It’s Jaws. Need I say more? Yes. Lots more.
Jaws has been re-released and is still a classic. What more can be said about it? I think it’s safe to say that everyone born in the seventies and eighties has seen it. I would say 90’s kids too, but I’m worried that, when pushed for the first shark movie they ever saw, they’ll end up saying Deep Blue Sea or Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus. As for 21st century kids, well, Jaws isn’t pulling in 30 million viewers like it did on its early eighties TV premiere, so it’s getting late-night screenings. Also, kids these days may find the shark too fake. I mean, it’s true we all thought the shark looked a little fake even back then, but we didn’t care. We were too busy getting scared. I wonder what today’s kids would think of Jaws?
As for me, Steven Spielberg’s best film (well, one of his best) is kind of like the cinematic equivalent of The Beatles – it’s always been there. Just like the earliest pop music I can remember was the Fab Four’s Blue Album, Jaws is one of the earliest films I remember watching. And re-watching. And re-watching. It was a horror film, I suppose, but it was a horror that everybody could watch. Now, Jaws is bloody and intense, but it’s a fantastic family film. Kids should see it. If it scares them, then that’s good. Besides, most of us loved the fact that Jaws scared us so much. The horror was also family-friendly because it was a shark doing all the killing, not Freddy or Jason. Jaws was somehow let off the hook, even though you see a little boy die in a fountain of gore, a man bit through the chest which causes him spit out blood, a head with no eye in a boat, and a severed leg drifting down to the bed of the sea. It was remarkably full-on for kids, but somehow, it got a ‘PG’. But not any more.
Yep, Jaws is now a ‘12’ certificate. This, along with last year’s Ghostbusters certificate revision, suggests that we 70’s/80’s kids were made of sterner stuff. Still, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared. Every, and I mean every, time I watched it I hoped that Quint would make it to the end, and dreaded the moment when the shark wrecks the boat and Quint slides right into his jaws. The gory icing on the cake was always the bit when the shark goes for one decisive chomp and we see Quint splutter a spray of blood in close-up. God, that bit was nasty. When you’re younger, you enjoy the film on a purely visceral level – and naturally when you’re older, the scares aren’t so vivid. The opening sequence has gone down in history as a classic scene – in fact, is there a more popular, acclaimed, iconic, famous, etc. opening sequence in cinema history? Now this sequence, for me, just can’t have the same impact it once did – I’ve watched it as part of the movie dozens of times, the whole set-up has been repeated and parodied time and time again…. Likewise, the head in the boat shock – as ‘beloved’ a scare as the hand coming out of the grave in Carrie – did not make me jump this time. And that’s on a huge screen in big fat Dolby stereo. I have to admit, at times, I was getting worried that Jaws was going to be the equivalent of that song you can’t bear to listen to again because you’ve just heard it too much. But no, it’s just too beautifully made for it to become stale, and yeah, I’ve become immune to some of the scares, but not all of them. Besides, this film is about more than scares. It’s wonderfully performed, beautifully cinematic, chillingly dark, funny and extremely entertaining. Seeing it on a big screen is a wonderful thing, and it makes you realise just how beautifully directed it is.
So, what still stands out? Well, the death of the boy early on is an astonishing example of editing, suspense, music and uncompromising brutality. Just look at the editing, the way we get closer and closer towards Brody as other people walk past the camera. The use deep focus as Brody ignores his friend to concentrate on what’s going on in the sea. The reverse-zoom effect as Brody realises what’s happened, an effect that was pioneered by Hitchcock in Vertigo but is used to even greater effect here. It’s still the best example of this technique that I’ve ever seen. The almost surreal image of the shark turning over as the boy is devoured, followed by a horrific geyser of stark red blood is given greater impact by filming it from a distance, out of reach, with us, like Brody, powerless to help.
You also have the last ten minutes, which throws in the classic sequence where Hooper gets in the ‘anti-shark cage’ which proves to be anything but, the unbearable shark Vs. Quint face off and of course, the ending, where Brody gets his target whilst lying on an increasingly sinking mast. I used to go crazy during this bit. It was the fact that Brody only has an edge on the shark whilst that mast is above water and he was sinking more and more by the second. I can see why people went nuts about the water about this film. It’s just so overwhelming, powerful and you’re nothing but a tiny dot in the middle of it.
