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Jaws

Directed by Steven Spielberg with Robert Shaw, Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Murray Hamilton, color, 124 minutes, 1975

Cover of DVD anniversary edition of "Jaws"

Cover of DVD anniversary edition of "Jaws"

By Carter B. Horsley

The notion of being eaten alive by a large animal is none too appetizing. Indeed, it is gruesome, terrifying and the stuff of nightmares.

"Jaws" is Steven Spielberg's wonderful film based on Peter Benchley's thin and not very good short novel based on a legendary shark hunter in Montauk, Long Island. The locale of the movie the fictional island of Amity presumably somewhere off the New England Coast. (Amityville is a real town on the south shore of Long Island. Benchley, the son of famous humorist Robert Benchley, was a co-writer, along with Spielberg, Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler, on the movie's script and also has a cameo role as a journalist.)

There are five main characters: Martin Brody, the new sheriff of Amity, played by Roy Schneider; Quint, the shark hunter, played by Robert Shaw; Matt Hooper, a marine scientist, played by Richard Dreyfuss; Mayor Larry Vaughn, played by Murray Hamilton; and the shark, which in most scenes is a mechanical special effect.

"Jaws" is a variation on a theme man against nature - explored most gloriously in Herman Melville's masterpiece, "Moby Dick," and Ernest Hemingway's slight novel, "The Old Man and the Sea." "Moby Dick" is an extremely rich, complex and very philosophical work that dissects the human spirit and ponders the depth of meaning in life. "The Old Man and the Sea" is the lonely and simple tale of one individual out to snare a big fish.

"Jaws" takes something of a "Don't Fool with Mother Nature" approach and while it certainly does not make light of that well-known advertising phrase, it is not a morale tale but an adventure yarn that consummately delivers the goods thrills in brilliant cinematic fashion.

While the mere mortals cope with the danger at hand a giant white shark that has staked a claim to their territorial waters and evidenced an appetite for human flesh it is Spielberg's use of superb cinematography by Bill Butler, a great and very memorable score of John Williams, and very impressive special effects that elevate this film to the heights of cinematic horror. In his fine review of the film ( http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/2000/08/082001 ), Roger Ebert notes that "There is a story that when producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown first approached Spielberg with an offer the direct the film of Peter Benchley's bestseller, he said he would do it on one condition: that the shark not be seen for the first hour." The shark does not "surface" visually in the firm in the first 80 minutes, although its presence is very much felt.

This was Spielberg's second Hollywood film. He had directed Goldie Hawn in "Sugarland Express" the year before and had also done a made-for-TV movie thriller, produced by Zanuck and Brown, called "Duel," about a runaway truck in 1971.

In his lengthy review of the film ( http://filmsite.org/jaws.html ), Tim Dirks notes that Benchley's book and Spielberg's movie "borrow from the exploits of diver Peter Gimbel's shark expedition recounted in the documentary film Blue Water, White Death (1971), and from Peter Matthiessen's 1971 non-fiction book Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark.

Glistening seas, intensely bright sun and the halycon beach days of summer are quickly established by Spielberg and the opening scenes invoke the carefree attitudes of youths on vacation. The idyllic setting, however, is quickly broken when a young girl goes for a night swim ahead of her inebriated boyfriend who passes out on the beach. She swims out and suddenly is violently pulled down in the water and thrashed about and carried off at remarkable speed. She flays at the air and screams, but is doomed to an excruciating death.

Part of her body later washes up on shore and is found and the sheriff writes up the cause of death as a "shark attack," but the community's medical examiner subsequently changes that to "a boating accident." The sheriff wants to close the beaches, but the Mayor advises him that he does not have such authority and that it would cause unnecessary panic and severely hurt the community's economy that depends on summer tourists.

The next day the shark attacks and kills a boy swimming with many others at the crowded beach and his mother posts a $3,000 bounty on the shark. The mayor agrees to close the beaches for a day but at a town meeting Quint, a local shark-hunter, says he will capture and kill the shark but for $10,000. He tells the gathering: "Bad fish! Not like goin' down to the pond chasing bluebills or tommycats. This shark will swallow you whole. I don't want no mates. There's too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that, you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing."

