JAWS (1975); the movie that invented the summer blockbuster turns 45…

“This is summer…”

June of 1975 was a very different time.  Video games were mainly for arcades.  Home video wasn’t yet a thing.  There was no internet.  No 24 hour news cycles (there was the evening news and the morning news, as well as newspapers).  Cheap entertainment options for the masses were limited to LP record albums, 8-track tapes, a few static-laced channels pulled from rooftop antennae into 19-25” TV sets and, of course, going to the movies.  And that last option was nowhere nearly as sophisticated an experience as it is today (or was, pre-COVID19).  Theatrical prints of films were scratchy and often faded.  Sometimes they’d snap midway through screenings.  Film sound was often a tinny-sounding or muffled monaural mix (rare was the occasional stereo presentation).  The best thing movies had to offer at the time were air-conditioning and wider, bigger screens than the tiny, squarish TV sets in most homes.

The ‘summer movie’ wasn’t really a trend just yet, either.

But June the 20th of 1975 changed that last item…rather dramatically, in fact.  A troubled Universal production based on a bestseller novel by Peter Benchley (and directed by a twenty-something novice named Steven Spielberg) was released to then-unprecedented public response.  The summer ‘event’ movie was born.

The decidedly non-THX sound system of a mid-1970s drive-in movie; a single monaural speaker resting on a window of your car.  Not exactly Dolby Atmos.

My first introduction to JAWS came at the age of eight and a half.  My family hauled ass(es) to a local drive-in (the cheapest way for the whole family to see a movie in those days; especially when you brought your own food).  We then waited in a two-hour line to get in, as the entire lot was full upon our arrival.  Cars lined the block leading into the drive-in (there was no pre-booking in those days, either).   I remember going with my dad and sister to watch the final part of the film, without sound, from over the fence surrounding the theater while we waited.  By doing this, I essentially spoiled the ending for myself.   When we finally got in (around 10 pm) I watched the film roughly to the point I’d seen previously, before my tired younger self fell asleep.  It would be a month or so before we saw JAWS again in a proper walk-in theater, and I would finally enjoy the movie from start to finish.  Like a fish on Quint’s piano wire, I was hooked!  This movie made me nuts about the beach, the ocean, and with all varieties of exotic life that lurked beneath the waters.  Within weeks of its release, JAWS became a pop culture juggernaut (pre-internet) complete with toys, games, books, posters and a number of other merchandising knick-knacks, the likes of which my then pre-teen self hadn’t seen since “Planet of the Apes” a couple of years earlier (“Star Wars” was still two years away).

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If anyone else is old enough to remember these plastic cartridge-sleeved, skipping, needle-and-grooved pains-in-the-ass?  We must’ve shared an adolescence.

I would later own the movie itself on various home video formats, including CED videodisc (needle ’n groove), VHS cassette, laserdisc (pan/scan & letterboxed versions), DVD (two more versions) and finally on Blu Ray.  I haven’t bought the newly released 4K version, as my wife and I don’t yet own a 4K-capable system.

Here’s the story (with a few side observations) of a movie that changed everything for me on that summer day 45 years ago.

****** SPOILERS AHEAD! THREE TONS OF ‘EM!!******

 

Welcome to Amity Island, June 20th, 1975.

The movie opens with the shark’s underwater perspective, with the primal stirrings of John Williams’ Oscar-winning score; the music is like an escalating tempo of a shark in predatory mode and the audience’s own surging expectations.  We then cut to a group of kids partying on the beach.   A college boy (Jonathan Filley) makes eyes with a young woman (Susan Backlinie) and they run off towards the water together.  The girl peels off her clothes to go skinny-dipping (this was 1975, after all), but her drunken would-be paramour collapses at the shoreline.

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Stuntwoman Susan Backlinie doing her fateful swim.  Day for night sunlight, when seen through the ocean and some dark filters makes for semi-convincing moonlight as well.

Once in the water, we see the girl’s nude form in the water, silhouetted against the moonlight (actually the sun…a clever way of hiding day-for-night shooting).  Then we hear the shark’s theme (never once even glimpsing the menace below the waterline) as the underwater camera stalks the girl.  In the wrenching scene that follows, the girl is painfully jerked underwater by a powerful force from below.  Her gurgled screams are bloodcurdling, as the young man, asleep at the shoreline, fails to hear her cries.   We transition from night to the following morning, as we’re introduced to the very average household of new police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and their sons Michael (Chris Rebello) and Sean (Jay Mello).  Brody gets a call from his deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) that a girl has gone missing on the beach last night.  Brody arrives at the beach and questions the young college boy, who admits he didn’t know what happened to the girl, since he was “sorta passed out.”  Soon, a nauseous Hendricks makes the grisly discovery of a severed hand in the sand, surrounded by nibbling crabs.  Positive ID for the dead young woman…Christine Watkins.   With confirmation from the town’s coroner that Watkins’ probable cause of death was a shark attack, Brody orders the local beaches closed until further notice.

