TCM Presents and Fathom Events have teamed up to bring Jaws to movie theaters for its 40th Anniversary. I attended a showing on Sunday night jokingly saying it was my 75th time seeing the film. Not having a way to really know, I thought about it a little more and that number is probably shooting a little low. I was there in theaters as a seven-year-old on June 20, 1975. If you want to argue that it did or didn’t change the movie industry you can, but you can’t argue that it changed the interest in movies and filmmaking for this young impressionable child.
Since that night in 1975, I’ve been through fascinations with sharks, interested in how books are adapted into films, watched the career of that Spielberg guy closely, and seen how sequels often don’t get why a movie was loved in the first place. I recorded the movie onto VHS and watched it over and over, purchased it on VHS, purchased it again on an anniversary VHS in a nice clamshell package, saw it again in theaters for other anniversary showings, purchased it on DVD, and purchased it again on DVD just to get a new batch of extras. I’ve read books and watched movies just about making the film. When pressed to name my favorite film of ever, I’ll even pause, and if I don’t say Wizard of Oz I’ll say Jaws and I’ll always say that they are #1 and #2.
So what is there for me to see again at a 40th Anniversary showing? What can I still say? Or better yet, how don’t I end up writing an article that rambles on about the film for 15 pages? I went into the showing thinking about what really drives me to watch this film or any film that many times. Is it something that still works for the kids that were in the audience?
The first thing about kids today seeing it is our threshold for blood and violence. It was shocking at the time to see a severed leg or a man being bitten in half. Today I’m not saying that it’s a PG rating like it was then but it doesn’t appear more outwardly violent than most current PG-13 films. What makes it seem worse is Spielberg’s ability to work within a limited budget and to use techniques to create suspense that date back to the beginnings of film and best understood by geniuses like Chaplin and Hitchcock. It’s what you don’t see and what you expect to happen based on other visual and auditory clues that create unbearable suspense.
Jaws is an auditory treat. Spielberg used Duel as almost a practice run for this film. The shark was a truck. In Duel when you heard the engine revving in that truck in the middle of the desert it became relentless like a shark. Viewers learned to jump at the sound. Jaws has many clues, but they don’t always mean what you think they are going to. So the cat-and-mouse game ups the ante.
The movie starts with John Williams’ amazing score. The building deep tones are the shark’s theme and lead up to the first attack. There are the shots from the shark’s point of view as he attacks. But then there are first-person shots under the water that don’t end up being a shark. All of these things make the viewer uneasy. My favorite clues are at the Orca in the end with the keg barrels. The sound of the kegs popping up out of the sea represent the appearance of the shark. And then they pop up and there is an eerie calm over the water as they don’t move. Brody and Hooper start to take the barrels out of the water and each time they reach a little further out of the boat to get them, my body tenses a little more. It’s a brilliant technique that works better than having an awesome special effects shark every shot.
For me, the movie revolves around the amazing Indianapolis speech by Quint. The whole scene is some of the best dialogue put on screen. The scene builds with comparing scars to breaking hearts, and just when it gets to the point that everyone is laughing, it hits the monologue. When Brody points out the tattoo and Quint mentions the word “Indianapolis,” there’s a freeze on the face of Hooper. It’s priceless. The man goes from drunk to sober in a second. He knows the story. But as Quint starts to talk, they both are frozen by his monotone voice. He’s cold and lifeless like the eyes of a shark. The staccato delivery and his accent make the story powerful. There’s a rhythm to it like poetry. “Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer.” And he personalizes it with Herbie Robinson bitten in half below the waist (a foreshadowing to his own death). By the time we get to the end, both Brody and Hooper are sober. “So, eleven hundred men went into the water. Three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.” and then there’s his pause and the simple addendum, “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”
The scene still resonates today. Maybe even more than when I was a kid. It speaks of the wisdom and experience of an older generation. That the generation after never experienced the horrors of war like World War II and this symbolizes that experience. That the younger generation thinks they’ve suffered but their heartache isn’t like seeing Herbie Robinson floating in the water bitten in half.
It’s also about how a story unfolds. The camera stops and locks in on Quint. His voice dominates the sounds in the background. The characters around him actively listen. That’s three and a half minutes of a speech that on the surface just explains what drives our Ahab. I can’t think of a movie today that has a minute-long speech let alone triple that. It’s tension-building too. It’s released when Brody and Hooper and eventually Quint start singing. Like any good twist, the relief is only temporary as the happy time turns into a shark attack on the boat.
The movie is 40 years old and it’s aged in spots. The acting is wooden in parts and the script a little disjointed to fit in suspenseful scenes. But it is still worth the ride. Films just don’t get made with this kind of craft anymore. It’s not budget or actors or even story – it’s an understanding of the emotional roller coaster that we sign up for when we pay for a ticket and sit in the dark. We hear the first tones of that music and the hairs on our arms stand up. We paid for this scare.
If this was the 75th time I’ve seen the film, then I can’t wait for the 100th. I love movies because of this film. It’s that simple. I still go to the theaters every summer looking for that thrill. Maybe it’s a post-apocalyptic desert or a group of superheroes battling evil or even dinosaurs rampaging on an island, I’m there for the hair standing up on my arms. I’m there because a good director knows that the sound of a barrel surfacing can turn into a moment of suspense. And I’m there because a seven-year-old me learned that being scared to go back in the water in a theater was perfectly acceptable.