That night a couple of local fishermen throw a large piece of raw meat with a large hook in it attached by chair to the end of a pier in the hopes of getting the bounty. The shark takes the bait and pulls the pier away from its moorings only to turn about and pursue one of the men who had fallen into the water. The man manages to get out of the water in time.

The sheriff begins to read up on sharks and decides to call in a scientist from a nearby oceanographic institute on the mainland. The scientist, played from a bearded Dreyfuss, quickly concludes that the attack on the girl indeed had been from a shark, a big one.

Bounty hunters, however, have caught a 12-foot tiger shark and the mayor is greatly relieved but Hooper is skeptical because its bite radius does not seem big enough to correspond to the victim's wounds and he tells Brody they should cut open the shark. The mayor, who was standing nearby, however, interjects that he's "not going to stand here and see that thing cut open and see that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock." The boy's mother approaches Brody and slaps him in the face stating that he knew the waters were dangerous.

Hooper joins Brody for dinner with his wife, played by Lorraine Gary, and they discuss the fact that sharks keep swimming around in places where the feeding is good and Hooper and Brody then decide to cut open the dead shark on their own and they only find some fish and a license plate. Hooper insists they call out on his boat to look for the larger shark he is convinced is still out there. They go out to where the shark had been and come across an abandoned fishing boat and Hooper jumps into the water with his scuba gear to investigate and finds a large shark's tooth embedded along the size of a large hole in the hull and the severed head of the boat's owner floating inside, which so shocks him that he drops the tooth and rushes to the surface.

They next day they tell the mayor that the beaches must be closed but the mayor remains stubborn opposed. Hooper tells the mayor that "we are dealing with here is a perfect engine - uh, an eating machine."

The beaches are filled with people but no one dares to enter the ocean until the mayor insists that one of his friends go in. A few minutes later, however, a large black fin is spotted in the water heading for some swimmers and an alert is sounded and people scramble to get out of the water only to discover that the fin was fake and just a prank by two boys with snorkels. Next, someone spots another fin not in the ocean but in a pond-estuary moving towards some children near a man in a small boat. At first the spotter's alarm cries are ignored but Brody hears them and realizes that his son is among those children and dashes wildly over to the pond. The shark bypasses the children but attacks the boat and bites off the man's leg.

The new incident enables Brody to convince the mayor to hire Quint to go after the man-eating shark. Since Brody is making the charter, he insists that he and Hooper accompany Quint on his boat, the Orca, the next day.

Quint is gruff, cantankerous, intimidating and contemptuous of both Brody and Hooper, but also slyly humorous and ribald as he plays the character of an old "salt" to the hilt. Shaw's portrayal of Quint ranks with Robert Newtown's mad artist in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out as one of the more memorable "over-the-top" performances in film history. His outlandish character is explained, however, by his recounting of his experiences aboard a cruiser at the end of World War II that was sunk by a Japanese submarine and lost hundreds of men to shark attacks, an event that actually was alleged to have occurred to the U.S.S. Indianapolis. (In his long review of the film, cited above, Tim Dirks notes that while it was true that only 316 of 1,199 aboard the cruiser survived, the number that actually died from shark attacks while alive is quite uncertain.) Quint's recounting of the incident to Hooper and Brody is riveting. In an interview in a documentary about the making of the film that is included in the DVD edition of the film, director Spielberg noted that this speech was rewritten several times, the last by actor Shaw, himself a noted playwright. Spielberg also states that his first choice for the role of Quint was Lee Marvin and his second choice was Sterling Hayden. The documentary shows the many difficulties encountered in making the film including the making of the various models for the shark and the accidental sinking of Quint's boat, the Orca.

Dreyfuss, Schneider and Shaw photo from DVD edition

Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Schneider and Robert Shaw, left to right, in photo on back of DVD anniversary edition


A large fish tugs at the bait on Quint's reel and after a while apparently bites through its piano wire, convincing Quint that it was in fact the big shark they were after and not just a tuna or swordfish as Hooper had previously suggested. Quint barks at Hooper not to tell him his "business again; you get back on the bridgeit proves that you wealthy college boys don't have the education enough to admit when you're wrong." Hooper obeys but mumbles comically afterwards that he does not "have to take this abuse much longer."

