40 for 40 – #2. Jaws

The first of the summer blockbusters and a film that introduced the world to one of the greatest directors of all time.
A seldom-seen villain nothing short of a force of nature, one of the best all-round cast performances captured on film, and a musical score instantly recognised by only two iconic notes.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, #2 is here to remind you just how terrifying it can be.
So, dive in…

#2. Jaws (1975) Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Okay, full disclosure. I have an irrational fear of the water. There’s no real rhyme or reason behind it. No traumatic childhood experience or anything like that. I just don’t like it.

I admit, it doesn’t make any sense. But that’s why it’s irrational, right?

So it’s pretty odd that one of my favourite all-time films is Jaws; the story of an island community terrorised by an enormous killer shark. But what can I say?

I. Love. This. Movie.

I remember being around ten years old, gradually getting used to the idea of venturing into the surf, slowly-but-surely gaining more confidence in being surrounded by the water, when Jaws came on television one Saturday night.

And as far as going back into the ocean was concerned? Well, let me tell you… that was the end of that.

As I watched this movie for the first time, ten-year-old me sat transfixed by the images, the music, the characters and most of all, the story, appearing before my young eyes. I can tell you with one hundred percent honesty that my fear of the water is not based upon a fear of sharks, or drowning or anything in particular. But while watching Jaws, I do remember thinking to myself, “Why am I still watching this? I should be terrified. This is going to give me nightmares.

But I did watch it. All of it. And it didn’t terrify me (beside those tense feelings of unease that any good thriller should evoke). And funnily enough, didn’t give me nightmares. Instead, just the opposite happened. I became an instant fan of this movie and wanted to watch it all over again.

I think that’s the greatest praise I can heap upon Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic. For a man seriously unnerved by the water, I will watch Jaws at the drop of a hat. I watch it on blu-ray at least two or three times a year, and if I ever stumble across it on television, I find myself seeing it through to the end.

It’s just that good.

First of all, this movie is undoubtedly one of Spielberg’s best. From a technical standpoint, it’s remarkable that this was only his second feature film. Clearly inspired by the master, Alfred Hitchcock, Spielberg nevertheless created his own style with Jaws, and rightly so, is credited with birthing the modern summer blockbuster.

Obviously as a thriller / horror movie, Jaws relies on its great spooks and the tension that builds before them. This is where I feel Spielberg really shines, and ninety percent of it is through the happy accident that his great-big-mechanical-shark (or Bruce as it became known) rarely worked.

With a variety of technical issues, Spielberg was unable to show the monster as much as he liked, which, looking back, was a masterstroke decision. Films like Alien and The Blair Witch Project were clearly influenced by the idea of hiding the scary creature for as long as possible, allowing the audience’s own imaginations to frighten them in the meantime.

Some of the greatest (or most shocking) moments of the movie are due to not seeing the shark. Right from the opening scene, we don’t see even a hint of it before it takes the unlucky swimmer, Chrissie (Susan Backlinie). All we get are some creepy point-of-view shots and a wonderfully-petrified performance by the actress.

I must have legitimately seen this movie close to a hundred times, yet that opening scene still gets to me. As it starts, I always think the same thing – “Here we go. She’s getting chomped,” and yet by the end of the scene, any hint of morbid humour is gone. I’m not laughing anymore and I’m left thinking, “Yeah, that’s messed up.”

Every time.

Such is the brilliance of those opening moments. The movie sets up exactly what you need to know with one of the most memorable and unsettling scenes in Hollywood history.

Again not seeing the shark (or barely in this case) works amazingly well with the tragic attack on Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees). In a scene that would never make it to the final edit in these overly-politically-correct days, the moments that lead up to Alex’s death are perhaps some of the film’s finest. In my opinion, it is certainly the best-directed scene in the whole movie.

As my fellow thalassophobe , Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sits nervously watching the water, all he sees are potential victims. Long camera angles only cut between shots as someone walks across the frame, going back-and-forth between Brody and his point-of-view to give us a real insight into his uneasy frame of mind. The ocean is shot as a vast expanse, while the people frolicking among the waves appear tiny and inconsequential in comparison. Almost like bait for a hungry predator.

