Thursday 4 March 2010

Jaws (1975)

Steven Spielberg
Stars: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

One of the surprises I've found while working through this project is that suspense films don't necessarily have to lose their power on repeated viewings. Jaws is a perfect example. It came out when I was only four years old so I certainly didn't see it on first release, but it is one of the first films on this list that I got to see, probably on television at age eight or ten or so. I've seen it a few times since and now yet again for this project. This means that every time director Steven Spielberg tries to surprise me, I know exactly what he has up his sleeve. Logic dictates that with all the suspense gone from a suspense film, it should become little more than nostalgic. What I'm finding however is that a select few of these, like Jaws, are just as enjoyable to me now as when I gasped in shock as a kid on hearing Chief Brody point out that they needed a bigger boat.

This is where filmmaking ceases and magic making begins. Spielberg proved himself to be a powerful director early on with Duel, another suspense film that works on repeat viewings, but it was the iconic Jaws that proved him to be a magician. There's plenty of magic here in what became Spielberg's first big box office hit, which didn't just launch his career and his bank balance into the stratosphere but also single-handedly invented the summer blockbuster. This achievement, which he continued to back up for many years to come, led him to become probably the first film director since Alfred Hitchcock whose name meant something to more than just the film buffs.

We all know Spielberg's name. We know that he went on to dominate the highest grossing movies of all time list by directing films like ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones series, all of which stand up a lot better today than subsequent James Cameron record breakers like Titanic and Avatar. He also produced many of the commercial successes of the eighties such as Gremlins, Back to the Future and Poltergeist, made animated films like the An American Tail series along with projects for television including Amazing Stories and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. In the nineties he got serious and won Academy Awards for both Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. He even founded a new studio, DreamWorks, with Disney's Jeffrey Katzenberg and record industry mogul David Geffen.

Today he's worth over three billion dollars and Life magazine, at the end of the last century, called him 'the most influential person of his generation.' When he made Jaws, however, he was merely another relatively unknown director who had a couple of decent films behind him but was still aiming at a picture that would make an impact on a big scale. Over thirty years on, Jaws remains the epitome of that impact and Hollywood, like the fictional island of Amity that it's set in, still hasn't recovered. It's one of those select films that changed the face of the industry, making so much money that the studios finally had the reference point they'd been waiting for since the rise of the counterculture and the demise of the Production Code. During the early seventies, they threw money at people they felt might make hits without any real clue of what was going on. With Jaws, suddenly they saw something they understood and they had their finger back on the pulse. Next was The Omen and then Star Wars and the rest is history.

We all know the story. Roy Scheider is Martin Brody, chief of police on the island of Amity which lies somewhere off the eastern coast of the States, presumably about where Martha's Vineyard is, given that that's where most of the film was shot (the real shark scenes were shot in Australia). Just as the summer tourist season is about to begin, the chewed corpse of a young woman turns up on the beach. The cause of death: shark attack. Brody naturally tries to close the beach to avoid any further kills, but the mayor and the business community see this closure as the surest way to kill the island because without the influx of cash that comes with summer tourism they'll all be broke. After more attacks, however, Brody manages to persuade the mayor to hire Sam Quint, a massively experienced shark fisherman, to hunt down and kill the shark. Accompanying him on this quest are Chief Brody and Matt Hooper, a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute.

At heart this is often seen as a horror film, merely one with a more believable villain than Freddy or Jason. With the newly acquired knowledge of Hitchcock films I picked up in 2004, however, I see it instead as following directly in the footsteps of the master of suspense. There's so much Hitchcockian technique on show from Spielberg here that it seems highly likely that Mrs Brody was deliberately cast as a strong blonde woman with her hair up, just the way Hitch always chose his leading ladies. My favourite moment, after the bigger boat scene, is probably the first appearance of Robert Shaw as Quint. While the leaders of the town squabble over what to do after the second shark death, Quint, unseen by the camera, scratches his fingernails down the blackboard until everyone shuts up. This is a technique in sound that is quintessentially Hitchcock.

And talking of Robert Shaw, he is pure joy in every scene he's in and with every word that comes out of his mouth. 'Back home we got a taxidermy man,' he says. 'He gonna have a heart attack when he see what I brung him.' It's a remarkable nod to Spielberg's talents that he can have Shaw singing a sea shanty while Richard Dreyfuss does nothing more than grin at him and yet it's magic through and through. Quint is the old sea dog who knows every inch of the waters off Amity and laments the passing of all the old ways. He even has a vengeance quest against sharks, reminiscent of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. I don't know how much research Shaw did but he's so believable that it's hard to believe the part being played any other way. Especially touching is his USS Indianapolis story which is a heart stopper, but he grabs our attention with nothing more than a look at his fishing line or a hardening of the eyes. Surprisingly he was only the third choice for the part, Lee Marvin preferring to go fishing and Sterling Hayden unavailable because of problems with the IRS.

