Thirty years of horror: Jaws (1975)

Tom: I wanted to see Jaws in the summer of 1975 partly because I’d read the book. The hype must have helped. So my mother took me one day. She was concerned that I might be scared during the movie, so she reassured me that it was just a trained shark. It would take some time before all the lore about Bruce the mechanical shark filtered into popular consciousness. We stood in line. While waiting outside the theatre, I thought of the people inside the theater, getting to see Jaws right now, at that very instant. I occasionally speculated to my mother what part of the story was actually happening at any given point.

I don’t know how I made it past the emergence of Ben Gardner’s severed head on that day. But I vividly remember the shark lunging out of the water at Brody while he’s flinging chum. It terrified me. I hid my eyes. I kept them closed until the end of the movie, pressing my hands into my face just to be sure. I periodically asked my mother what was happening. I particularly remember Quint’s screams. “What’s happening now?” I asked, terrified.

After the jump, I was nine years old.

At nine years old, I was on the threshold of the rest of my life as a fan of horror movies. Because after seeing what parts of Jaws I saw that day, I spent the rest of the summer going back to see it again, with a babysitter, with a friend of the family, alone. I went over and over and over until I could keep my eyes opened the entire time. I must have seen Jaws ten times during the summer of 1975. And I then spent years obsessed with it. I ate saltine crackers like Robert Shaw in that scene in the town hall. I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. I tore down an old metal swing set in our backyard and pretended I was building a shark cage. I wore a bandanna tied around my head like Robert Shaw wore in that scene. I bought the soundtrack. I drew pictures of the Orca. Jaws was one of the most formative experiences of my childhood. And unlike many formative childhood experiences — for some damn reason, Hogan’s Heroes was another — it holds up immaculately.

Chris: My first approach to Jaws was similar to Tom’s. My mother had the book, and I “read” it when I was 10. I say “read”, because what I actually did was repeatedly thumb through the boring parts where there was dialogue and stuff to get to the parts where the shark killed people. Unlike Tom, I didn’t see the movie then. I knew I wasn’t ready for it. I kept reading Benchley’s vivid descriptions of the shark attacks and assumed they were shown in vivid detail onscreen in the film (the nuances available to a skilled filmmaker to bring this in as a PG movie were lost on me at that point in life).

Tom: In the book, I seem to recall Chrissy reaching down into the water and feeling the bone jutting out where her leg was bitten off. Vivid stuff, to be sure, but evoked in its own unique way in the movie by yanking around that poor actress in the water. That’s an iconic kill that, for various reasons, hasn’t been imitated much.

Chris: The film’s greatest significant for me as a child was in the summer of ’76. My mother and I took a vacation to Southern California to visit my brother and sister-in-law and their new baby. On that trip, we visited Universal Studios, where the fake lagoon with the robot shark from Jaws was a big part of the tour. At one point the shark jumps up next to the tram, and everyone’s supposed to be scared. I remember thinking how obviously fake it looked up close and personal. At that moment, Jaws lost its hold on me. I forgot about it completely. Star Wars, man. That’s where it’s at!

Allow me to confess: I’ve “seen” Jaws once. The one time I rented it was when I was 18. My interest in actually watching the movie was greatly tempered by my interest in attempting to get to second base with a girl in our TV room. I think I stopped paying any sort of attention to the movie at the ten minute mark. Heck, I didn’t even think to put this film on the list, but it showed up in the suggestions in the thread I started here, and I realized that this movie I’d forgotten about was probably something I needed to watch.

Tom: The storytelling in Jaws is dense, muscular, and meticulous. For instance, when we first meet Brody, Spielberg is doing what will become his trademark domestic chaos (my favorite instance is the little boy banging a doll against a crib in the background of one of the scenes in Close Encounters). Brody’s son has cut his hand. While Mrs. Brody’s instinct is to tend to her son’s wound, Chief Brody immediately snaps into reprimand mode. It’s the frustration and diversity of parenting in action, but then the phone rings. Brody crosses to answer it and the camera follows him, framing the phone in the foreground. Brody picks it up and hears a dial tone.


This is the moment that Jaws begins as a story about characters. Brody looks at the phone, registering the dial tone, and realizes it wasn’t ringing. It’s a split second realization, after which nothing will be the same. From here on out, Chief Martin Brody’s life will be swept out to sea to confront the primeval fear of the unknown, of animal hunger, of vast dark gulfs underneath, of being eaten alive. That one glance at the unringing phone is the transition, the split second when you see the oncoming car, before you hear the bad news but after you realize it’s coming, when you know this is no ordinary phone call.

Because here is where Brody reveals something that we, the audience, weren’t privy to. He has two phones, one for family business and one for police business. Police business which consists of the karate school karating the picket fences or whatever concerns the old man with the bicycle wheel has. Police business hardly worth bothering the chief of police at home. So after that one bewildered look at the phone that wasn’t ringing, Brody reaches down and answers the offscreen phone that we didn’t see, the one that he never thought to answer because it never rings, the one that means something new and terrible has emerged.

