving toward the man's legs, mouth open. We see it bite and pull him under... It is extremely creepy. Another quick shot then shows the shark breaking the surface to chomp on the screaming man's arm.

Amity's summer has been ruined. The Mayor was on the beach at the time, and so were his kids, and this event is finally enough for him to realize how serious the situation is. He agrees to allow Brody to hire an eccentric fisherman named Quint to track and kill the shark for $10,000.

Quint is hired with an hour left in the film's 124 minute running time, and for that remaining hour Jaws becomes an adventure at sea, as Brody (facing his fears), Hooper, and Quint go shark hunting on Quint's boat, the Orca, taking it out to points where land is no longer visible in any direction. It's not a harmonious fishing trip, as the completely out-of-his-element Brody bumbles his way through it while Hooper and Quint butt heads - both know the sea and sharks, but each feels like he knows more than the other. Quint looks down on Hooper for his youth and Hooper's modern approach and equipment clashes with the old school style of the lifelong sailor.

From the point the Orca sets sail 68 minutes in until the movie ends, the three men (and the shark) are the only characters on screen. The 1970s were an incredible time for cinema, and thus Spielberg was able to consider a lot of incredible actors for these roles, guys like Robert Duvall, Charlton Heston, Lee Marvin, Sterling Hayden, and Jeff Bridges. Any of them would have been great to get, but the actors Spielberg did land for the film formed a perfect ensemble: The French Connection's Roy Scheider as Brody, Richard Dreyfuss from Spielberg's buddy George Lucas's American Graffiti, and Robert Shaw - who twelve years earlier had taken on James Bond in From Russia with Love - as Quint. Each does an amazing job bringing their character to life, making them likeable and memorable.

Spielberg surrounded the trio with a terrific supporting cast, including Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody and Murray Hamilton as the mayor with interesting fashion sense (his anchor-patterned blazer is majestic), but the film truly belongs to Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw.

These men get their first good look at their adversary when the shark is drawn to the Orca by Brody throwing out chum. 77 minutes into the film, the shark surfaces for its clearest reveal yet, and the shark experts are able to tell that it's twenty-five feet long. This prompts Brody to deliver the famous line, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

You see more of the shark after that, but Spielberg still uses methods to keep it off the screen for as much as possible until the climax, most notably with the yellow barrels Quint spears into it, the idea being that these barrels will eventually trap the shark at the surface. This shark keeps going strong even with three barrels stuck on it, and those floating barrels signal its presence.

As time goes on, the disparate characters on board the Orca begin to bond, leading to a well known scene in which they drunkenly compare scars, and then one of the best moments in cinema history: Quint's monologue about his experience serving on the USS Indianapolis during World War II thirty years earlier. A ship torpedoed while on a secret mission, its crew adrift at sea for days, at the mercy of ravenous sharks. It's a chilling, vivid story brilliantly delivered by Shaw, brilliantly written by multiple contributors, including Shaw himself. It gets my vote for being the greatest monologue ever. It gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.

There were multiple contributors to the script as a whole. Spielberg wasn't particularly fond of the source material, finding Benchley's novel weighed down with unnecessary subplots and unlikeable characters. Benchley wrote the first three drafts of the adaptation himself, but Spielberg still wasn't satisfied. After Benchley, there were drafts, revisions, and polishes done by Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Carl Gottlieb, John Milius, Matthew Robbins, and Hal Barwood. Instead of living up to the "too many cooks" cliche, the work of all these writers actually came together to create a screenplay that greatly elevated the material. However, in the end only Benchley and Gottlieb received screen credit.

The USS Indianapolis speech is really the last moment of downtime the men have during their expedition. The shark keeps them pretty busy from that point on, standing up to every attempt they make to stop it while gradually destroying the Orca. Each man has his own personal confrontation with the Great White, and these confrontations don't tend to go well, building up to the final one between Brody and the shark, and an ending that's worthy of cheers.

Jaws is really a masterpiece of filmmaking on every level. It's a wonderful movie to look at, thanks to the direction of Spielberg and the cinematography by Bill Butler. It has laughs, thrills, and scares, and when the filmmakers want you to be on the edge of your seat, the tension created through the camera angles, the music, and the editing by Verna Fields is palpable.

The shark may not look 100% realistic, but I think it was the sequels that really damaged the reputation of Bruce (as Spielberg called the shark, named after his lawyer.) I have no problem going along with what this movie shows me of the shark.

Although it gave me countless nightmares and caused me to develop a lifelong phobia, Jaws is an exceptionally fun movie to watch, superbly crafted and endlessly quotable. It's been forty years since it was released in the summer of 1975, a summer when people flocked to the theatre to see it at the same time they were flocking to the beach, adding a new level of fear to their vacation time. Forty years and it still feels fresh, and still feels fully deserving of every glowing review it has ever gotten. It's a simple movie about a man-eating fish, but Jaws is one of the all-time greats.


  1. This truly is one of the all-time greats. In my neck of the woods, it feels like we're living in Jaws right now. Over the last month, there has a been a series of shark attacks along the shores of North Carolina beaches. No fatalities yet, thank goodness, but some lost limbs. Still, no beaches have been closed, the powers that be just keep getting "warnings." Sigh.

    1. I've been reading about those attacks in the news. Very scary and awful.

      - Cody

  2. I enjoyed reading reading your interesting summation of Jaws. It has always been one of my favorite films, and it certainly has to be one of the all time greats. It has influenced many people to go into the movie industry, and even marine biology. Im amazed at how well the movie holds up, even today. It's almost a perfect film, so well cast and superb editing.

    1. Thanks for reading, Captain Hook! I would say that "Perfect" is a fitting description for Jaws.

      - Cody