The first memory I have of the movie Jaws involves my sixth-grade classmate Chris Conner. Chris was one of the funniest kids I knew back then in the mid-1970s. He had a splatter of pale freckles worthy of Jackson Pollock, a haircut always just this side of “bad,” and a way of looking at life sideways that always made me laugh out loud.
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One time, though, he made me green with envy. That was when he told me in fourth-period gym class that his mother was letting him go see Jaws that weekend at the Teton Theater—the only movie house in Jackson, Wyoming at the time. I could have run a harpoon through his heart.
[cue the scary music]
”We’re gonna need a bigger epinion!”
This review is being written as part of a leviathan-sized write-off. More than 20 hardy souls have climbed aboard this event for a brief sail on the S.S. Spielberg. When you’re through here, please swim over to their reviews of Jaws by following the links at the bottom of this page, or by going to their member profiles. The participants are:
ZentropaJK; Psychovant; Shadow8; Lighthouse; Amyrok; That-Guy; Megasoul; Knix; Tatooedjedi; FDKnight; Lambira; Wokelstein; Donlee_Brussel; Fiatgirl; Verbal; Janesbit1; Sleestak; Energy81; Memento-Mori; RFR; Mangiotto; Squeebinator X; Caconti; MattJoe; JAPrufrock; Drlolipop; Mike_Bracken
“Okay, everybody back in the water!”
I looked at Chris Conner like he’d said he had the keys to a Rolls-Royce parked outside at the curb. “Your Mom’s actually letting you go see Jaws?!”
Chris grinned at me sideways. “Mmm-hmm.”
“Jeez! My parents wouldn’t even let me look at the poster, let alone go see the thing.”
“It’s supposed to have a naked girl in it.”
I gave Chris a green-eyed look. “Don’t remind me.”
Chris laughed. “Sucker! Hey, I hear there’s a pretty good show on The Wonderful World of Disney this Sunday. Maybe they’ll let you watch that.” He laughed some more, then bent over and made his arm look like a dorsal fin. He ran around gym class acting like a dork for a while until we all started giggling.
But, man, I wanted to kill him, best friend or no best friend. This was a couple of years before the official start of my life-long passion for movies (June 14, 1977 at 7:02 p.m. was the exact moment this phase of my life began—that’s when the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” scrolled across the screen). Even so, I’d heard so much about this movie and, for God’s sake, I’d already read the book (which, unlike the movie, includes a couple of sex scenes). So, what, I asked my parents, could possibly be a good reason for not letting me go see this movie?
They were frightened by the film’s rating.
Long before the envelope-pushing PG-13 came along, Jaws, with its nekkid girl and severed body parts, also stretched the limits of the PG rating. So much so that the MPAA added the following words to the rating box on the posters: “May be too intense for younger children.”
According to my parents, I was still a “younger children.” I sat home that Sunday night, watching The Wonderful World of Disney, sulking in my living room and planning trips to Florida where I would sit around on my beach towel and encourage my mother and father to go out swimming. “Sure, go on out there, guys. I hear the water’s just fine this time of year. Yeah, splash around all you want, have a good time.”
And so, Chris Conner got to see Jaws while I watched a rerun of The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes. When I asked him about it on Monday morning, Chris just shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Yeah, it was pretty scary.”
Pretty scary. PRETTY SCARY??!!! I just watched Jaws for the fourth time last night and—even though I knew that nekkid girl Chrissie would wind up in a Tupperware container, even though I knew that the fisherman’s head would pop out of the jagged hole in the side of the boat, even though I knew the shark would make that incredibly perfect appearance while Chief Brody was chumming over the side of the Orca—even though I knew all those goosebump moments were coming, I still had a hard time hearing the movie over that loud ba-DUMP sound my heart was making.
As the first movie from the Steven Spielberg archive to be released on DVD, Jaws—25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition is crisp, beautiful, packed with extras and revives every phobia about water our nation has been struggling to overcome ever since Janet Leigh took a shower in Psycho.
The DVD’s extras include a “making-of” featurette with home movies and interviews with the wunderkind himself, plus producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, author Peter Benchley, composer John Williams, the girl who played Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) and even the husband-and-wife team who shot real-life shark footage. There’s terrific anecdotes from Spielberg like this one, talking about the first time someone showed him the manuscript for the as-yet-unpublished book: “I saw a block of pages with the word ‘Jaws’ on it. I had no idea what it meant. ‘Jaws’? Was it about a dentist?”
There’s also an all-too-brief outtakes feature where we see Scheider trying to fire an obstinate pistol. And, the real treat, several deleted scenes which never made the cut of the final film. The most priceless gem is when Quint (Robert Shaw) goes to a music store to ask for piano wire. He’s interrupted a music lesson and, while the owner goes into the back room, the clarinet student continues to play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Quint starts singing along behind him.
In fact, the DVD’s so good, I even gained an appreciation for the tepid acting of Lorraine Gary (who plays Ellen Brody). I actually started to think she delivered a multi-layered performance.
But the real star of the movie is, of course, Spielberg’s wunderkind talent. In this, his second theatrical feature, his creative muscles really start to stretch. Much of the flashy, directorial flair on display in these two hours of water-logged suspense now seems run-of-the-mill (the head popping out of the boat’s hole, the killer’s point-of-view shots, the hero raving about monsters in the face of unflappable ignorance from authorities), but Spielberg used this flash-and-bang style to create something that none of us would ever forget.