Oh, wait…

I love this scene because instead of seeing people, Brody can only see potential victims. We share his unease as Alex convinces his mother to let him paddle out into the water a little longer, and then that dog goes missing and we know something terrible is about to happen. And when it does, we are treated to (what is, in my opinion) the greatest camera shot in cinematic history…

I could watch that dolly zoom on Brody forever. It is out-and-out my favourite shot of all time and I cannot stress that enough.

As I said before, no way in Hell would Alex’s gruesome death remain in a Hollywood film today. We might see him pulled under the water or maybe his raft would wash up on the shore, but in today’s world, there’s no way we’d get the brutality and/or gore presented in Jaws.

But that’s why Jaws great. Spielberg shows us how the shark doesn’t differentiate between its victims. It’s an animal. A killing machine, pure and simple.

It goes without saying that of course I can identify with a character like Brody. As a man afraid of the water, he is the perfect protagonist for someone like me to cheer for, and thanks to Scheider’s wonderful performance, I do exactly that.

Despite his occupation, Brody’s isn’t just your typical action hero. His backstory as a perfectly-capable-but-stressed-out New York cop looking to escape the city lifestyle, is briefly touch upon, enough that we understand how Brody actually wants a ‘pencil-pushing’ post on Amity. He doesn’t crave adventure. He’s happy to listen to complaints of school children karate-chopping fences. He’s just an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation.

Scheider also portrays fear like no one else.

When his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary) accidentally spooks him while he’s reading up on sharks, his shocked response is amazing. And of course, nothing says, “I wish I’d worn my brown underwear,” like his reaction to first seeing the shark during the now-infamous chumming scene.

That single expression is the most sincere look of fear I’ve ever seen. Scheider appears genuinely afraid in this moment, and really sells the movie’s first fully-fledged appearance of the shark. I love how he doesn’t scream, he doesn’t panic, he just stands bolt upright, absolutely terrified, and backs into the cabin of the Orca to deliver the signature line of the film…

But because of that, we can all relate to Brody and we care about his fate. Especially by the end of the film where he goes one-on-one with death incarnate, desperately trying to shoot the oxygen tank now lodged between the beast’s notorious jaws.

His line of, “Smile, you son-of-a-bitch!” has its own legacy. It’s now a staple of action films to have the hero spout something cool before a big finish (I’m looking at you, John McClane), and Jaws is more-than-likely responsible for that trend.

When Brody succeeds, it’s such a huge moment of relief, because we care about him as a character. When that tank does explode, we share Brody’s mitigation and join in with his excited, somewhat-maniacal laughter as he floats among the ruins of the Orca.

Speaking of the Orca, every ship needs its captain, and Quint (Robert Shaw) plays his part to perfection.

While relatively commonplace in the seventies, Quint is a man from a bygone era that really doesn’t exist anymore. Especially in movies. He’s been parodied a million times, but Shaw is incredible in Jaws. Easily the best acting performance in a film with many.

The Ahab / Moby-Dick comparisons are obvious, yet Shaw manages to create a wonderfully-complex character. With one of the best introductory scenes ever (the chalkboard scratching is pure gold), Quint’s uncouth nature is an instant and terrific contrast to the rather meek-and-mild, ‘all-American’ people of Amity, who all obviously know of Quint, but pretend they don’t.

Quint’s character is at its best once the film moves to the high seas in pursuit of the shark, which at this point, shifts into a force of nature instead of the previous, almost-stealth-like boogeyman it is portrayed as earlier. Seeing the shark as a worthy foe highlights Quint’s apparent death wish, as does his scar contest with Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss).

Just like the aforementioned Alex Kintner attack scene, the quieter scenes below deck of the Orca are another highlight for me. Personally, those moments go from strength-to-strength. From the manhood-measuring scar contest, which shifts into a drunken sea shanty, to the sobering reality that hits Quint once Hooper inquires about one particular scar, that scene is a masterpiece.

From a character standpoint, especially for one as boisterous as Quint, I appreciate how well-written he is. Note that Quint only mentions the Indianapolis after Hooper asks about his scar, which leads to another acting clinic by Shaw as he recounts the horrific memories of his traumatic past. It’s captivating stuff by Shaw. He literally sits and tells us a story, straight to the camera, yet it’s utterly enthralling and bone-chilling at the same time. And all the while, Brody only has his appendix scar to offer. He’s so out of his depth amid these other two seafarers, but yet again, Scheider plays the moment to perfection.

