Spielberg: Jaws Act I

The protagonist of Jaws, Police Chief Martin Brody, wants to Prove His Worth. The banner he fights under, and the theme of the movie, is “One Man Can Make a Difference.” Act I of Jaws illustrates Brody’s first attempt to Prove His Worth, which in this case involves Doing What He Is Told.

1:00-5:15 — Chrissie Watkins is at a beach party. A boy, Tom, makes eyes at her. She teases Tom out of the circle with an offer of skinny dipping. Tom is eager but too drunk to follow through. Chrissie goes out swimming and gets attacked by a shark.

There is a temptation to give an unnecessarily sexual reading to this opening scene. Chrissie takes off her clothes as she lures her date along the beach, she is obviously after more than some swimming. The boy may be unable to attack, but the shark seems to be up to the task. This is the “Friday the 13th” reading, that the sexually promiscuous woman is “asking for it.” I think this is the wrong reading — the point of the opening scene is not that Chrissie is sexually active but that she, and the other teens at the beach party, are “free.” They are free to smoke, drink, do drugs, play music and go swimming naked. They are, in all but name, hippies. Like the US on September 10, 2001, they are living in an open, permissive society that takes its freedoms for granted.

Chrissie’s nakedness also happens to make for better drama, as she, like Marion Crane in Psycho, is presented in the most vulnerable light possible at the moment of the attack on her person. There’s no reason Spielberg could not have put her in a swimsuit, but having her naked raises the dramatic stakes that much more.

The scene establishes genre, announces This Is A Horror Thriller, and presents the primary antagonist, a brutally inhuman monster, unthinking, unreasoning, implacable.

5:15 — We meet Brody, as we meet many a protagonist, getting up in the morning. He awakens and looks out to the sea. Several times in the movie Brody will look out to sea, this is the first. The sea, we could even say, is Brody’s nemesis.

Brody’s state of being as we meet him is that he is disoriented — he asks his wife why the sun is shining in the window. Next he reports to her where their children are, and there is some dialogue that indicates that he’s new in town and not doing a good job of fitting in. (He’s a cop from New York, essentially the same character Roy Scheider played in The French Connection and The Seven-Ups. Here, he’s a — pardon — fish out of water.)

His older boy comes in from the yard. He’s cut his hand; this is the level of domestic turmoil Brody expects to find in Amity. He’s so new to the town that he picks up the wrong phone when it rings. Beautiful scene where his wife tends to his boy’s cut and he talks to his deputy on the phone in the foreground.

(A third reason for the opening scene is to create suspense. Generally, the writer wants to put the audience in the same position as the protagonist, unless for the purposes of suspense. If the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table but the protagonist doesn’t, the writer can wring out minutes and minutes of suspense as the audience gets more and more upset about the bomb. Here, we know what the phone call is about, even though Brody doesn’t, and his family in the background, still “free,” knows even less.)

7:30 — Brody takes off in his car to investigate the disappearance of Chrissie Watkins. There’s a nice shot of his car zipping along a country road. And I’m thinking “Hmm, an ordinary shot of a car traveling on a road, why is this in there?” Then the car passes the AMITY ISLAND billboard, which tells us four things: 1, the name of the town, 2, the fact that the town is on an island, 3, the fact that the town promotes itself as a swimmer’s paradise, and 4, that there is a “SUMMER REGATTA” coming up July 4th — which of course, turns out to be a ticking clock driving the narrative. So this one simple shot tells us a ton of exposition, without any dialogue, and raises the stakes without making a big deal out of it.

8:00 — Brody talks with Tom about Chrissie’s disappearance as they pick up her clothes from the beach. The concept of “Islanders” is introduced: the natives of Amity consider themselves a clan unto themselves and everyone else, it seems, is a second-class citizen. Tom “belongs” in Amity, Brody is the outsider.

Brody’s deputy Hendrickson, himself an Islander, sees Chrissie’s remains first — another good use of a suspense beat. Brody stands over the remains, clutching Chrissie’s purse, literally “left holding the bag.” Brody’s Gap opens here: his job has just gone from cleaning up after a drunken party to investigating a death.