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Brody’s decision to close the beaches is met with immediate opposition from Mayor Vaughn, who’s already got both the medical inspector and the local press in his pocket.  This thread of the story is a commentary on political corruption over public safety that seems especially timely right now.

The sudden beach closure draws the ire of Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, playing a study in unapologetic corruption).  Vaughn meets Brody on a ferry, along with the local reporter Meadows (screenwriter Carl Gottlieb) and the now paid off coroner (real-life coroner Dr. Robert Nevin), who retracts his earlier statement to Brody.  Vaughn tries to ‘reason’ with Martin that closed beaches so close to the 4th of July will cost the township those vital “summer dollars” that’ll keep it afloat through the off season.  Martin, against his better instincts, reluctantly goes along with Vaughn’s profits-over-people decision to keep the beaches open, despite the possible danger.  Watching the movie today, it’s downright stunning how prescient the shark metaphor is for the current COVID-19 pandemic, with my own state gunning to reopen local beaches despite the dangers of further infection.  Vaughn is a near-perfect metaphor for Donald Trump, though he bears far more humility.

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The Hitchcock “Vertigo” shot; a combination of focus and pullback creates a dizzying moment that reflects the chief’s own state of mind when he realizes the horror of what is happening on his watch.

Brody, along with Ellen and their kids, nervously watches the beaches near the lifeguard tower, as various beachgoers frolic the water, completely oblivious to the dangerous truth below.   A young man is playing catch with his dog, “Pippet”, who fetches the stick from the water.  Young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) pleads with his mother (Lee Fierro) to stay out in the water “a little longer.”  Mrs. Kintner agrees.  Soon, this summery beach scene dissolves into horror as Pippet disappears, and young Alex Kintner is violently murdered in a distant thrashing of surfacing fins and gushing blood.  His tattered yellow raft washes ashore.   The entire town is shocked and horrified.  A distraught Mrs. Kintner immediately places a $3,000 bounty for the capture and/or destruction of the shark.

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Spielberg hired many locals from the shooting location of Martha’s Vineyard to play key roles in the film, giving the film an organic, non-Hollywood vibe.  Some were hired from local theatre groups and blended well with the professional actors.  At the time, Martha’s Vineyard was a very WASP-y community, and that is reflected in the casting as well. 

A town meeting is called, as Brody is called upon to answer for the deaths on his watch.  The locals (many of whom were actual residents of Martha’s Vineyard) seem more concerned about the sudden closure of the beaches.  Mayor Vaughn, sensing their fiscal anxiety, ‘assures’ them the closures will be “only 24 hours” (which Brody didn’t agree to, of course).  As the townies are up in arms over the loss of summer profits, a very disagreeable scratching is heard on a chalkboard at the rear of the room.

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Robert Shaw owns the movie whenever he’s on screen.  The novel’s Quint is a macho, monosyllabic cipher of a character, whereas the movie’s Quint is a fully realized, flesh-and-blood man with a tragic death wish.  

All eyes turn to face local fisherman Quint (a commanding Robert Shaw), who agrees to catch this “bad fish” to the tune of $10,000.  For that non-negotiable price, he tells his fellow townies, “you get the head, the tail… the whole damn thing.”  A sheepish Vaughn takes it “under advisement” as Quint dramatically exits the stymied meeting.  Later that evening, a couple of local fisherman attempt to collect on the bounty by offering a ‘holiday roast’, chained to a small pier, as bait.  It doesn’t end well.  The shark not only takes the bait, but destroys the pier in the process, nearly devouring one of the fishermen as well, in a suspenseful, yet nicely comedic sequence.  The next morning fishermen gather from all around to collect on the $3,000 bounty (that was a lot more money back in 1975…).  The arrival of this amateur fishing fleet to Amity also brings a young ichthyologist from the mainland named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would largely define his career).  Hooper meets Brody (whom he called for) and takes the young man to examine what little remains of the late Christine Watkins.  A sickened Hooper confirms the earlier cause of death, stating that “this was not a boat accident, and it wasn’t any propeller, it wasn’t any coral reef, and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper…it was a shark.”  

