“I’m not going to waste my time arguing with a man lining up to be a hot lunch.” ~ Matt Hooper
“Y’know, the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes after ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’ until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white... and then, aww, you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and rip ya to pieces.” ~ Quint
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” ~ Martin Brody
It’s been forty years since Jaws first arrived in cinemas, terrifying audiences with the tale of man versus nature and causing public relations nightmares for great white sharks. The adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel about a small resort town dealing with the havoc caused by a shark has, like the book itself, become a classic, one that still creeps out the viewer on big screens or small screens. An early film by Steven Spielberg, it was the prototype of the summer blockbuster.
The fictional Amity Island in New England is the setting for the tale, a place highly dependent on tourist traffic during the summer so that the locals can get through the rest of the year. It’s an idyllic place when the film opens up, just before the summer season. A young woman is attacked off shore after a late night beach party, and the following day, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and his deputy find her remains washed up on the beach. Upon learning the initial cause of death is a shark attack, Brody closes the beaches, but the town mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), worried about the notion that the summer season could be ruined by news of a shark attack, overrules him, suggesting the death was caused by a boat propeller accident. Brody reluctantly goes along with it.
Another attack soon happens, and the townspeople find themselves stunned. A local grizzled fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) offers his services to kill the shark. An oceanographer is called in by Brody, arriving during the efforts by amateurs to collect on a bounty. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) quickly confirms that despite the earlier white washing of the initial coroner’s find, the case was indeed a shark attack, and urges Brody and the mayor to take every possible step to close the beaches.
Benchley’s novel dealt with the themes of man versus nature contrasting with the politics and pressures of a small resort town. It did exceedingly well, and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown snapped up film rights, having had already read the book before publication. Benchley, whose novels often followed stories out on the water, had a hand in adapting the book into a screenplay, along with Carl Gottlieb, who spent time during production on rewrites. Benchley even did a cameo in the film as a news reporter on the beach. There are significant changes from the book, such as some character dynamics, removal of subplots, and the fates of characters. Spielberg was brought in by Zanuck and Brown to direct, an interesting touch since one of his earliest films, Duel, had also touched on the idea of a relentless, unfeeling killer. This would be a different take on that concept, however.
Filming was done mainly around Martha’s Vineyard, and had its own issues- it was over budget and late. The mechanical shark, dubbed Bruce, had numerous issues and required much work. Spielberg compensated by working around it for most of the film, giving the viewer underwater shots from the shark’s point of view or suggesting the shark’s presence by a fin above the water- even the use of barrels to signify the shark’s presence was another such touch. In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened for the film, since we don’t even see the shark until late in the film, and when we do, it’s such a terrific shock. No matter how many times you see the film, you still feel a jolt as the beast surfaces behind Scheider while he’s throwing out chum on the water, and you still feel in awe as you see it swim past the boat. In having to deal with mechanical difficulties, the production made Spielberg direct more along the lines of Hitchcock, suggesting the terror than showing it, and drove the suspense up all the better.
Part of that suspense also comes from the film score by the great John Williams, which earned the composer an Oscar. The simple two note alternating pattern main theme comes to play throughout the film, associated with the shark. The theme is relentless and primal, and sends a chill down the spine anytime one listens to it. It’s unsettling- which makes it work so well. If you’re of a devious mindset, play that music out on the beach on a busy day and see how many people rush back onto land.
The cast are all very well chosen. Murray Hamilton as Mayor Vaughn is not a terribly likeable person- though he wants to be. He’s more concerned with the town’s image at first, terrified of the notion of the slightest bad publicity on the tourist business the town depends on. He’s not above arm twisting and doing the underhanded things a politician would do to keep such things out of the light- we can see that in the way the medical examiner quickly changes his judgment on the first attack. Vaughn’s what you would expect out of such a man: fixated on one thing so much that he can’t see the consequences of dealing with the real problem until the damage is done. Hamilton plays to that in his performance, and that gives the character authenticity.
Lorraine Gary is well cast as Brody’s wife Ellen. The two actors make the marriage of their characters feel believable and grounded (a very different take from the novel where the marriage is, in a couple of words, in trouble), and she plays the role of wife and mother as supportive. She’s not above using a sharp word- witness a stern order she gives her son upon looking at photographs of shark victims, for instance, which shifts her from being the mother who indulges a bit of play to the mother who wants her kid away from the water.
Robert Shaw is a marvel as Quint. There’s a lot of real life fishermen in the character that Shaw would have drawn into his performance, men who have lived hard lives out on the water, who have little patience for nonsense. There’s also a streak of Captain Ahab in the character- obsessive about hunting down the shark- and yet late in the film he seems a bit more resigned to the fact that the shark’s more than he can handle. The character is contemptuous of city men like Hooper, and some of that antagonism is mutual, and so it takes time before the two men can come to terms. One of my favourite sequences of the film- no doubt a favourite of many- has Quint, Hooper, and Brody sitting around the table on Quint’s boat. Quint and Hooper compare scars and battle stories, the three men end up singing a marvellously appropriate medley, and in between, Quint tells the real World War Two story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a tale which has a chilling, haunting effect, and certainly says a lot about Quint’s hatred of sharks. As coarse and hard as he is, there's humanity in Quint.
Hooper is much more sympathetic and likable in the film than he is in the novel, and part of that comes from the screenplay and the rest comes from the performance by Richard Dreyfuss. There’s a brash curiousity and a good sense of humour in the man. He’s smart, knows he’s smart, but doesn’t brag about it. Hooper has little patience for stupidity (I can relate to that) and is irritated by the short sighted mentality that refuses to close beaches- I like how he notes that when he leaves, Brody will be the only capable guy left on the island. The mutual antagonism between he and Quint plays to a bit of a class difference that is an underlying theme in the film, as well as the notion of outsiders- Hooper’s an outsider to the island, and in many ways, so is Brody. Dreyfuss gives the character a lot of spark and brings him to life in just the right way.
Roy Scheider was well chosen to play Chief Brody, playing the role with a sense of capability and resolve. The character is the moral force of the movie, the symbol of authority who finds himself dealing with a relentless killer unlike the criminals he dealt with in the jungles of the big city. A former city cop, he’s an outsider on this island (and doesn’t care for water), a job that should be a sleepy, quiet line of work considering he only needs a single deputy most of the year. He’s not quite used to the politics of a small resort town, and so is taken aback when the mayor pulls strings to minimize potential public relations damage. While he initially goes along with that, it doesn’t apply when the next incident happens and Brody ends up taking on the sense of guilt and responsibility thrust upon him by a grieving mother. That reflects on his actions the rest of the movie- he’s not just a lawman, but a father, and it drives him through the rest of the story. Scheider gives the character a bit of a reserved sensibility- he’s most at ease with his wife and children, a stark contrast to his encounters with the water, where through much of the film he’s very much ill at ease.
The film is of course a summer blockbuster classic- despite its many production problems that went into the filming. It did spawn several increasingly ridiculous sequels- Jaws The Revenge seemed to hinge on the notion that a shark would happily swim thousands of miles to chase a grieving mother and widow just to make it all worse- but in and of itself, the film still creeps out the audience, thrills us, and gives us wonderfully complicated characters. And spine tingling music that shouldn’t be played on a beach.