Saturday, April 04, 2009


My thanks to Paul Rowe for the following article:

“The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.”

Typing these opening words to his as yet untitled novel in 1973, Peter Benchley would have been unaware of the impact he was about to make on popular culture. A couple of years later, ‘Jaws’ the phenomenon was in full swing – and cinema would never be the same again.

Credited with being the first summer ‘event’ movie is, perhaps, a dubious honour, but ‘Jaws’, when considered as merely a piece of cinema, more than lives up to its legend.

A girl strips off her clothes and bounds gleefully to the sea in the opening sequence, and we are taken in with her. When the camera sinks below the surface, prompting the first bars of John Williams’ immortal score, we know what she doesn’t. But we are powerless to help. Don’t go in, we implore silently. Towards the end of her futile struggle, she chokes, “Oh, it hurts”, through a mouthful of foam and blood, and is taken down for the last time. At this point, we exhale, and realise we haven’t done so for some while.

From this, arguably one of the most memorable openings in cinema history, the tension rarely relents. One by one, we are introduced to the main players: Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (a career best Robert Shaw). Brody’s fish out of water (if you’ll excuse the pun) city cop is perfectly pitched to conflict with Hooper, the wealthy shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute, who, in turn, is constantly baited by the domineering presence of old-school fisherman, Quint.

One of director Steven Spielberg’s achievements is in perfectly balancing the verbal interplay, resulting in the scenes of character development which bring relief between each action set-piece and prove as memorable as the shark attacks themselves. The script (credited to Carl Gottlieb, but in fact, somewhat of a joint venture) takes some of the plaudits, but ultimately it must be the director who receives acknowledgement for ensuring that, by the time the final hunt is on, these characters are as familiar to us as any cast member of a long running soap opera.

After a number of skilfully executed scenes of attack, public denial by the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) and his office, a handful of red herrings and – finally – chaos on the fourth of July, the three men set sail on Quint’s boat, the Orca, to hunt the shark. Spielberg’s masterstroke is to not allow the audience a sight of land again until the end credits, creating an environment of perfect claustrophobia in the most open location on earth.

Once the hunters have become the hunted, there’s nowhere for the Orca to hide and there’s no relief for the audience. The tension is cranked like woven steel fishing line. Man is pitted in a primeval struggle against an unthinking, relentless adversary; death itself, if you will. This machine-like predator will not be bargained with and will not see reason. If it catches you, you’re dead. The final reveal of the beast itself is delayed and perfectly timed, which offsets the film’s only true shortcoming: its modest and somewhat dated special effects.

The main players are not stereotypical movie heroes and are all the more human for that. Brody wants to be anywhere but on the sea and needs a bigger boat. Hooper believes technology will be his saviour. Quint takes it personally and is, as a result, perhaps the most cartoonish of all the characters; yet, ironically, he has the most human scene with his astonishingly haunting monologue on the fate of the USS Indianapolis.

Yellow barrels break the surface, heralding the next onslaught, whales call in the calm of night and Williams’ incessant score ebbs and flows, as the film builds to its frantic climax. Only then, as the survivors paddle to shore, are we allowed to relax. Now we can laugh and pretend we weren’t really that scared.

But we know, don’t we, that the next time we go in the water, a simple tune will float through our minds and we might just feel the need to look below the surface.

by Paul Rowe

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