One morning in the 1980s, my younger brother and I shuffled down the stairs, bleary-eyed and slightly shell-shocked. As we mournfully munched our cereal, we wondered who’d confess first.
“I thought he was going to come through the wall!” he finally wailed.
I nodded in solemn agreement. “I was sure he was under my bed”. 12 hours previously we had seen Jaws for the first time. It never occurred to either of us that a large fish couldn’t survive out of water, especially not tormented by the itchy carpet under our beds. But it was too late. The story of how a Great White shark terrorising a small island seeped into our collective consciousness, and remains one of our favourite films.
It was the film that launched a thousand blockbusters, and in 1975, Jaws kicked off a remarkable decade in Steven Spielberg’s directorial career, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET and as a screenwriter on Poltergeist and The Goonies. On release, Jaws was an unprecedented success, becoming the highest-grossing film in the US, until Star Wars, two years later.
The story is simple: Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) the water-fearing Chief of Police lives on the island of Amity. When local swimmers and fishermen go missing – or worse, only their limbs show up – the town council fear a predator. Enter a savvy marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a gnarly sea dog (Robert Shaw) who agree to help Brody find and catch the beast. It’s both adventure and quest; a horror story with an (initially) unseen monster; a family story of a father trying to protect his children; but ultimately it’s about three men, a battered boat and a gluttonous shark.
When it came to casting, the studio believed big names would distract from the story and several actors were mooted but turned down for film. Robert Duvall and Charlton Heston were rumoured for Brody’s part (Heston never forgave Spielberg when he didn’t get it). Lee Marvin said no to playing Quint and both Jeff Bridges and Jon Voight auditioned for the part of Hooper. The dynamic between the trio is expertly drawn. Brody, as reserved moderator is caught between the smart, savvy oceanographer Hooper and the old-man-of-the-sea Quint. There were on set rumours that Shaw and Dreyfuss fought constantly on set, which added to the claustrophobic tension on the boat. (Last year at public interview in Dublin, Dreyfuss denied this and said he had nothing but respect for Shaw.)
It was a famously problematic shoot and ran 100 days over its initial schedule. Nine days before production, neither Quint nor Hooper had been cast. All three actors were often seasick, and Shaw could only shoot for a certain number of days at a time due to tax issues. The shark – fondly nicknamed ‘Bruce’ after Spielberg’s lawyer – was not one, but three mechanical brutes. Bruce required constant readjustments and repaints after a day’s shooting, but mostly, it simply didn’t function and Spielberg had what turned out to be an inspired idea. Like any director dabbling with horror, he recognised the possibilities in invisibility and anticipation: an audience’s imagination would be far more effective than anything he created visually. As a result, it’s over an hour into the film before we get to see the actual shark. The first sighting is in an understated moment, as Brody shovels ‘chum’ bait into the water and is punctuated by one of memorable lines in cinema lore. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” wasn’t in the script and was improvised by Scheider’s Brody. Most of water scenes were shot on the sea, not in studio tanks and using the camera at waist level gave audience the swimmers (and shark’s) point of view.
From the upward-looking shot of Chrissie’s (Susan Backlinie) legs treading water in the opening scene, the sea has never looked more menacing. It’s not the only night scene in the film, but Spielberg’s use of light and silhouette add to the horror of what’s about to happen to the unsuspecting skinny dipper. At test screenings, the director decided he wanted “one more scream”, and added the scene where Hooper dives on Ben Gardner’s abandoned boat. All out of money, Spielberg paid for the reshoot, which took place in editor Verna Field’s pool. To recreate seawater, they tipped in milk and covered up the surface of the pool.
It’s Spielberg’s perfectionism and persistence that made the film work. For all the body horror, it’s not just about a killer shark. Nature with its brutalism, food chains and survivor instinct is linked to man’s fear of attack. It’s also about political maneouvering in the face of economics: the last thing a holiday destination needs is a shark, and Brody clashes with mayor Larry Vaughan about closing the beaches until the shark is caught.