As great as Robert Shaw was as Quint, his fellow leads are superb too. I only knew Shaw well from Jaws and The Sting, though I've seen him in English films as diverse as The Dam Busters, From Russia with Love and A Man for All Seasons, but I knew Richard Dreyfuss from a whole slew of movies. I remember him shining in comedy, in films like Moon Over Parador, What About Bob? and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, but he has played straight roles well too ever since his short debut in The Graduate. Here he gets to work with brash emotions like anger and sarcasm as the young shark expert who gradually acquires Quint's respect and he's excellent. He also has one of the great screen laughs and can play a drunk very well indeed.

Then again he had Robert Shaw to watch and learn from, Shaw being a highly troublesome drunk and one who also couldn't stand him. According to Roy Scheider, Shaw was 'a perfect gentleman whenever he was sober. All he needed was one drink and then he turned into a competitive son of a bitch.' Shaw and Dreyfuss argued frequently during filming, something which actually helps the tension between their characters in the film. It also helps that Hooper is something of an outsider, different from everyone else in Amity, not just because he's not from there but because his motivations are utterly different. He even turns up with a shark suit and an anti-shark cage, an alien concept to Quint, who comments, 'Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark's in the water. Our shark.'

Scheider is excellent as Chief Brody but had a difficult job on his hands. Not only is he the new guy in town who tends to be right yet usually overruled nonetheless when it comes to decisions, but he's also scared of the water, a bizarre concept given that he's living on an island but an intriguing one to play up in the film. 'It's only an island if you look at it from the water,' he points out. Even though his role is the largest, it's also by far the quietest and most introspective of the three, and he gets far less opportunity to dominate scenes than his louder and sassier cohorts. His justly famous 'You're going to need a bigger boat' line wasn't even in the script, but was improvised by Scheider. It's a tribute to his talent that he still ends up the fitting choice to get the big kill at the end. He was far from the first choice for the part, many other actors being considered, but he fit the role so well that he returned for the sequel and his quiet air of authority has led him to play the US President three different times.

Jaws won three Oscars, though it lost out for Best Picture to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest which swept the awards that year. None of the actors, Robert Shaw included, were even nominated, but at least John Williams won for his music. His iconic shark theme surely has to be the simplest and yet most memorable piece of screen music ever written. Every schoolkid from 1975 to the present day knows what those two da dum notes mean. Amazingly when his composition, performed on the tuba to 'sound a little more threatening', was played for Spielberg, the director laughed at it, believing it was a joke. Later he suggested that without this iconic music the film would only have been half as successful.

Williams, of course, went on to compose the memorable music for Star Wars as well as pretty much every Spielberg film since this one, along with many more. He currently has no less than five Oscars to his credit from an astounding 45 nominations, four of those wins coming from Spielberg movies, and the only surprising part about all those facts is that his win ratio isn't higher. Bizarrely he was conducting the orchestra at the 1976 Academy Awards when his win for Jaws was announced, so had to take a few minutes off to collect his Oscar and promptly return to work immediately afterwards. He was far from nobody when he scored Jaws, having one Oscar behind him already for 1971's Fiddler on the Roof, but this secured his future in no uncertain terms.

Above all of them though, above Scheider and Shaw and Dreyfuss, above John Williams and even above Spielberg himself, the biggest star of the movie has to be Bruce the shark, named for Spielberg's lawyer. There were three Bruces, built in Hollywood and shipped to Martha's Vineyard, but none of them worked very well. In fact the full size Bruce sank immediately on entering the water, requiring a team of divers to retrieve it for further scenes and starting a whole series of problems, so much so that the production was labelled Flaws by many of those working on it and Spielberg himself announced after filming was completed, 'My next picture will be on dry land. There won't even be a bathroom scene.'

Paradoxically these continual technical issues didn't break the film, they made it. Instead of the shark becoming yet another serial villain, shown too early and seen far too often, Spielberg was forced to use Bruce only when absolutely necessary and rely on clever directorial decisions instead to make the suspense work. It ended up making it palpable, so much so that it notably reduced beach attendance in the summer of 1975. He shot a quarter of the film from water level to make viewers feel like they were treading water in a shark infested sea. He avoided use of the colour red in clothes or backgrounds because he wanted it to only ever appear in the form of blood. For much of the film we know the shark is out there waiting to attack, but all we see is floating yellow barrels.

And at the end of the day he's still one of the scariest and most memorable screen villains that the cinema has ever seen. As far behind current special effects as he was at the time, and he was pretty far behind, he still looks scarier than any of the other myriad giant sea creatures that Hollywood sent swimming across the screen in his wake. When Bravo broadcast a mini series dedicated to The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, Bruce the shark made the top of the list. He may have stopped people swimming in Amity but I wonder how many of us never did get to think it was safe to go back in the water...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I could watch Robert Shaws speech about the Indianapolis, over and over again....spellbinding to say the least. Theres a reason why this film is still hugely popular years later and your review shows why!