Movie Night With Urbaniak: Amblin’, Jaws

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a fan of Spielberg from the time I caught his name at the end of an episode of Columbo, so I was primed to enjoy Jaws on its opening weekend in spite of the fact that the movie had huge buzz and everyone else in the nation was excited about seeing it as well. (I was also a fan of Night Gallery before that, much to the consternation of my older, Twilight Zone-fan brother, and remember the two episodes he directed clearly, but didn’t know he had directed them until later. Both of them are available at Youtube if you type in “night gallery eyes” and “night gallery make me laugh” — and Tom Bosley is in both of them!)

Anyway, I remember seeing Jaws opening weekend like it was yesterday. The drive to the theater, the feeling when we walked in seven minutes late (packed theater, the shot on the screen, the electricity in the room) the shrieks and laughs from the crowd. Jaws hookedthe audience in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience hooked since, except maybe Star Wars and Alien. Spielberg’s effortless command of flow, rhythm and tension jerked that crowd around like, well, like a shark jerking around young Chrissie Watkins in the first scene.

I had had the movie bug ever since The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, but Jaws hit my consciousness like an atom bomb. I was obsessed with the movie, saw it many times in the theater, bought, read and re-read the two “making of” books, cut out ads from the newspapers, bought the poster and had it up on my wall for many years, kept track of the grosses and how long it played in which theaters. Think of this: there were theaters in Chicago where Jaws played for over a year. I paid attention to the way scenes were shot and cut, wondered why some shots followed others, paid attention to the way the audience’s senses were manipulated. You could say that before Jaws I understood there was a thing called a movie, but after Jaws I understood there was a thing called making a movie.  I wrote a short story for English class about a screening of Jaws where the projector breaks in the middle of the movie and a riot ensues, and the teacher read it aloud to the class and gave me an A.

How successful was Jaws? It made over $470 million in 1975 — that’s $1.8 billion in present-day dollars. Jurassic Park, in contrast, made half that much.

I don’t know — is there a movie out there that can affect an audience like Jaws did in 1975? For that matter, is there an audience out there prepared to be affected like this by a movie again? Jaws, and Spielberg, was one of the few cultural things my father and I agreed on (Star Wars was another, and The Godfather). There’s the famous rack/zoom shot of Chief Brody on the beach, and my father took great care to explain to me that Spielberg had lifted it from Vertigo, but couldn’t believe that this kid had taken a shot that Hitchcock had used as the exclamation point of his masterpiece and essentially tossed it away for a minor Act I plot-point — even he understood that this was a serious filmmaking talent to be reckoned with.

I have a great deal to say about the script of Jaws, which I plan to do in several parts over the next week or so, with your indulgence. But to kick things off

  came over and we watched it on the big screen (which is well worth it — the 25th-anniversary DVD has a wonderful transfer) and we talked about the acting.

Urbaniak noted, first off, that the movie has some of the best extra work of all time, and I heartily agree with him. And as the first two acts of Jaws is about a man battling a society instead of a shark, that work is important. Spielberg always does well with crowd scenes for some reason (the crowd scenes in Sugarland and Close Encounters are similarly vivid) and he has an uncanny knack for casting and directing great masses of humanity, a much greater talent than, say, Cecil B. Demille, where the mass is always just that — a mass, not a collection of individuals. Spielberg’s crowds always teem with detail, contradiction and humanity. Whether it’s the out-of-town fisherman who’s never heard of a tiger shark, or Quint’s little fisherman-pal with the greasy orange hat and the dog, or the prim, dyspeptic motel-owning city council-woman, Spielberg somehow manages to find people who look and act genuine and put dozens of them in scenes and have them all interacting with each other, and I don’t know how he does it. The yahoo shark-hunting armada, the Fourth of July crowd scenes, the panics on the beaches, there isn’t a single false beat in them, and these are all hugely complicated scenes with a lot going on in them.