9:00 — Polly, an elderly secretary to Brody, reports for work, unaware of Chrissie’s death. As Brody types up Chrissie’s death report, she tells Brody about the local kids “karate-ing” fenceposts. Again we see the juxtaposition of “business as usual” with the urgency of Brody’s predicament. (Spielberg even places Brody in the same place in the frame for both scenes.) The Medical Inspector calls and tells Brody that Chrissie died from a shark attack, and the news strikes Brody like a thunderbolt. As Police Chief, it his duty to protect the citizens of Amity from a threat and, seeking to Prove His Worth, he leaps into action.

10:00 — The newly-charged-up Brody heads into town to get supplies to paint “BEACH CLOSED” signs. As he’s in the hardware store, we hear a customercomplaining to the store owner about an order — he is going to be unprepared for the big 4th-of-July Regatta. This is to remind us of that ticking clock that will form the climax of Act II in another 50 minutes or so. There is a marching band rehearsing in the streets and, again, the “free” populace goes about their business, complaining to Brody about trivial things, and his anxiety set against the town’s blissful ignorance raises the dramatic stakes.

11:41 — Brody learns of some boy scouts out swimming and goes to warn them out of the water. As he takes the ferry across the bay, he is accosted by the Mayor.

It is impossible for me to watch the scenes with the Mayor without thinking of George W. Bush. Everything he does is straight from the Bush playbook. The town is under attack and the only thing the Mayor can think to do is ignore the problem, hope it goes away, cover it up and tell people to keep on shopping. There’s a great beat where the Mayor tells Brody that Chrissie may have been killed by a boat propeller, then turns to the Medical Inspector for backup. The Medical Inspector, the same man who told Brody that Chrissie was killed by a shark, stops to try to think of something to add to the Mayor’s comments, then realizes he can’t and instead simply parrots the Mayor, and Alberto Gonzales suddenly leaps to mind. The Mayor is concerned that, without summer dollars, the town is going to be on welfare come winter. He is, literally, willing to feed his citizens into the mouth of a shark for the sake of making money. The scene ends with the Mayor turning to the ferry operator and saying “Okay, take us back.” Indeed.

Brody, who only wanted to close the beach because the Medical Inspector told him that Chrissie was killed by a shark, is now powerless to act. One Man, it seems, cannot Make A Difference after all. But he wants To Get Along, so he Does As He’s Told.

(Of course, statistically speaking, the Mayor is correct — shark attacks are absurdly rare and the likelihood of another attack is a statistical impossibility. But that wouldn’t make a very good movie.)

13:40 — The beach. Later that day, I’m guessing. We meet Alex Kintner and his mom. Alex is destined to soon die, but we don’t know that yet. We also meet the guy with his Labrador Retriever. Brody, alone, watches the beach, a Man With A Secret. All around him, banality reigns. His neighbors discuss the “Islander” thing again, and one of them comes to pester him about some parking hassles. The frisson between the triviality of Amity life and the life-and-death struggle Brody is silently engaged in is unbearable. There’s the “Bad Hat Harry” scene, a false-scare that serves as a small misdirect. Brody thinks it might be a shark, but we, the audience know better, because we haven’t heard the shark’s musical theme. There is some more suspense as the guy calls for his dog, as Brody’s youngest son plays in the sand and sings “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” Again, we know more than the protagonist and the suspense builds. The music kicks in, we know what’s coming, and then little Alex Kintner gets it, in a spectacularly violent scene.

18:15 — The city council meeting. What is Brody going to do? He’s seen the monster for himself (in that dramatic rack/zoom), and he knows that the same shark killed Chrissie Watkins. He can’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And yet at the city council meeting, faced with the concerns of the local merchants, he caves. He is overwhelmed by commerce — the merchants of Amity don’t want the beaches closed for even 24 hours. In his pursuit of Doing What He’s Told, he is bulldozed by the very people he’s supposed to be protecting.