It’s at this point that we truly realise Quint is Ahab, out to kill sharks for revenge no matter what. Does his realise that a shark will one day kill him? Is he seeking that particular end for himself? Because, either way, he literally predicts and describes his own upcoming demise.

Like Chrissie and Alex (and poor Ben Gardner), Quint’s passing is still horrifying to watch. Him screaming his final, blood-spitting gurgle is another instance that sits with me for a few moments afterwards, as Shaw delivers a death scene for the ages.

Quint remains a terrific character in his own right, but make no mistake, Jaws is predicated on the strength of its acting trinity. And the third and final ingredient might be its most important.

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As the young oceanic specialist (and Spielberg avatar), Matt Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss gets to give what is probably the most diverse character performance of the film. He’s the young and energetic go-getter, compared to the middle-aged Brody and veteran Quint. He’s the intelligent, college-educated graduate, as opposed to Quint and (probably) Brody’s school-of-hard-knocks upbringings. And yet, Hooper is shown be extremely capable and most importantly, likeable. The Hooper of the film is a far cry from the Hooper of the novel (by Peter Benchley), a man who sleeps with Ellen behind Brody’s back and is later devoured by the shark with some kind of literary comeuppance.

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The apparent tension between Hooper and Quint also works extremely well, probably due to the alleged real-life animosity between Dreyfuss and Shaw on set. In an example of art imitating life, both actors would apparently often end up confronting one another, which bleeds into the movie, itself. Now we can watch their scenes (where the characters take verbal shots at each other) on two different, almost-meta levels. Especially concerning scenes where Quint is dismissive of Hooper, and others where Hooper quickly loses respect for the veteran.

Despite whatever behind-the-scenes drama may have played out during filming, the trinity of Jaws still play off each other extremely well. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. They all get their moments to shine.

Another bright beacon of this movie that cannot be overlooked is the music. The exemplary score by John Williams is as legendary and as recognisable as they come. Not only does it inspire terror with only two notes, but the music of Jaws works on an entirely different level upon repeat viewings.

Case in point: The main theme only accompanies legit appearances by the shark. Take a look at the scene where the two foolhardy kids are pulling their shark fin prank that leads to the panicked evacuation of the water.

During that entire time, there’s no Jaws theme. But, once the actual shark swims into the nearby pond, we suddenly hear  that familiar tune.

The rest of Williams’ score is just as good as the signature melody. Two standouts for me are both the swashbuckling adventure music that plays during the initial high sea barrel chase, and strangely enough, the elegant serenade that plays once the shark is defeated.

Safe to say, this movie will remain a treasure of mine forever. But I’m not the only one. Literally hundreds (if not more) of some of Hollywood’s finest praise this movie as one of their favourites, many of whom were inspired by this movie to enter the entertainment industry.

Unfunny Nerd Tangent’s own patron saint, Kevin Smith is only one such example. His films are littered with Jaws references, whether they be the character names from Mallrats (Brodie, Quint) or Chasing Amy (Hooper), to Randall in Clerks and his ‘salsa-shark- moment, to the literal appearance of the Universal Studios Jaws ride, to even more subtle comparisons (in again, Chasing Amy) of the scar/injury comparison scene.

Jaws is all over Smith’s work, and he’s not the only one. Bryan Singer’s production company is called Bad Hat Harry, after a line from the film and the literal slew of copycat or rip-off Jaws films is legion at this point.

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The final accolade I can give this movie is that if this 40 for 40 list wasn’t just complied of my own personal favourites, but rather, based on actual technical merit and excellence, Jaws would still be high on the list. Perhaps even at number one.

In my opinion, it’s simply one of the most outstanding films of all time, and I’ll continue to watch and enjoy it immensely as long as I can.

Just don’t ask me to go swimming afterwards.

Or ever.

Unless I can bring Hooper with me…

Rating: 5 out of 5 Mayoral suit jackets.

Favourite Moment: Quint’s Indianapolis speech.

Honourable Mention: Brody’s fear.

You can check out more Jaws greatness with our landmark 50th podcast episode…

And here it is! Next week: #1 – “This one’s an oldie… Well, it’s an oldie where I come from…”

You won’t be afraid to go back in the water if you grab an Unfunny Nerd Tangent shirt! Compare scars, swap fishing stories, whatever… Mon Milfma will even help you get rid of your city hands!

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