Take the scene on the dock where they’ve caught the tiger shark. There are a half-dozen brilliant, brilliant one-and-two-line performances in that scene, most from people uncredited. The rhythms and cutting in the scene keep going with what I’ve come to think of as a typically Spielbergian fluidity, even though only a couple of the faces on screen belong to trained movie stars. So many little moments pass by as Brody and Hooper move through the crowd, playing their own scenes, all the beats ring true, and in the middle of all this come Mrs. Kintner, the mother of the little boy killed a few scenes earlier. In one of the great one-scene performances of the decade, easily beating the one-scene performance of Beatrice Strait in Network, an actress named Lee Fierro walks into frame, with her black dress and veil, and strikes Brody on the side of his head. I’m guessing the script said that she slaps him, but she doesn’t really. She looks like she’s trying to, but her aim is off and she kind of clubs him on the ear instead. And then delivers this incredible speech about how her boy’s death is Brody’s fault and so forth. And she’s playing a mother who has just come from the funeral of her little boy but she doesn’t play the grief, instead she plays the composure. Her grief is there as a subtext, and sitting on top of her grief is her anger, but what she’s playing is a woman trying not to reveal either her grief or her anger. The results are devastating. This is the Act I climax, a crucial scene to the protagonist’s arc, and Spielberg gave it to an actress who had never appeared on screen before and, apart from being in Jaws: The Revenge, would never appear on screen again, and she knocks it out of the park.

Then there’s Robert Shaw. And given the depth and validity that every other performance in the movie delivers, it’s kind of weird to see Robert Shaw swan in halfway through the movie and give the peculiar performance he gives here. It’s a very “actory” performance, very “look ma, I’m acting,” and while he’s never less than compelling, he never feels like he’s really that guy, which I get no problem from Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. I suppose Quint is supposed to be larger than life, that that’s the whole point of the performance, and once the movie moves out to open sea Shaw takes over the narrative and drives the conflict for the whole second half. But in my mind I keep thinking of Sterling Hayden, who played General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye and was Spielberg’s first choice to play the part. Hayden was very much like Quint, lived on a boat and wrote books about the sea, and whenever I watch Jaws these days I keep imagining Quint’s scenes as performed by Hayden. And so, as both Urbaniak and I do passable Sterling Hayden impressions, we proceeded to do just that, reading Quint’s lines as Hayden, in his gruff, slurry, side-of-the-mouth delivery — something Shaw even approximates a couple of times himself, as in: “Chief — put out the fire, will ya?”

Scheider and Dreyfuss are, of course, splendid.

Oh, and as a warm-up we also watched Amblin‘, Spielberg’s first movie, his 24-minute short that got him the Night Gallery job (it is commercially unavailable — another item courtesy of my local cool video store). I’ll write about Amblin’ shortly, but let’s just say for now that Jaws is the better movie.hitcounter


44 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Amblin’, Jaws”
  1. e_ticket says:

    Ooooohhhh, I’m SO primed and ready for your musings on JAWS.

    It’s one of the movies I’ve obsessed about since I first saw it when I was about seven or eight. I’ve read every single book I could find about it (especially Carl Gottleib’s JAWS LOG and Edith Blake’s MAKING OF THE MOVIE JAWS). It’s damn near close to perfect — it achieves what it sets out to do like no other movie before or since, IMHO.

    I could talk about it ad infinitum.

    • curt_holman says:

      “Think of this: there were theaters in Chicago where Jaws played for over a year.”

      And this was back in the day when moviehouses had only one or two screens, so it wasn’t like Jaws was playing for months on th smallest screen of the neighborhood multi-plex.

      Jaws opened when I was 10 years old, and when my family first saw it, we had to wait in one of those around-the-block lines — and the house was still packed when we got in, the women sat in the middle of the very back row, and the men sat on the extreme left side of the front row, so Roy Scheider’s face was like George Washington on Mt. Rushmore.

      I know what you mean about Robert Shaw, but Quint seems very much like the self-dramatizing man who’s vested in cultivating his own persona. I’m not sure that I see Shaw playing Quint so much as Quint playing Quint.

  2. jbacardi says:

    One thing that has been, for good or ill, constant about me all my life is that I have an instinctive reaction, most of the time, to recoil when confronted with a film or musician/song that is wildy popular with the masses, often for no good reason, I admit.

    Which is why, even thought Jaws played the local drive in in 1975 when I was 15, I did not go even though 3/4 of the town and surrounding area went, and it was the topic of conversation wherever I went. Big, rubbery looking shark. Big deal. Although I did recognize how awful it would be to be attacked by one, a real, non-rubbery one that is.

    It was only recently, relatively speaking, that I decided to see it, and that was because after viewing The Taking of Pelham One Two Three I got really interested in seeing other films that featured Robert Shaw. Not long after (I figure 2000, maybe ’01), TCM screened it and I made it a point to check it out.

    And yes, it’s a frigging masterpiece, for lots of reasons, including the ones you cite here. I hate my contrarian nature sometimes. I liked Shaw more than you did, though…

    • Todd says:

      Don’t get me wrong. I think Shaw’s performance is brilliant. I watched Jaws, The Sting and From Russia With Love all in one week once, and was really surprised at the complexities of his performances. They’re all really thought out, they’re all completely different, and none of them are naturalistic. His performance as Quint isn’t lackluster, it’s just completely different from every other performance in the movie.