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Richard Dreyfuss comes aboard as Matt Hooper, who is more of a nerdy, intellectual ‘shark geek’ than the arrogant, handsome home-wrecker of Benchley’s novel.  The movie’s Hooper is infinitely more likable.  If they ever make a JAWS 5, they could do a lot worse than create a cameo scene for Richard Dreyfuss (who gently skewered his Hooper role for 2010’s campy remake of “Piranha 3D”). 

The ichthyologist’s expertise on sharks is brought to bear once again when several of the local fishermen capture a rare tiger shark they’re convinced is responsible for the deaths of Christine Watkins and Alex Kintner.  Hooper’s measurements of the dead creature’s mouth don’t correspond to the bites he examined earlier, leaving him with nagging doubt.  The mayor, enjoying his victory lap with the press, overhears Hooper’s doubts about this shark being the shark.  Brody reluctantly admits to an angered Vaughn that Hooper might be right.

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Local community theater performer (and later teacher) Lee Fierro, who passed away this year at age 91, delivers one of the most heartbreaking and powerful moments in the entire film, easily holding her own with costar Roy Scheider

Before any decisive action can be taken one way or another, a grieving Mrs. Kintner arrives from her son’s funeral and immediately slaps Brody hard across the face!  She blames the chief’s inaction for her boy’s death in a scene so powerful it is downright uncomfortable to watch (the late Lee Fierro is magnificent in this moment).  This is the sort of scene what elevates JAWS above other movies of its kind; the human cost is always first and foremost in the audience’s thoughts.  When the shark kills, it’s not just a scorecard, it’s a genuine loss. This is a factor that the movie’s own sequels and various imitators lost sight of very quickly.

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Lorraine Gary offers able support as Ellen Brody, who, in this scene, is acting as a human barometer for the tension filling the room between her drunken, melancholy husband and their affable houseguest Matt Hooper.  Once again, the movie bests the novel by wisely cutting the affair between bored housewife Ellen and the handsome Matt Hooper.   This would’ve easily destroyed audience sympathy for both characters. 

That evening, a depressed Martin has had a few too many at dinner, when Hooper arrives with two more bottles of wine.  A nervous Ellen tries to engage Hooper in conversation about his lifelong affinity for sharks (this being the only hint of their affair from the novel, which is smartly scrapped from the screenplay).  Hooper then reiterates his theory that the dead tiger shark at the docks is not the shark that has been marauding Amity’s beaches.  The only way to be sure, of course, is to cut the dead animal open and examine whatever remains in its slow digestive tract.  Brody takes yet another drink and agrees to join Hooper in doing just that.  Ellen asks if Martin has the authority, to which a drunken Brody replies, “I can do anything, I’m the chief of police.”   

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Hooper and Brody come across the wrecked remains of a local fisherman’s boat.  Originally this scene was planned for daylight shooting, but the nocturnal setting makes it far more effective and scary.  Oscar-winning composer John Williams’ music for this scene is filled with mystery and eerie beauty as well.

At the dock, Hooper slices the dead tiger shark open only to find a severed fish head (used as bait) and a Louisiana license plate, but no Alex Kintner.  It’s confirmed…it is not the shark.  Hooper suggests the two of them investigate in his small, hi-tech research boat.  The aquaphobic Brody is persuaded by Hooper, and the two set out on a late night search of Amity’s waters.  After some character-building smalltalk, the two find the listing, abandoned boat of local fisherman Ben Gardner (Craig Kinsbury, another local drafted for the film who served as a partial inspiration for Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Quint).  With a nervous, drunken Brody remaining onboard, Hooper puts on his diving suit, and swims out to examine the hull of the derelict fishing boat.

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Ben Gardner gets a-head of himself!  This was a scene that was added after preview screenings to give the film a much needed punctuation mark of fright near the midway point.  Shot in the swimming pool of JAWS’ Oscar-winning editor Verna Fields (“mother cutter”), milk was poured into the water to give it a murky, oceanic appearance.  This scene is one of the more effective jump-scares in the finished film.  The importance of Verna Field’s contribution to the film cannot be overstated; her masterful editing gives the film a rhythmic heartbeat and fluidity that the JAWS sequels all lacked.

With marine flashlight in hand, a submerged Hooper finds a shark tooth wedged into a large hole punched into the bottom of Gardner’s boat… from which the severed head of Ben Gardner’s corpse emerges!  This is a definite soil-your-shorts moment that still works today.  An understandably startled Hooper drops the tooth and quickly swims back to his own craft.  By the size of the tooth and the massive damage, Hooper quickly infers that the shark responsible was a Great White.