Quint yells at Brody to put out more chum. As he scoops more bloody bait from a bucket, a giant shark raises its huge head with jaws wide open in the water just behind the boat. It is some 80 minutes into the film. It is a spectacular and frightening scene and the shark looks very real and very, very big. Brody, in shock, backs away from the rear of the board and tells Quint "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Quint estimates the shark at three tons and 25 feet long and prepares a harpoon tied to a large yellow barrel, and he successfully harpoons the shark when it passes again and Brody empties his revolver into the shark as well. Quint harpoons the shark once more, but it is not slowed down and the men aboard the Orca wait for the barrels to tire it out. Brody decides to call in the Coast Guard for help, but Quint smashes the radio with a baseball bat to Brody's astonishment. The shark returns and Quint again harpoons him with another barrel, and with a gleam in his eye declares that "Back home, we got a taxidermy man; he's gonna have a heart attack when he sees what I brung him!"

When the shark dives and drags down all three barrels, Quint is shocked and soon thereafter the shark tows the boat backwards with such force that the stern of the boat is filled with water and it starts to break up. The engine gives at the stress of trying to tow the shark and the boat begins to list. Hooper decides to put his high-tech shark cage in the water and to try to stab the shark with a needed filled with strychnine nitrate. Hooper is not calm and admits he doesn't even have spit to defog his face mask. The attempt fails, however, as the shark slams into the cage and the spear with the poison falls away and the battered cage offers no sanctuary for Hooper who swims out of it. Quint and Brody desperately raise the cage and are shocked that Hooper is not in it.

The shark then attacks the back of the boat, tilting its front up and causing Quint to slip and slide into the shark's open jaws.
The shark is not satisfied and attacks the boat again smashing through its mid-section. Brody heaves an oxygen tank into the gaping mouth of the shark and climbs to the top mast of the sinking boat with a rifle and dares the charging shark to "Smile, you son of a bitch." He misses with a few shots but at last a bullet hits the oxygen tank in the shark's mouth and explodes.

Hooper suddenly emerges from the debris-strewn waters and he and Brody rig a small raft and kick their way towards shore. Brody tells Hooper that he "used to hate the water," and Hooper laughs and says he "can't imagine why."

The movie won Oscars for its score by John Williams, its editing by Verna Fields and for best sound. Spielberg maintains that the first time he heard the musical theme by Williams, he thought it was a "joke," but admits that his score contributed greatly to the movie's success.

The film became a major box-office success and has been credited by some critics with making summer releases the target of blockbusters. Spielberg was not nominated for best director.

The film is great because of its fabulous and very suspenseful manipulation of the viewers, its horrific and quite believable special effects, its cinematography and direction and its famous two-note musical theme. Dreyfuss is excellent in his role, probably the best of his career. Shaw's zesty play with his character stretches its limits greatly but Shaw's persona is always so magnetic and strong that he manages to carry it off to great effect. Schneider does a yeoman's job of portraying a rather wimpy sheriff out of his league. Lorraine Gray does an adequate job as Schneider's suburban-type housewife and none of these actors bring much glamour to the film, which is reserved, not surprisingly, for the shark.

The shark, which apparently created many mechanical problems and challenges for the film, is not some gigantic monster and the decision to keep its dimensions not too farfetched keeps the audience in tow and not lost in some science fiction fantasy. When Brody is giving himself a cram course on sharks he finds photographs of a shark with an oxygen tank in his mouth and records of boats being attacked. The film's terror lies in its staying plausible and realistic and the scenes on land have fine authenticity. (Much of the movie was shot on Martha's Vineyard.) The town officials' hesitancy to close the beaches is carried a little too far and Hooper's resurrection from the deeps is too fortuitous, but do not seriously detract from the film's immense visceral impact.

This film is ranked 64th in the
Top 250 films by users of the Internet Movie Data Base and 48th on the American Film Institute's List of the 100 Best American Films at http://www.afi.com/tv/movies.asp and 23rd on Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films list.


Click here to order the 25th anniversary DVD edition of Jaws that includes a documentary on the film and out-takes and deleted scenes and other material from Amazon.com for 20 percent off its list price of $26.98.

 

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