20:40 — Quint appears, in an all-time classic entrance. Quint tells the city council that he’ll catch the shark, but it will cost more than the $3000 dollars Mrs. Kintner is offering — he demands $10,000 and walks out of the meeting. He is dismissed by the city council, and again I can’t help but think of Bush, who not only doesn’t give a damn about the people he’s supposed to be leading, he doesn’t want to spend the money it takes to do a job properly. What does the Mayor do? He pushes the task of protecting the populace onto the “private sector,” secure that market forces will settle the problem and not cost him any money. And Brody is helpless — it seems that One Man is completely incapable of Making A Difference.

22:30 — Brody retires to his home and reads about sharks. Know Thy Enemy. There is a teeny bit of exposition as Brody commiserates with his wife about his burden and she offers to lighten his load. So again we see a juxtaposition between Brody’s problems and his family’s. His wife has come around to his side, a little anyway, but his boys are still “free” and innocent (even though they were on the beach that afternoon too). Brody orders his son off his sailboat, even though it’s tied to the dock, then worries that he’s pushing his authority too far — his job (as both father and police chief) is to protect his family so they can live freely, not to order them around and curtail their freedoms. As it happens, his wife, at just that moment, sees an illustration in one of Brody’s shark books of a shark attacking a fishing boat and screams for the boy to get out of the water.

So this scene, it seems, argues for a slightly more conservative viewpoint — the enemy is out there, and it’s better to instill a little fear into your charges than allow for the possibility of their getting injured or killed.

This scene, and specifically the illustration that provokes Brody’s wife’s hysteria, becomes an important cue in the movie’s visual schemata: the WATER, Spielberg tells us, is where the evil is. As long as you are NOT IN THE WATER, you are safe. If you are IN THE WATER, there is no hope for you. Again and again for the rest of the narrative, it is suggested that if you have even a finger or toe IN THE WATER, you are in danger.

24:30 — Like in this very next scene, where the two local clowns try to catch the shark with a holiday roast for bait (the “holiday”, of course, being the 4th of July, that ticking clock again). The shark takes the bait and heads out to sea, taking the end of the dock, and one of the clowns, with it. The second the clown goes into the water, we fear for his life, and we do not relax until his feet get out of the water. Spielberg even lets the camera linger on his feet scrambling over the collapsed dock, knowing that we are crawling out of our skin waiting for the shark to leap up and snatch the man away.

Of course, it does not, and the scene works as both a good scream and as good comedy. And let me add the beauty of the dock being towed out to sea, then turning around to come back for the clown as his friend screams on what’s left of the pier.

(There is a connection, of course, between the shark and the Mayor, and the visual design of the clown scene shows it. Jaws is about the largely-invisible forces that pull us around — we don’t see the shark in the clown scene, but we see the dock-end pulled around. Similarly, we don’t see the market forces that pull the Mayor around, but we see his discomfort at being in their grip. And, like the shark, the market forces in Jaws are brutal, unthinking, uncaring, inhuman, implacable and unanswerable. But more on that later.)

28:00 — The Yahoo Armada. Amateur fishermen from all over descend upon Amity. Market forces are allowed to run free, and the result is chaos. Brody is more overwhelmed than ever. (We could say that Brody is the US Forces in Iraq and the Yahoo Armada is Blackwater.) Out of this Yahoo Armada, Hooper appears. Hooper is, like Brody, a fish out of water, which is why his introduction in the midst of the Yahoo Armada works well. He is an Expert, and more to the point, he is a Reasonable Man, educated at some Eastern University. That is, he is the opposite of a Yahoo, and a “sissy” to boot, a bespectacled Academic, and he is here to Discover The Truth of the death of Chrissie Watkins. (I note that Spielberg takes the beard and glasses from Hooper, his Effete Academic in Jaws, and puts them on the face of Henry Jones, the Effete Academic in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)

31:15 — Hooper examines Chrissie’s remains and loses his cool. And I’m thinking “Why does this scene work? We already know Chrissie was killed by a shark, why do we need Hooper to declare it so?” The reason is, the act isn’t about “A Shark Comes to Amity,” the act is about Brody trying to Prove His Worth by Doing What He’s Told. And now here is an independent authority coming along and telling him, like a slap in the face, that he’s an irresponsible jerk who’s no better than the Mayor or the Gonzales-like Medical Inspector. Brody, who thought he was doing such a good job of Doing What He’s Told, has just been informed that his goals, as the protector of the people, should be higher than that.