You also have Murray Hamilton’s excellent Mayor Vaughan, a selfish, greedy and hopeless authority figure if ever there was one. But you know how this kind of character is usually a cartoonish punch-bag who we’re meant to love to hate? Well, Hamilton does wonders with this role. He’s not sympathetic at all, but you believe him, if that makes sense. Lorraine Gary is pretty much the token-wife, not totally disposable, but all she’s here for is to support Brody. Which she does. Until he goes off with the guys to get the shark. Strangely, the Brody kids are not annoying. This is very rare in Hollywood. What else? The attack in the pond is a shocker. This is when we first see the shark, and it’s one of its most effective appearances as we still can’t fully see it. The shot of the severed leg drifting to the bottom of the pond is still a horrific sight, and there’s something about that scary point of view shot as the shark swims past Sean that sends shivers down me. It’s also the shots where the camera tries to keep its head above water, and we’re right there with it. When we’re that close to the water, I just want to get away. More? There’s the grisly discovery of the first victim, her subsequent autopsy, the dissection of the shark, Quint’s first scene where he states his price. The utter brutality of the moment where the Mayor coerces the family to go in the water. The two kids with the cardboard fin. The absolutely adorable bit when Brody’s younger son copies his actions. Oh yes, even that bit. Yes, Spielberg can be sentimental, but this scene is such a beaut. It’s not overdone, it’s just simple and sweet. Even more? Oh yeah, the ‘Swim, Charley!’ bit. The ‘slow ahead’ bit. The little incidental characters and random bits of dialogue.
The film is also very funny. You’ve got Dreyfuss’s stand-off with the Mayor. Ben Gardner’s unintelligible rant amongst the hopeless and explosive expedition to catch the shark, something about ‘wishing their mothers had never met their fathers’. Quint downing and crushing a can of beer, followed by Hooper doing the same with a cup of water. And of course, the drinking scene. God, this bit is so good. You know, you can’t have action all the time. You got to slow down. You’ve got to spend time with these characters. The drinking scene in Jaws is possibly the best example of this scene in a blockbuster. Wonderfully, naturally performed, full of macho bullshit, convincing drunk banter and of course, the monologue to end all monologues with Quint’s terrifying tale of the USS Indianapolis. Robert Shaw should have won awards for this moment. You can’t look away. This scene is scarier than anything else in Jaws, scarier than almost anything else in cinema.
Speaking of Shaw, he’s one of three performances which perfectly complement each other. Each is vital to the mission. True to Spielberg form, it’s the everyday, average Brody who succeeds when Quint’s brawn and Hooper’s brain fail to save the day. Roy Scheider’s Brody is one of the best of all Spielberg leads. It’s an unshowy performance, but a beautifully judged one. Shaw is fantastic here – mostly absent for the first half of the film, he takes the action onto a whole new level as soon as he takes charge. There’s real joy in his utter disdain for Hooper, who is delightfully played by Richard Dreyfuss.
I do have nits to pick with this film. There’s a stretch of action that takes place after the ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’ singalong and before Hooper enters the shark cage which does drag a little, slackening the tightly coiled suspense a little too much with too much floating barrel shenanigans. The music during some of the second half occasionally lapses into near swashbuckling, high-seas fun territory when I’d have preferred something a little scarier. Also, fantastic as the pond sequence is – seriously, would Brody have let his son swim in the pond when it links directly into the sea? Jaws is out there, waiting! Don’t even let your kids run a bath! Keep them away from the water! But that’s it, and these flaws are only more glaring because the rest of the film is so damned brilliant.
Jaws was the first summer blockbuster, yet is not as high-octane as the energy-drink fuelled mania that goes a hundred miles a minute kind of entertainment we get these days. It knows when to be loud, it knows when to be quiet. Notice how, despite John Williams’ score being as magnificent as it is, it’s never overused. It knows when to pump up the tension, it knows when to take it easy. It’s an experience. And despite it being inadvertently responsible for every single ‘event’ movie afterwards, there’s still nothing like it. And I do include the sequels when I state that.