Saturday, May 6, 2017

Jaws (Zsnuck/Brown Productions, Universal, 1975)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was the 30th anniversary DVD release of Jaws, which I hadn’t seen since its 1975 release (when my father and stepmother took me) and Charles had never seen in toto at all. As all the world knows, it deals with a “rogue” great white shark that has somehow detached itself (the shark is referred throughout as “he” but the gender distinction is pretty irrelevant) from the packs in which sharks usually swim and is hanging out on the beaches of the fictitious Massachusetts town of “Amity Island” (really Martha’s Vineyard, which actually plays “Amity” in the film — though as one trivia contributor pointed out, Amity is shown as one self-contained city with its own local government, while the real Martha’s Vineyard is divided among six local jurisdictions) and feeding on the local bathers. The film takes place in the run-up to the Fourth of July and starts with the famous scene in which a bunch of teenagers are having a nighttime party on the beach. (Their long hair immediately dates this film.) Christine “Chrissie” Watkins (Susan Backlinie) challenges her boyfriend to join her for a late-night swim and runs across the beach, taking off her clothes as she goes. The boyfriend passes out drunk on the beach and never makes it into the water — lucky him, because when Chrissie goes in she’s pulled down and drowned by a carefully unshown menace we know, because we’ve read the pre-film publicity and seen the poster art, is a great white shark but which is carefully kept from view. Amity has recently hired a former New York police officer named Brody (Roy Scheider in what’s easy to imagine as a sequel to his role in The French Connection; after he and his hot-shot partner, played by Gene Hackman — who was considered for this part in Jaws before Scheider was cast — disgraced themselves in The French Connection’s final scene it would be easy to imagine him seeking a lower-pressure job in a small town) to be their police chief, and Brody figures out immediately after Chrissy’s body is recovered (in one of the film’s grimmest scenes, it’s being eaten not by flies but by crabs) that the girl was the victim of a shark attack and orders that the Amity beaches be closed. He gets dumped on by the town’s mayor (Murray Hamilton) and the other Amity bigwigs, who point out that the entire town is sustained all year by the income from summer tourists and they can’t do anything to jeopardize that. Other victims materialize, including a young boy whose death is indicated when the yellow beach towel he was using floats back to the shore, sans its occupant and with pieces chewed out of it and bits of blood. Indeed, one of the surprising things about Jaws 40 years later is how strongly director Steven Spielberg was worshiping at the shrine of St. Val Lewton: the title character doesn’t appear on screen until the film is more than half over and until then the shark attacks are depicted with superb indirection, daring leaving it up to the viewer’s imagination to fill in the details instead of splashing the screen with blood and gore.

Part of that may have simply been necessity — Universal’s prop department made three mechanical robot sharks to play the great white, which got the collective nickname “Bruce,” but the first time one of them was used it sank to the bottom of the Martha’s Vineyard bay they were using as their location, and much of the shark footage used in the final cut was archival footage of real sharks — but it also indicated the all-embracing command Spielberg, even this early (it was only his second feature film — third if you count Duel, the feature-length TV-movie Spielberg had directed with Dennis Weaver as a cross-country motorist being chased by a driverless truck), had of the grammar of film: when to hold a shot on screen and when to cut, when to let a scene play silently and when to add music (John Williams became a major film-music “name” with this score, and as in his later score for Spielberg’s E.T. a lot of it is surprisingly dissonant and musically “advanced” for a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster), when to hold the camera still and when to let it move — most of the second half of the film, which features the three male leads, police chief Brody, icthyologist Dr. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss — when the film first came out I remember joking that the Mad Scientist had been replaced by the Cute Scientist) and boat captain Quint (Robert Shaw, whose relentless overacting really takes away from the entertainment value of this film — I thought so in 1975 and I still do), out in Amity Bay after the great white, was shot with the camera hand-held so the audience would get the feeling of actually being in a small boat in the ocean. (One cast member joked that this made Jaws the most expensive home movie in history.) Charles read Jaws — particularly the second half of it — as an intriguing modern-dress reworking of Moby Dick, with the irascible captain, the oddly assorted crew (way too much is made of Roy Scheider’s character being seasick and hating the water) and the great sea monster they’re going after — and the parallels would have been even stronger if the film had followed the source novel by Peter Benchley (who wrote a script Spielberg decided was unusable, so Carl Gottlieb and some other uncredited scribes rewrote it) more closely. In the film as it stands, Captain Quint is killed when the boat, the Orca (the scientific name for a killer whale, chosen because real-life Orcas are the only predators who prey on great white sharks), is rammed by the shark; in the book, Hooper is also killed when the shark cage in which he descends into the water intending to shoot a drug into the shark that will poison it is rammed. (Spielberg originally intended Hooper to die, but the best footage he had of the cage being rammed had neither Dreyfuss nor a stunt double in it, and so he decided to have the character live after all.) Spielberg even had the idea of introducing the character of Quint by showing him in a movie theatre watching the 1956 film of Moby Dick and laughing at all the mistakes.

Jaws holds up as a quite good movie but hardly a deathless classic; it’s got a lot of oddly slow and dull moments for what’s supposed to be a nail-biting thriller, and it’s good in a Lewtonesque way that we see so little of the shark (just four minutes out of a 125-minute running time) but it also is disappointing given what we’ve become used to in blockbusters since. Indeed, Jaws is the movie auteur critics and film buffs love to hate because it was the film that set the pattern for the modern-day summer action-movie release; instead of being given a slow buildup, opening in a few big-city theatres and gradually spreading out to smaller locales, it was released nationwide at once to almost 500 theatres, backed with a $700,000 TV ad campaign, and it became the first movie in history to gross over $100 million and set the pattern for later summer blockbusters. It was also shot on a cheap film stock Eastman Kodak had introduced and sold the studios on using in the 1970’s, which faded so rapidly that when Universal first released Jaws on home video in 1985 the movie had to be colorized even though it was only 10 years old and had been in color originally. And there’s one piece of trivia on that jolted me: “To create the sound of a drowning woman during post-production, Susan Backlinie (who played Chrissy, the shark’s first victim) was positioned, head upturned, in front of a microphone, while water from above was poured down into her throat.” Essentially, she was waterboarded! Jaws was also part of a cycle of big-budget disaster movies from the major studios, including The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, which led me to joke at the time that the film companies were trying to boost movie attendance by systematically scaring people away from all other forms of entertainment. Indeed, the tourist business at seaside resorts generally nosedived after Jaws was released, though according to one seafood restaurant on the coast of Cape Cod tried to counteract this by advertising, “Eat Fish — Get Back.”