33:00 — Back on the dock, a tiger shark is caught. We know it’s not the shark who killed Chrissie and Alex, but Brody breathes a sigh of relief: maybe he’s off the hook, maybe the system works, maybe Doing What He’s Told will turn out to be the wise move after all.

The Mayor comes along and, again, is concerned only with image and publicity. When Hooper expresses doubt as to the validity of the shark (like a good liberal, he feels a simple examination of facts will produce a sane response from authority), the Mayor dismisses him with talk about the “appropriateness” of cutting open the shark “in front of everybody.” His hope, of course, is that no one will ever cut open the shark, the problem will go away and everyone can make a lot of money.

36:00 — Mrs. Kintner comes down to the dock and has her brilliant scene where she confronts Brody, and Brody is brought face to face with Responsibility, and the true meaning of his job. He is on the island to protect the citizens of Amity from harm and instead he Did What He Was Told.   One Man could have Made a Difference in the life of Mrs. Kintner, but that One Man hewed to the beaten path instead.  And as Act II begins, we will see Brody go from being a man who Does What He’s Told to a man who Takes Charge.



21 Responses to “Spielberg: Jaws Act I”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    The mayor seemed most monstrous to me in the scene where he actually browbeats people into the water — the beaches are open, people are having fun, they’re just not having fun in the way that’s most traditional for a beach resort.

  2. chrispiers says:

    Wow, brilliant analysis. Thank you, very much.

    I’m especially impressed with the way Spielberg handles condensing exposition, such as in the scene you mention at 7:30 where we see the Amity sign which tells us, the viewer, so much.

    I think one of the interesting things about Jaws, like many of the best monster movies, is how the shark acts as a device to bring out the tension between people. In fact, could you make the argument that Jaws is split into two halves – the first where it’s Brody against society/his fellow man, and the second where he literally battles the shark? Up until he goes out with Quint, the shark doesn’t act in the typical antagonist way. The shark isn’t standing in Brody’s way, the Mayor is.

    • Todd says:

      That is absolutely correct, and Spielberg, as I say, ties the Mayor and the Shark together thematically so that the two movies cohere as one story about one protagonist.

      • chrispiers says:

        I like all the various types of stories you tell on your blog, but your film analysis is absolutely fascinating to me. I wouldn’t necessarily want you to ever become a teacher, because you are too talented to take your time away from writing, but have you ever considered doing a podcast? I honestly think there would be an audience for your film reviews and film analysis.

        • Todd says:

          I’d be happy to do a podcast, just so long as someone came along and asked me to do one — I have not the technical know-how to put together that kind of endeavor on my own.

          • chrispiers says:

            Drat! I would love a show with you and Urbaniak explaining the processes involved in writing and acting.

            I have a weekly podcast that is geared towards “genre” tv. If you ever had 5 or 10 minutes in the later spring/summer, we would love to talk to you about the steps involved in structuring a screenplay. There is less new tv to discuss then, and we thought a lot of our listeners would be intrigued by learning some of the science of creating their own stories.

            http://www.televisionzombies.com if you want to check the quality involved.

            Anyway, I eagerly anticipate Acts II and III. I would also love to read your thoughts on some of Kubrick’s work.

            • Todd says:

              Don’t forget Act IV.

              Kubrick I hope to get to soon.

              • chrispiers says:

                Act FOUR? Oh my, I have something to learn for sure.

                I hate to monopolize comments on your blog, but I would also be curious to hear your reviews, if not analysis, of some “bad” or b-movies some day.

