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Jaws: a triumph of cowardice

Of all the movie anniversaries in 2015, the 40th birthday of “Jaws” is most worth celebrating

Tom Shone | June 2nd 2015

This year you can’t move for movie birthdays. “The Sound of Music” is 50, “Toy Story” 20, “Goodfellas” 25 and “Back to the Future” 30. Jaws turns 40 this month, and celebrates with a talk by its star, Richard Dreyfuss, at Connecticut’s Maritime Museum, and a Writers Guild event in Los Angeles with its co-screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb. But delivering the biggest Proustian kick is a limited-edition design of the old, 1975-era Narragansett beer cans crushed in the film by the shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), so that you too can #CrushItLikeQuint.

You remember the scene. Taking a break from dropping chum into the sea to lure the rogue shark into the open, Quint, a barrel-chested blowhard (above), sinks a can of beer and then, fixing Hooper—Dreyfuss’s rich-kid oceanographer—with a stare worthy of the Ancient Mariner, crushes it. Hooper, fixing his nemesis with an equally piercing stare, lifts the styrofoam cup he has in his hand and crushes that. Barrel-chested displays of machismo, 0; self-deprecating beta-male irony, 1.

That single moment tells you why the “Jaws” anniversary is worth celebrating. The film’s big scare moments may have lost a little of their bite, certainly on the small screen. But still going strong, after all these years, are its fillets of character, often expressed with sight gags: the styrofoam-cup versus beer-can crushing scene, or the one where the police chief, Brody (Roy Scheider), slowly realises his son is copying his every gesture at the dinner table—resting his chin on his fist, then steepling his fingers, then cradling his face. Both moments came out of the enforced improv sessions Steven Spielberg held with his actors while his mechanical shark wasn’t working, and both play out wordlessly, as all the best moments in Spielberg do: the UFO-in-the-rearview-mirror gag in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, or E.T.s touching of fingers with Elliott in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestial”. They reinforce our sense that the director’s real progenitor in “Jaws” was not so much Hitchcock, and still less Herman Melville, as Charlie Chaplin.

“It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made,” wrote Pauline Kael upon the film’s release, with the emphasis falling on the word “cheerfully”. Peter Benchley’s original book—that most curious of artefacts, the misanthropic bestseller—had been full of sourpuss posturing. “They had no body odour,” notes Brody of the bathers he watches over. “When they sweated, the girls smelled faintly of perfume; the boys smelled simply clean. None of which is to say that they were either stupid or evil.” You were basically rooting for the shark. But Spielberg, whose populism was entirely innocent, loves crowds, his bathers as tenderly individuated as Seurat’s. Look at what happens after the boy gets eaten: the town erupts into a boomtown of petty profiteering and casual lawlessness, with kids scrawling graffiti and bounty hunters heading out to sea, shooting guns into the water. Then the national newsmedia arrive, and Spielberg is on fire with the whole crazy, hopped-up spectacle. “They’re all going to die!” says Hooper to no-one in particular, with that Daffy-Duck-on-helium laugh of his—a prognostication of doom sung in the happiest of sing-song lilts.

And there you have “Jaws”, a film buoyed by higher spirits than any movie about killer sharks ought to be. Everybody remembers John Williams’s famous two-note ostinato, but once they’re out to sea he scores each encounter with the shark as if Horatio Hornblower himself were giving chase. “Fast fish,” says Hooper admiringly, and he should know, for his reaction times—the flash-flood grins that light up his face, the octave-vaults of his line readings—are the second fastest thing in the picture. The actor’s intelligence jolts the film. Nobody had made a nerd the hero before. The disaster-movie cycle of the Seventies was full of granite-hewn types like Charlton Heston, with acting to match: Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman faced off in “The Poseidon Adventure” as if they were headlining in Strindberg. Instead, Spielberg gave his police chief a fear of water, coupled him with an ichthyologist whose hands are too soft, and told them, “I don’t want to feel you could ever kill that shark.” He filled his action movie with cowards.

As we gear up for another blockbusting summer featuring invincible superheroes commencing megabattle for the universe (again), we should remember that the original summer blockbuster was an exercise in dramatic downsizing, attuned to the lily-livered last-ditch heroism of ordinary men. My favourite bit of machismo deflation comes during the scene in which Hooper, Quint and Brody are comparing scars. Hooper shows the bite taken out of his leg by a bull shark. Quint points to the dent in his shin left by a thresher shark’s tail. Brody gingerly pulls up his sweater to look at his appendectomy scar, then thinks better of it and lowers his sweater again. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a similar moment in this summer’s films, although the scene where the Avengers try and fail to lift Thor’s hammer comes close—a styrofoam-cup moment in a movie full of Quints, in our Quint-sized summer. 

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