      • craigjclark says:

        He also has a terrific role as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin & Marian.

        • Todd says:

          Not to mention Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons.

          • ndgmtlcd says:

            Yes, I was still thinking of that performance when I saw Cate Blanchett in her first Elizabeth film. It was as if that 1998 film was a sequel to the 1966 film.

            However, what defines Shaw for me, more than anything else was his role as the jump-out-of-the-screen ruf and tuf Mossad agent in Black Sunday (1977). You could do worse, one day, than consider him as the protagonist and ask yourself what he wanted!

          • craigjclark says:

            If you want to see a more modulated Shaw performance (they do exist), check out the 1968 film version of the Pinter play The Birthday Party, which was directed by William Friedkin. It’s quite devastating.

            • Todd says:

              That sounds like it would be eminently worth tracking down.

              And just so we’re clear — I don’t think there’s anything poorly modulated in Shaw’s Quint — it’s just that he’s giving a performance not unlike Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and everyone else is behaving very much like themselves.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A multi-part post on Jaws? This is going to be better than the Oscars and the Super Bowl combined!

    Jaws has been my favorite movie for, oh, I don’t know, 25 years or so. But for most of that time, I’d only seen it on TV. (So many times that it wasn’t until recently that I got used to *not* having parts of it pan & scanned — particularly the “Michael, get out of the boat now!” scene, which still, in my mind, pans from Lorraine Gary to Scheider.) So when my local rep theater showed it (in 2001 or 02, I can’t remember), I jumped at the chance to see it on the screen. I remember reading how exciting and shocking the audiences of ’75 found it, and how one guy came out of the theater, threw up, then went back in. Part of me always thought maybe there was some exaggeration there, or that those audiences weren’t as sophisticated as my youthful 80s self. That changed when I saw it projected. Something about being in the theater, in the dark, away from potential distractions totally changed the movie for me. It *moved*. Fast. Almost too fast. It seemed like by the time I took a second breath, Brody and Hooper were already out looking for Ben Gardner’s boat. It was such a relentless experience, and I really felt like I got the ’75 audience perspective.

    Here’s a fun game (I thought at least) that I played with my writing partner a few years ago, one that should probably be played every five years or so: You’re casting for a remake of Jaws. (Shot for shot, complete reinterpretation, your choice). Who do you cast as Brody, Hooper and Quint?

    (IMO, my writing partner won this particular game.)

    — Kent M. Beeson

    • greyaenigma says:

      For some reason, the idea of Tom Waits as Quint just stuck in my head.

    • Todd says:

      Mark Wahlberg, Gene Hackman and Paul Rudd.

      If Hackman is too old, Sam Jackson.

    • Todd says:

      Ed Harris would also make a good Quint.

    • Todd says:

      Billy Bob Thornton would also make an excellent Brody. Although he couldn’t be from New York any more.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m Kent’s writing partner. Here was the lineup he liked (although his was pretty good too):

        BRODY: Tilda Swinton
        HOOPER: Mos Def
        QUINT: Harry Dean Stanton (as the sexist, racist, fishist Quint)

        Harry Dean might be too old now (say it ain’t true!). Kent brought up Pete Postlethwaite, who would also be totally awesome.

        I’d also make Brody a single mom.

        –Martin McClellan

        • Todd says:

          I like the idea of Brody being a single mom, but Tilda Swinton is too “weird” to play audience-surrogate everyman Brody. Mos Def is a capable actor and would handle the humor in the part well, but I don’t buy him as a slumming blueblood. Postlethwait is a wonderful actor and good casting, but where is it written that an Irishman must play Quint?

          • Anonymous says:

            Well, to be fair, Martin’s version calls for a complete revisioning of the Jaws story. I just love the idea of making Brody a single-mom, though.

            My choices: Terrence Howard as Brody, Eric Bana as Hooper (using his Australian accent and natural, easy-going charm that Hollywood has decided to clamp down on), and Mickey Roarke as Quint. Mine’s a bit of a testosterone-fest, I have to admit.

            — Kent M. Beeson

            • Todd says:

              Terrence Howard is an excellent choice. Bana I think is too strong a physical presence — he’s supposed to be a spoiled rich kid (something Spielberg tempered by casting the warm, dorky Dreyfuss). Mickey Rourke would be great in the part, but you’d never get a studio to back him.