It’s the second time something below the frame has emerged, but it’s not the last. Spielberg loves having characters rise up into the frame (Quint at the town hall, Hooper stepping up out of a boat, Brody recoiling from the shark’s first appearance). Jaws is a movie about things below the frame, below the surface. It’s about what’s Down There. I still find this image terrifying:


Chris: When I see a movie for the first time that I recognize as having serious cultural impact, I try to put myself in the shoes of those who saw it for the first time and what they must have been thinking. In this case, here’s this movie by this unknown kid director named Spielberg, and the the title graphic that opens the film that says “JAWS” might as well say “GAMERA” because it looks fairly cheesy. If I’m in the audience and it’s 1975, I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.

But, knowing what I know now, I’m watching this in 2013 for really the first time and I’m thinking to myself “Ok, at what point do you know that this movie and this director are both going to be something pretty special?” I found three points where for me the magic happens. These are absolutely thrilling–like hearing your first Beatles three-part harmony for the first time–to see unfold so easily and casually on the screen.

Here’s the first. Chief Brody has been to the hardware store and has collected wood and paint to make signs to close the beaches. He hands them to his young deputy and tells him “Let Polly do the printing.” “What’s the matter with my printing?” “Let Polly do the printing,” and then Brody drives off, distracted. That exchange is so recognizably Spielbergian. It’s a 30-second dialogue snippet that brilliantly helps establish the character of Brody for us.

The second point of realizing just exactly what this all is happens when Hooper comes over to the Brody house for dinner. Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Lorraine Gary are all just fantastic here. Dreyfuss is this free radical force of nature. Lorraine Gary gets in an amazing line of dialogue (“How long have you been in sharks?”) and her reactions to Dreyfuss in the left of the frame suggest that at one point the affair between Hooper and Ellen that exists in the book was at least toyed with in the movie script (or at least provided Gary with some character motivation). Scheider, meanwhile, simply looks downcast and bemused. He left New York to get away from trouble, but it’s found him anyway and he’s bewildered about how the hell that happened.

The third point–and the one where I think if you were a 1975 moviegoer you were realizing you were ready to see this again and again–happens on the boat, during the chase for the shark. The engine is malfunctioning, and ominous gray smoke issues from the exhaust. Martin Brody’s expressed an opinion we feel acutely: “We need a bigger boat.” Quint has smashed the radio with a bat. The shark has caused the hull to leak. Things are grim.

Tom: I can’t resist a little pedantry here, but I think it’s important. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” is a meme from a time before memes, but it’s also a line that never appears in the movie. Like “play it again, Sam” its how the audience remembers it. But the line is actually “you’re gonna need a bigger boat”, which is how Brody is thinking at this point. He thinks they’re going to go back to Amity to get a bigger a boat, and they’re going to drop him off because he’s done with this and these two guys can take it from here in their bigger boat. Roy Scheider is brilliant throughout the third act as the spokesman for the audience’s thoughts. I love that when Quint is lining up the shot to attach the first barrel, Brody is yelling “Kill it, Quint! Kill it!” He thinks that harpoon rifle is going to kill the shark!

Chris: So here we are, chasing the yellow barrel through the sea, with Quint poised on the bowsprit hollering seafaring directions at Hooper, who is spinning the helmsman’s wheel. At first I thought John Williams’ score for this was absurdly too cheerful. It’s all flutes and strings and major notes and crescendoes. It’s happy adventure music, in other words. Then Spielberg’s camera cuts to Brody. He’s the guy who’s afraid of water. He’s the “bigger boat” doubter. He’s the guy who wants to radio the Coast Guard. We see the damnedest thing here in that cut. Brody is smiling. Really smiling, too. He’s caught up in this chase. We’re caught up in this chase. The shark is a killer. It’s a “pure eating machine.” The boat is failing. There’s obviously harrowing danger here…but are you kidding me? THIS IS AMAZING. They’re all lost in it, too; the crusty fisherman, the nerdy scientist, the scared, grounded cop. Who knows what’s going to happen in 20 minutes, but for right now, holy crap is this thrilling. Williams score is perfect for this moment, and Spielberg and his actors all nail it. The whole sequence is some kind of goddamned magical filmmaking. We’ll see Spielberg go to this well again and again in the future (the bike ride escape in ET leaps to mind as a close parallel) but here’s the first instance of it, and it’s hard to imagine that audiences in 1975 weren’t about to jump out of their seats here.

Tom: I never noticed the significance of that smile because I’m always smiling as well. Nice catch, Chris!

Chris: I can’t believe I waited this long to see this movie. I’m personally a huge believer in the “50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” school of critical thought. That is to say, if a whole lot of smart people say something is really great, it probably might really be great and you (or rather I) should investigate. So yeah, bad on me. Jaws may not be as high on my personal list of favorite films as it is Tom’s, but I do know this: I’m going to watch it again in a few months when time has freshened it a bit for me…and I can’t wait.

Tom: Okay, here’s the thing that really bugs me about Jaws. Hooper shouldn’t have survived. And not because that’s how it is in the book, where Quint’s drowning is a direct parallel to Ahab, and a far less dramatic fate than being eaten alive, and where Ellen Brody has cheating sex with Matt Hooper. Instead, Hooper shouldn’t have survived because this should be a classic “and I alone survived to tell the tale” scenario. This is Brody’s trial. It’s his character arc. He alone should prevail. Other than that, Jaws is, for me, a perfect and timeless movie.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)