Those who were lucky enough to see it in that Summer of 1975, that is.
By the time I finally got to experience Jaws, it was on a TV set in a motel room about ten years later (when it was no longer too intense for this “younger child”). To be honest, I didn’t think it was all that scary. Maybe it was the decade-long buildup, maybe I was tired, maybe I just didn’t like Lorraine Gary’s tepid performance—whatever the reason, I was a bit disappointed.
But then I went back in the water after another couple of years and this time, I was practically curled up in a ball, fingers splayed over my eyes. That’s how unnerved I was by this movie. I felt much the same way on the second go-round of The Sixth Sense.
By now, the story is a familiar one: chomped-up bodies start washing up on shore around Amity, the white-picket-fence town on Martha’s Vineyard. The police chief, Brody (Roy Scheider), thinks it’s a shark. The mayor (Murray Hamilton) is a real buffoon and doesn’t believe him—mainly because they can’t afford to close the beaches during the 4th of July weekend. (By the way, the mayor’s greatest crime is not his refusal to close the beaches but his taste for garish suits.)
The shark’s still hungry. More people die. There’s lots of splashing and screaming. Brody calls in a shark expert named Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to do things like cut open shark stomachs, swallow the bile in his throat when he takes a look at that first victim stored in a Tupperware container and, eventually, get in wild-eyed shouting matches with the mayor.
Brody and Hooper eventually hire on as second and third mates on the Orca, the fishing vessel owned by local salt Quint (Robert Shaw). As the three set out to sea, it’s obvious that Quint’s a modern Ahab in search of the Great White Shark, rather than the Great White Whale. This third act has always been the part that bogs down for me as the tone of the movie switches from nerve-jangling beach scenes to the drawn-out fishing trip. While I like the chemistry between the three actors, the brisk pace definitely takes on some water here and, save for that brilliant shot during the chumming sequence, nearly sinks the movie.
Another problem with the last third of the film is the fact that the shark (nicknamed “Bruce” after the director’s lawyer) starts making more appearances. Bruce, of course, is a legendary special effects flop. As Spielberg himself notes, the film was “made under the worst conditions,” which included a pending Screen Actors Guild strike, script problems and a mechanical shark which broke down soon after it hit salt water. To compensate for many planned appearances in the movie’s early scenes, Spielberg did something that made all the difference: he used his imagination to find ways to indicate the shark without actually showing the shark. That’s why we get this unbeatable opening:
(Chrissie out for a midnight swim; she stops to tread water; the POV shot approaching her legs; the sudden downward jerk, the head-snap, the shivering moan; the gurgling, bubbling confusion; the “omigod this isn’t happening to me” terror; the way she’s churned around through the water like some shrieking spoon stirring a bloodied pot; the desperate clinging to the buoy; the final snatch underwater; and then—Spielberg’s great coda—the terrifying silence of a calm sea, broken only by the faint clang of the buoy bell.)
In other places, Spielberg compensated for the non-operational shark by using things floating on the surface—harpoon barrels and, once, an entire fishing dock—to show the terror underneath. When Bruce does start to get more screen time, rising up out of the water like a rubber Moby Dick, the results are almost laughably fake.
Me? I’d much prefer the frisson of the half-seen, the lurking unknown. Take, for instance, what I think is the single most chilling shot of the entire movie. It’s the beach scene where all the tourists are frolicking in the waves. We, along with Brody, know the shark is pacing just off shore and we’re both on the edge of our seat, braced for the inevitable tragedy. A young boy runs up and asks his mother if he can go out on his raft. In one of those telling Spielbergian moments (the ones that speak volumes about childhood experience by way of sharply-focused details), she looks at her son’s hands and says, “You’re pruning up already!”
She allows him to paddle out in his rubber raft and goes back to her summer beach novel. Spielberg then gives us a series of quick cuts, swimmers shrieking with laughter and splashing each other, most of them shot at water level. The boy paddles out just beyond the crowd of swimmers. There’s a shark POV shot, along with John Williams’ theme music [brief digression: it is impossible to imagine this movie without that too-often-parodied score. Those low, thumping notes on a bass and the muted trill of a French horn are as inseparable from Jaws as Bernard Hermann’s violins are from Psycho.] Back to Brody on the crowded beach, scanning the water for the slightest ripple. The boy on the raft. The view from underneath of his legs. Brody. Laughing swimmers. Then a long shot of the raft. We get a glimpse of something BIG, the raft folds in half and there’s a fountain of blood. The entire shot is less than ten seconds in length and it always makes shiver, like I’ve got ice water running in my veins.
Then it’s back to Brody on his beach chair for another incredible shot: he thinks he’s seen the Terrible Thing out on the water. As his face registers shock, Spielberg delivers a flashy shot where Scheider appears to come at the camera while the camera moves forward and the background moves away. It was a complicated setup involving a tracking system, Scheider on a sled and some incredibly deft focusing by cameraman Bill Butler. If I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure Alfred Hitchcock also used this technique in one of his movies; but Spielberg makes it an effectively chilling moment by bringing it right on the heels of that silent shark massacre.
Now that I think about it, my parents did the right thing back in 1975. Jaws would have probably scared me so much that I peed in my popcorn. Imagine my shame when I tried to walk out of the Teton Theater with a wet lap. I’d have never been able to look Chris Conner in the eye again.
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