          • Anonymous says:

            Ed Harris and Gene Hackman are pretty damn good choices too, it must be said.

            — Kent M. Beeson

            • Anonymous says:

              It’s true Swinton is too weird — I always see her as having great warmth, but that is rarely actually in the roles she plays. Maybe I’m basing that on her scenes in Adaptation, or reading her personality from interviews into it.

              But, I do love that edge she has, and I think Brody with a scourge of insecurity and self-doubt could be interesting.

              Anyway, those picks are a few years old. Maybe it’s time to play the game again, Kent? I’ll start thinking about who I’d cast now…

              –Martin McClellan

    • curt_holman says:

      You’ll probably see where I’m going with this

      I can’t resist a game:

      Brody: Wendell Pierce or Clarke Peters

      Hooper: Regina King or Sonja Sohn

      Quint: Idris Elba or Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

  4. urbaniak says:

    In one of the great one-scene performances of the decade, easily beating the one-scene performance of Beatrice Strait in Network, an actress named Lee Fierro walks into frame

    Apples and oranges. Each is perfectly cast and I doubt either would be as effective in the other’s role.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Also, Fierro appears in more than one scene, but very quickly.

      One of my favorite bits of foreshadowing: the guy calling for his dog just before the kid is taken.

      • Todd says:

        The young man playing the guy calling for his dog is great, too.

        • Anonymous says:

          If my wife and I see someone playing with their dog (and not necc. at the beach), one of us saying “Pippet! Come back Pippet!” is usually not far behind. And her sister has a cat named Sharky, and whenever he comes into the room, I can’t help but say — every damn time, I’m embarrassed to admit — “Sh-sh-sh-shark! In the pond!”. I’m pretty sure my sister-in-law thinks there’s something wrong with me.

          Sorry, this was totally OT. I just love this movie that much.

          — Kent M. Beeson

      • urbaniak says:

        Also, Fierro appears in more than one scene, but very quickly.

        Well, so does Beatrice Straight in “Network” but they both only have one “real” scene.

    • Todd says:

      Apples and oranges. Each is perfectly cast and I doubt either would be as effective in the other’s role.

      Yes, but I haven’t seen Network in months, and Jaws I just watched. Therefore Fierro’s performance is stronger. QED.

      • urbaniak says:

        Well, it’s a shorter and more plainspoken scene and more of a direct punch to the gut. The Network scene is a long, writerly aria.

  5. greyaenigma says:

    But in my mind I keep thinking of Sterling Hayden, who played General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove

    Now you’ve gotten me imagining Quint as Ripper:

    “Fluorine goes in the water? Our water?”
    “Weeeee’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…”

    “Yeh know what the thing about Commies is? They got dead eyes. They they seize control of a country, their eyes just roll back in their heads.”

  6. urbaniak says:

    BTW, “Amblin’ Jaws” could just be the next sequel.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t know why not — Jurassic Park 4, I’m told, revolves around a guy who trains velociraptors to be commandos. It’s The Five Daring Velociraptors.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Force Ten From Monster Island

        I believe they get hold of Robert Shaw’s DNA, so the velociraptors will be a different character from his movies.

        Speaking of which — did you see the deleted Quint “Ode to Joy” scene from Jaws? What a jerk.

  7. leborcham says:

    Will you do MATLOCK someday, Todd?

  8. chrispiers says:

    I’m very eagerly anticipating your thoughts and analysis of JAWS. While it isn’t my favorite film, it’s close and I think it was probably the one that influenced me the most when I was a kid in terms of storytelling. I saw it before RAIDERS and was astounded by how interesting every moment was.

    While I respect the hell out of the cinematography of a film like CITIZEN KANE or the acting choices of GODFATHER or the script of CHINATOWN, for me, JAWS is the perfect blend of everything.

    • Todd says:

      That’s one of the things I hope to reveal in my analysis — how does every moment of Jaws end up being interesting? It’s simply one of the most compulsively watchable movies ever made. And yes, much of it is in the direction, but what I’m going to be doing is examining the script, scene by scene, to try and get at what drives the movie’s unstoppable momentum.

      • chrispiers says:

        It’s funny how sometimes great movies got to be that way through some happy accidents. The malfunctioning shark lead Spielberg to use it sparingly to fantastic effect. Or how about all the rewrites on the dialog in Casablanca, one of the most quotable films ever?

        • Todd says:

          Spielberg often says that if the shark had worked properly on Jaws, he’d never have the career he has.