Note: The overall aggression and power of the movie’s great white shark is greatly exaggerated for both the novel and the movie, but one has to remember the context; we knew relatively little about these animals back in 1975.  They were arguably as great a mystery to us then as giant squids were to Jules Verne when he published “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in 1870. 

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Hooper and Brody make their impassioned plea to the deaf, greedy ears of the anchor-suit wearing Mayor Vaughn, who only sees the fiscal side of things for his island community. 

The next morning, Brody and Hooper make their case to Mayor Vaughn, who willfully ignores their pleas to close the beach and hire a professional to kill the shark (something that is now illegal in the United States today, as great white sharks are a protected species).  Mayor Vaughn, hearing but not listening to Hooper’s advice, tells Martin to prepare for the upcoming 4th of July weekend, because Amity’s beaches will be open.  With patrolling armed deputies in boats, the beaches of Amity are now open for business.  Vaughn notes that the crowds gathered in blankets on the sand aren’t touching the water.  Trying to sooth the public’s nerves, Vaughn asks a few reluctant townies to take a swim.  They do so, and others quickly follow them into the surf.  Brody tells his older son Michael to play with his new birthday boat in the nearby estuary, away from the deeper waters off of the main beach.  A dispirited Michael agrees, and heads to the estuary with his young friends.  After a false alarm rattles everyone’s nerves (“a couple of kids with a cardboard fin” reports Hooper from one of the patrol boats), calm is restored…temporarily.

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The film’s stunt coordinator Ted Grossman gives the movie an arm and a leg.  Ba-dum-tssss!

A young woman sees a large dorsal fin silently glide into the estuary and screams for the crowd’s attention.  Brody assumes it’s another prank, but quickly realizes his son might be in danger.  As Michael and his friends try to tie sailing knots in his boat, a nearby boater (stunt coordinator Ted Grossman) is knocked into the water by the ramming force of the great white shark.  The screaming boater is horribly dismembered by the surfacing monster, as his severed leg drops to the sea bottom.  A traumatized Michael is dragged to shore, unconscious from shock.  The shark has, once again, killed in full view of a large crowd, and nearly killed Brody’s son as well.  To quote the tagline of the 4th Jaws movie, this time it’s personal.

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Brody gives young Sean (Jay Mello) back to Ellen as he heads off to give Mayor Vaughn a major chewing out.  In a modern movie, I expect this scene would probably end with Brody punching his boss across the chops amid a flurry of f-bombs, and that is one of the (many) reasons I’m so glad this film was released in a far more subtle era of filmmaking.  This is a popcorn movie for grownups.

At the hospital, a recovering Michael is kept overnight for observation as Ellen takes their toddler Sean home.  Martin Brody angrily confronts Vaughn and forces the babbling, shell-shocked official to put his signature on the $10,000 voucher for Quint to kill the shark.  Even in the face of a clearly lost summer season, Vaughn absently murmurs about being able to save the month of August.  Ignoring Vaughn’s distraught nonsense, Brody pulls a pen from his pocket and tells the mayor to “Sign it, Larry.”

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Quint mocks Hooper for his “city hands” as Brody attempts to broker peace.  The blue collar Quint’s relationship with the intellectual Hooper is very reminiscent to that of ‘Archie Bunker’ and Michael ‘Meathead’ Stivic from “All in the Family” (1971-1979); a very popular series on American television at the time.

With voucher in hand, Brody and Hooper visit Quint’s fishing shack (the only set built for the film, which was otherwise shot entirely in preexisting locales).  The arrogant Quint makes a long list of amendments to the $10,000 contract, including several cases of apricot brandy, imported Iranian caviar and a color TV (!).  Brody agrees to all of it with a couple caveats of his own; he will join Quint on his vessel, the Orca, and he will bring along Hooper as well.  Since the expedition is chartered by Brody, he insists on bringing along whomever he chooses. An angry Quint, fearing the chief and ichthyologist will try to undermine his authority once onboard, reluctantly agrees to the terms.  A crew is born.

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“Tell them I’m going fishing.”  Quint takes the reel, Hooper takes the wheel, and Brody takes the zinc oxide…

Ellen bids farewell to her husband as he sets sail with Quint and Hooper aboard the Orca.  This is the final act of the film, and is set entirely on the ocean, as the three men from wildly divergent backgrounds hunt the great white shark.  Brody the police chief is the non-expert everyman, Hooper is the intellectual ichthyologist, and Quint is the salty sea dog who, as we later learn, has a serious Ahab complex.  The crew of the Orca have their first encounters with the shark after a piano wire fishing line is snapped.  In the confusion, Brody nearly pierces an oxygen tank, which (in a bit of foreshadowing) Hooper warns might ‘blow up’ if mishandled.  Later on, the crew harpoons several barrels into the 25 foot shark’s hide, in an attempt to exhaust the creature and force it to the surface.  Hooper attaches a homing beacon to one of the barrels, which costs Quint an opportunity to launch one of the harpoons directly into the creature’s head.  As the sun sets, their tracking of the creature is lost, and the men call it a day.  The three gather around the boat’s tiny mess area for a bit of dinner and conversation.