                • chrispiers says:

                  OK, you’ve COMPLETELY hooked me and I’m obsessing slightly on where the “fourth act” would be. My initial guess: once Quint stops helping Brody and takes after the shark with a broken boat.

                  • Todd says:

                    There’s no reason to keep you in suspense. Act III climaxes with Quint’s monologue about the Indianapolis, and Act IV is the rest of the movie. We could say that Act III is “The crew goes after the shark,” and Act IV is “The shark comes after the crew.” Each act is roughly 30 minutes.

                    • Anonymous says:

                      Okay, awesome. I must be learning something.

                      Swear to God, I was thinking about the structure of JAWS last night, and thinking about an analysis of it I did for myself a few years back. I broke it down into a traditional 3 Act structure, which on the face of it seemed to work — but looking at it, it meant that Act III (the sea) was an hour long, and a couple minutes longer than Acts I & II combined. That certainly didn’t seem right, but at the time I kinda shrugged and thought, “well that’s how it is.”

                      So anyway, last night I was thinking about it again and realized that it needn’t be limited to three acts — splitting “the sea” portion into two. But where? And the first phrase that crept into mind was “The hunters become the hunted”. That felt right, but wasn’t sure where exactly the split was. (I thought the monologue was the first time the shark attacked the boat, but I wasn’t sure.) So yeah, this is the first time, I think, where I came up with the same answer independently of you. I’m learning! I’m learning!

                      — Kent M. Beeson

        • Anonymous says:

          I second that request for a podcast! As I’m currently driving 50 minutes twice a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m always on the look-out for a new podcast. This American Life only fills up so much time…

  3. serizawa3000 says:

    Some years ago I was looking at this book about Spielberg’s films in the college library, and there was this little detail pointed out in the scene where Brody was typing up his report: “Coroner” was spelled wrong, so it read “CORNER’S REPORT.” The book suggested that this was not a filmmaker’s mistake, but another hint at Brody’s character. Either he was still in shock about what happened (and not focused enough to correct his typo), or just not a very good typist.

    • Todd says:

      Not only does he misspell “coroner,” he misspells it twice. Personally, I think it was just a typo by whoever was charged with the task of shooting the insert.

  4. jbacardi says:

    (Of course, statistically speaking, the Mayor is correct — shark attacks are absurdly rare and the likelihood of another attack is a statistical impossibility. But that wouldn’t make a very good movie.)

    And, of course, we know (unlike the Mayor) that this is no ordinary shark.

    Damn. Now I want to watch this again…

    • chrispiers says:

      Good point, and actually, it’s based on a true story. I know one book that explains it is CLOSE TO HOME by Michael Capuzzo. In the 40s, a sick Great White came along the Jersey Coast, attacked some swimmers and actually swam upstream into a small swimming hole! It killed a couple people there and managed to find its way back out to the ocean. A pretty horrific story, really.

  5. craigjclark says:

    This film contains one of my favorite ADR lines of all time. It’s during the city council meeting when it’s announced that the beaches will be closed, after which the Mayor immediately says it’s “just for 24 hours.” Over the hubbub you can hear one woman decry, “24 hours to us is like three weeks!” It’s the kind of thing I never noticed until we started playing the movie in the video room at the Tower Records where I used to work. When you can’t really pay attention to the visuals because they’re being shown on tiny monitors hanging from the ceiling, subtle things on the soundtrack can’t help but stand out more.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Ha, I actually noticed that line when I watched it the other day, but I could make out all of what she was saying. That makes sense.

    • Todd says:

      Among the many worthwhile things about the DVD is the sound mix, which is better than it was in the theater. That scene is full of wonderful one-line performances and hearing them really helps raise the stakes because they all add something to the drama.

  6. Nice read and looking forward to Act 2.

    Jaws is one sick beast! Killing “clowns” sure qualifies it as the ultimate movie bad guy. lol

    Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey guys must had cried.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Quotation of Plato

    Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.
    Quotation of Plato