As the central character, Brody is a complex and likeable. A man who fears the water but lives on an island. His relationship with his wife Ellen, and two sons offers the viewer tenderness, and is the only let up from the bloodshed going on off the coast. He’s also the perfect buffer between Hooper’s educated swagger and Quint’s hands-on gruffness. Hooper has the technology and equipment to defeat the shark, but can’t get the sceptical, sneering Quint on side. On screen Shaw is credible and fierce as the rogue fishermen, and his finest moment is his monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The scene takes place one night on the boat, as the men drink, sing songs and share their horror stories of the ocean. Shaw convinced Spielberg that a method approach was best, and that a few drinks should be consumed ahead of filming. Prone to binging, Shaw passed out and had to be removed from the set, but returned the next day to deliver the harrowing account of ship sinking during the Second World War. It was scripted, but with contributions from Shaw, who is less well known as the author of several plays and novels.
For many, what remains the most memorable element of the film is not sinewy, floating limbs, or Ben Gardner’s disembodied head, but John Williams’ terrifying score. The ominous two-note cello is as recognisable as the violin stabs in the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho. (An aside: other Hitchcock/Spielberg overlap occurs in the use of the famous dolly zoom shot. Spielberg uses it to show us Brody’s terror and realisation when a young boy is eaten in front of other swimmers on the beach, and Hitchcock was the first to use this type of shot in Vertigo). Initially, Spielberg had doubts about Williams music, but later admitted that the film wouldn’t have been as successful without it. It went on to win the Best Music Oscar in 1976 and comedian Billy Connolly once quipped that Jaws “was a film about a shark that played the cello”.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film: I’ve watched it in the cinema with a friend who physically jumped out of her seat several times; if it’s repeated on television, I’m instantly sucked back in. The last time I saw it (along with my brothers) we were in the same room as Richard Dreyfuss, but one particular viewing took place where the film was shot. In 1995, while on a summer J1 working visa, I shared a house with six other students near Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard. Located off the coast of Massachusetts, it was also the fictional island of Amity in the film. We all had numerous jobs. Mine was working in shop that sold shark towels, shark cups, and shark underwear and the only thing I liked was the keyring bottle opener (the serrated teeth were used to pop the bottle tops). Another housemate worked in an upmarket restaurant where he alleged Spike Lee refused to sign autographs for white people. We jokingly recreated sections from the film and one night found ourselves at a party on South Beach, where the famous opening party scene was filmed. We sat drinking by a campfired watching the giant waves and I thought of long-limbed Chrissie diving into the dark waves. Ticks were a problem on the beach and the island, and we had an outdoor shower in our wooden house. One housemate thought he might have Lyme disease after being bitten and went to the local doctor. The GP was one Dr. Robert Nevin, who had played Amity’s medical examiner in the film. From that summer, I have a photo of me on the wooden bridge that Brody jumps off when the shark gets into the pond where his son is on a boat.
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My younger brother is more obsessed than me. He owns a first edition of Peter Benchley’s novel, and a high-end book about the film’s mythology that comes with a wooden piece of the Orca. No matter how many times I watch it, it’s still thrilling. The shark looks rubbery and fake now in a way that my nine-year-old self didn’t suspect, but at nine, I had no idea of what an enduring piece of work it would be. The core elements of setting, characters, story, cinematography and music are brilliantly combined, but it’s not just that. There’s a tone and feel to it that it’s unforgettable and it’s hard to settle on what I love most: the underwater scenes, Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis monologue; Williams heart-thumping score, Brody’s sweet, comic scenes with his children, the scar-swapping scene where they sing Show Me the Way To Go Home. But whenever I see that long distance shot of the Brody and Hooper swimming towards shore buoyed by those iconic yellow barrels, I feel a certain saudade, and want to watch it all over again.
Jaws. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton. Original release date June 20th, 1975.