Note: Unlike the book, which saw the three men returning to port every night, the movie wisely keeps the characters away from the island, paring the narrative down to a simpler, more effective ‘man against nature’ story.  Director Steven Spielberg, director of photography Bill Butler and editor Verna Fields carefully crop their shots to avoid any hint of dry land nearby, so we the audience feel as isolated from civilization as the characters.  While such isolation from port might not be logistically accurate for a chartered fishing trip, it is cinematic as hell. 

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Quint’s chilling, word-picture monologue tells the story of the real-life USS Indianapolis, which was destroyed in 1945 near the end of the second World War.  If there is a JAWS 5 someday, I sincerely hope the producers consider making it a prequel with a young Quint’s nightmarish tour aboard the ill-fated vessel.  As to who would play a twentysomething Quint?  That would be a TALL casting order…

Around the Orca’s mess area, we have one of the greatest scenes in the entire film, if not the history of cinema itself, as the three men trade various stories surrounding various scars on their bodies.  Brody asks a reluctant Quint about a scar on his left forearm.  Despite Hooper’s drunken teasing, Quint soberly tells the young man it was from a removed tattoo of his former naval posting, the USS Indianapolis.  Quint then tells the spellbinding, tragic story of what happened to his former vessel in an uninterrupted monologue brilliantly delivered by actor Robert Shaw:

It was here in this movie, that the true story of the lost American destroyer was recognized in pop culture for the first time.  Sunk by a Japanese submarine’s torpedoes, the crew of the Indianapolis were adrift on the open Pacific for several days, during which thousands of men died from exposure… as well as from swarms of hungry sharks.  A young Quint lost many friends and shipmates that day,  and that monologue has become a deserved classic.

The USS Indianapolis monologue is perhaps my single favorite moment in the movie, and is one of the many ways the film bests the novel in both character and story.  The real-life USS Indianapolis background for Quint was not in Benchley’s original novel, either.

After Quint finishes his story, Hooper attempts to lighten the mood by starting a singalong of “Show Me The Way To Go Home.”  As the three tired, drunken men enjoy themselves, the shark hears their singing and rams the Orca’s hull.  A frustrated Brody attempts to shoot the shark with his police pistol, but to no avail.  The shark once again disappears, but only after delivering a hefty bit of damage to the Orca herself.

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Hooper and Quint try to tie one on with Bruce.  Bruce isn’t having any of it.

After a night spent trying to patch up the Orca’s compromised hull, the shark once again reemerges; the  bright yellow barrels attached to its thick, iron-gray hide herald the creature’s appearance.  Hooper and Quint try attaching the barrel ropes to the Orca’s stern cleats in an attempt to keep a fix on the animal’s position.  With some effort, the monstrous shark tears the boat’s cleats off and submerges once again.  Quint’s gambit with the barrels hasn’t paid off, and the shark once again goes on the offensive.   Tensions rise between the three men, as cat-and-mouse games between the shark and the Orca continue.  In a fit of anger at Brody for trying to send a mayday call, Quint smashes the boat’s radio to prevent any responders from jeopardizing his $10,000 contract. With the still-damaged Orca rapidly sinking, the crew is running out of options.  Quint throws lifejackets to both Hooper and Brody, not taking one for himself (“I’ll never put on a lifejacket again,” he vowed the night before).  With nothing left to try, Quint asks Hooper if he might’ve brought anything onboard that might work.  Hooper suggests pumping a large syringe full of heavy-duty poison directly into the shark’s skin, which he’d deliver from behind the bars of an “anti-shark cage.”  Brody dismissively quips that the shark will “rip that cage to pieces,” to which Hooper yells back, “You got any better suggestions?!”

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Hooper (played in these shots by stuntman Dick Warlock) watches as Bruce glides by.  Some real-life shark footage shot by Australian shark documentarians Ron and Valerie Taylor was used for this sequence.  Some of it was so unexpectedly dramatic that the movie’s script was actually changed to accommodate shots of a (briefly) ensnared great white shark thrashing over an empty diving cage.  An insert shot was later filmed with Hooper swimming away to safety in order to account for the empty cage.

The next shot sees the three men putting the disassembled cage together, as Hooper puts on his diving suit.  This desperate, Hail Mary pass of a plan appears to be their final hope of killing the beast. A dry-mouthed, nervous Hooper enters the cage and is lowered into the water, with his poison syringe-tipped spear in hand.  Even Quint, who has actively dismissed the intellectual Hooper at every turn, has to admire the young man’s bravery at this point.  Once in the water, Hooper sights the shark.  Readying the spear, he loses sight of the creature…which then swims up from behind and rams the cage, forcing Hooper to drop the spear!  The ravenous monster then goes on the attack, smashing open the metal cage.  With the creature temporarily distracted by its own violent thrashing, Hooper swims out from under it and escapes onto the sea floor below.  Quint and Brody hurriedly ratchet the cage back up to the surface, only to find its bars smashed in, and the cage itself empty.  Hooper is presumed dead.

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Anyone who still believes this shark looks ‘fake’ can jump right in…

With no time to mourn, the great white leaps from the water (yes, great whites can do this) onto the listing stern of the Orca.  A surprised Quint is caught off guard and slides down right into the gaping, snapping maw of the shark, its dagger-like teeth clamping firmly into his torso.  Brody is unable to watch as the bleeding, lifeless form of Quint is dragged below the surface by the feasting great white.  Seeking temporary refuge in the mostly submerged main cabin, Brody desperately looks around for any weapon of some kind. His search is interrupted as the shark’s head smashes through the window of the cabin, its jaws mindlessly snapping, hoping to snag some new prey, even as bits of Quint’s flesh still remain on its teeth!  Brody grabs one of Hooper’s scuba tanks and tosses it into the creature’s gaping maw.  Once again, the monster temporarily submerges…

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Brody gets that sinking feeling as he takes his best shot.   The newer 5.1 and 7.1 remixes of the movie’s soundtrack tend to drown out the last word of Brody’s famous line, “Smile, you son of a bitch!”    There…I fixed it for you. 

With only the mast of the rapidly sinking Orca now remaining above the waterline, Brody stabs at the shark’s head.  It retreats.  Brody then grabs Quint’s rifle for one final, desperate chance.  Climbing near the top of the sinking mast, he aims the rifle at the shark’s mouth, which still contains the scuba tank full of compressed air.  Firing and missing several times, Brody grits his teeth before growling, “Smile, you son of a bitch!”  Firing his final shot, he pierces the air tank, which blows the shark into a massive cloud of blood-soaked debris.  Laughing aloud in exhausted joy, Brody clings to a separated piece of the now sunken Orca, with two remaining yellow barrels to keep him afloat.  Seeing bubbles at the surface, Brody is relieved at the sight of a still-alive Hooper. Hooper asks about Quint, and Brody simply says, “No.”

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Hooper’s alive and the movie ends on an earned positive note.  Despite the preposterousness of the shark ‘blowing up’ (a pierced oxygen tank would act more like a rocket than a bomb), the movie’s finale works mainly because we’re so invested in the characters and the story that by the finale, we expect (and arguably deserve) something bigger and grander than a shark simply dying from heart failure.

Clinging to the last surviving piece of their chartered vessel, Brody and Hooper kick their legs for propulsion and point themselves in the direction of shore.

Brody comments, “I used to hate the water.”  Hooper chuckles, “I can’t imagine why.”

Oscar winner John Williams’ melodic, serene score plays over the final credits, as we see a distant Hooper and Brody make it to Amity Island.

Fin.

 

The Shark Is Still Working.

After 45 years and three sequels (each yielding increasingly diminished returns), it’s difficult to separate the legend of JAWS from the reality.  One thing is clear; there was a conflux of circumstances, most of them purely accidental, that greatly contributed to this film being one of the most extraordinary pieces of modern cinema.  But, to use a rarely-heard walkie-talkie message from the JAWS production crew at Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, “The shark is working!”

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JAWS’ novelist and co-screenwriter Peter Benchley took a few passes at the script before handing the bulk of the rewriting off to Carl Gottlieb.  The late Benchley also cameoed in the film as a newscaster reporting live from the sunny beaches of Amity Island.

JAWS author Peter Benchley wrote a fine book, and my family passed our black cover paperback edition till it was good and tattered (the way books get when you actually read them).  While I enjoyed the novel very much (Benchley’s many references to cold, inhuman impulses of “the fish” are still chilling), the characters don’t quite come alive the way they do in Steven Spielberg’s film, which was massively overhauled by screenwriter extraordinaire Carl Gottlieb (who also appears as Amity reporter Meadows), after a pass or two by Benchley himself.  Quint is a virtual cipher Benchley’s book, but the film sees him as a colorful, dimensional man nursing a serious Ahab complex.  Chief Martin Brody, now a transplanted New Yorker, is much more vital and dynamic than the paunchy, middle-aged islander of the book.

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Hooper’s life was saved in the film due to live-action shark footage obtained by real-life shark documentarians Ron and Valerie Taylor, which showed a temporarily trapped shark thrashing about an empty anti-shark cage.  The footage of the violent shark movements was too good not to use, so pickup shots of an escaping Hooper were filmed to explain the empty cage.  If the film version had included the novel Hooper’s affair with Ellen Brody, I doubt the chief would’ve been so relieved at his survival…

The wisely-excised affair between Ellen Brody and ichthyologist Matt Hooper also goes a long way towards making Hooper a much more sympathetic character.  In the movie, Hooper’s a bespectacled, nerdy, shark geek instead of the handsome douchebag of the book.  And while the exploding shark finale of the film is totally preposterous (see: TV’s “Mythbusters” for more on this), it also gives the film a rousingly conclusive finale that the book simply lacks (with the shark simply dying from exhaustion).  Hooper’s survival in the film also feels a lot more welcome too, since he’s no longer a home-wrecking bastard.

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Two versions of JAWS’ cover art; the original, almost abstract version on the left, and the version that was released around the time of the film on the right.   

Spielberg & Gottlieb wisely understood the differences between what works in a novel and what works in a crowd-pleasing film…especially a movie which inaugurated the era of the summer blockbuster (an era I’ve only seen interrupted once in 45 years, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic).  There was also a mafia subplot with Mayor Vaughn getting vise-grip pressure from a local mob to keep the island’s resorts open.  Vaughn’s own greed serves the same purpose in the movie, without the need of an external influence.

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Director Steven Spielberg (at the frightfully young age of 27), actor Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw in a rare, lighthearted moment during the intensely troubled production. The issues of the film’s creation unwittingly yielded a much more disciplined final version of the movie.

JAWS is also an amazing lesson in art thriving on limitations.  Arguably the worst thing that might’ve happened to the film would’ve been if Spielberg had gotten everything he originally wanted.  The malfunctions of master prop-builder Robert Mattey’s mechanical sharks (nicknamed “Bruce”) caused a lot of headaches, but also led to some Hitchcockian restraints on the ambitious young director that inarguably made JAWS a more sophisticated horror experience.  Instead of seeing the shark too often, the use of John Williams’ primal, stirring (Oscar-winning) music lets you know it is definitely nearby (the ‘false alarm’ scenes lack the shark’s motif).

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Bruce, between takes, gets a quick dental checkup…

In the final act during the great shark hunt, the shark’s presence is often inferred by the presence of the bright yellow barrels buoyed above the waterline.   What we don’t see is perhaps more terrifying than what we do see.  My imagination went into overdrive imagining “Bruce” the shark lurking in the murky green-blue water, just beneath those yellow barrels harpooned into its rough, iron-gray hide.  If the mechanical “Bruces” had worked, we would’ve seen a lot more of the shark, and by the time of the final hunt, there would be little of the adrenaline surge the audience feels when we get our first really good look at the creature, during the scene where a startled Brody leaps to his feet to nervously report to Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” (a line brilliantly improvised by Scheider on set).

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When Bruce met Roy: This is one of the best jump-scare moments in a film that is full of them…

For more on the making of JAWS, I refer my readers to “The JAWS Log” by screenwriter Gottlieb, “Joe Alves Designing JAWS” by Dennis Prince, and the beautifully illustrated coffee table book “Memories From Martha’s Vineyard” by Matt Taylor (all three books are easily obtainable via Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com).

There is also the terrific fan-made documentary video “The Shark Is Still Working” created by uber-JAWS fans James Gelet, Jake Gove, Erik Hollander, James-Michael Roddy, composer Michael McCormack, and with a producer credit given to the late Roy Scheider himself.   The documentary is a bonus feature on the Blu-Ray of the film, as well as the recent 4K release.

 

June, 2018: JAWS invades Catalina Island!

In June of 2018, my wife and I had the good fortune to plan a wedding anniversary trip to Catalina Island (off the Pacific coast of Los Angeles, to those who aren’t ‘islanders’), where we got to visit the Catalina Island Museum and see the limited run of “JAWS: The Art of Fear in Filmmaking” exhibit; an exhibit devoted entirely to the production of JAWS!  The exhibit featured original screen-used props (the anti-shark cage, the barrels, the compressed air tank and the sonar device from Hooper’s boat), full-sized recreations, original production art and storyboards from the film.  It was JAWS nerd-vana!  I wrote all about the experience in an earlier article on the exhibit in the link below, which also contains links to my Flickr album from the event as well.  Enjoy!

JAWS: The Art of Fear In Filmmaking Exhibit at Catalina Island, 2018.

Makeup artist/producer/director Greg Nicotero (“The Walking Dead” “Dawn of the Dead”) built this gorgeous 1:1 scale head of “Bruce” from the original molds used to make Robert Mattey’s original shark head prop.  It even includes the various scars seen around the shark’s mouth, as well as the ‘jowls’ which hid some of the prop’s mechanics, and gave Bruce his uniquely memorable appearance.  Bruce, of course, was named after director Steven Spielberg’s attorney at the time…
The actual anti-shark cage and barrels used in the filming of JAWS; the cage is autographed by actor Richard Dreyfuss as well as his stuntman Dick Warlock, whose eyes and face are visible in the scene where Hooper is adjusting his diving mask underwater.  (You can see that the ‘underwater Hooper’ has much thicker eyebrows than actor Dreyfuss).   I actually violated the exhibit rules and touched the cage and barrels.  Normally I would never do such a thing in a museum, but I honestly couldn’t help myself.   Sorry guys…
Mannequins of Quint, Brody (sans glasses) and Hooper occupy a recreated section of the Orca’s stern.  The mannequins, which appeared very lifelike in person, recreate the scene where the three men are trying to secure the lines of the barrels (harpooned into the shark itself) onto the fishing boat’s cleats.

 

“These are your people, go and talk to them!”

If you’re a JAWS fan who is active on social media (Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook), you owe it to yourself to pay the good folks at TheDailyJaws a visit.  Two UK-based JAWS fans, Ross & Dean, run the site, which the largest  JAWS fan group online (700,000 visitors).  The site’s social media outlets host daily trivia and other challenges for JAWS fans to enjoy.  Whenever I’m having a lousy morning after reading the news, a quick visit to their Twitter or Instagram feeds always gives me a good laugh.  The site also has interviews with a few people associated with JAWS, such as writer Carl Gottlieb and actor Ian Shaw, the son of the late Robert Shaw (Ian does an uncanny impression of his pop, too!).

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Currently, Ross and Dean are doing their impressions of Oscar-winning JAWS’ editor Verna Fields as they stitch together a series of whimsical, fan-made JAWS scenes into a full-on JAWS “#WeMake”… a fan-created remake of JAWS itself.  As humorous as it is passionate, with fans from all over pouring their various talents into the endeavor, here is the official 2nd trailer for the JAWS #WeMake:

The Jaws #WeMake is set to be released in full on June 20th on TheDailyJaws’ various social media platforms as well as their home site.

 

“Are you going to close the beaches?”

A reminder to fans that JAWS is, during this current COVID-19 pandemic, readily available to watch at home via HBO, Prime Video and YouTube streaming ($3.99 rentals) as well as safe-distance delivered DVDs, Blu-Rays and the recent 4K release for varying prices.   Want to play it cheap and ante up?  You can rent it, otherwise I can’t imagine a reason why any JAWS fan with a working Blu-Ray player wouldn’t want to own this classic.

Not owning JAWS on DVD, Blu-Ray or 4K makes as much sense as opening the beaches with a rogue great white shark in the water…

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“I don’t think that’s funny, I don’t think that’s funny at all.”   

Ahem.

To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic.  The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States have surpassed 114,000 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even an effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet.  In fact, JAWS’ scenario of reopening the beaches of Amity Island on the 4th of July with a great white shark lurking off the coast is still a perfect metaphor for life during the current pandemic.  Yes, businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe.  So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid overly  crowded outings as much as possible.  Take care!

“Farewell and adieu to ye fair Spanish ladies…”

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Images: Universal, IMDb, DailyJaws.com, Author.  

Video clips: Fandango, TheDailyJaws.com

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul S says:

    Happy birthday Jaws, after 45 years this film is still as wonderful as ever. I really enjoyed your comprehensive look at this film, and I agree with everything you say. Robert Shaw was a force of nature and his monologue in Jaws is one of my favourite scenes in any film ever. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

    “Mr Hooper that is The U.S.S. Indianapolis”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and replying! 🙏🦈😊

      Liked by 1 person

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