Spielberg: Jaws Act IV

In Act I and Act II of Jaws, Chief Brody struggled with the forces of The System. In Act III, the three men on the Orca struggled amongst themselves. Now, they will struggle against the shark, and only one of them will triumph.

In another post I mentioned that Jeffrey Katzenberg refers to the final act of a movie as “a race to the finish line.” Thus it is with the final half-hour of Jaws. There is no more exposition, no more character development or plot complication — all that has been efficiently cleared away to make way for an act-long action climax, a series of mechanical problems to be solved. This is, of course, where Spielberg excels, where he feels most at home, the poetry of movement and mayhem. In the realm of action, Spielberg is rivaled only by James Cameron and the final act of Jaws is his earliest masterwork.

1:34:45 — The shark attacks the Orca. The boards bend inward and water spurts inside the hull. Our breathing stops because THE WATER IS COMING IN THE BOAT, and Spielberg has done such a masterful job of establishing that THE WATER itself is an object of dread. Seconds later, the shark rams the boat and Brody FALLS INTO THE WATER. It’s only a couple of inches of water, but he reacts as though it’s acid, and so do we, and this is why.

The overhead light spins with the impact. Spielberg would later go on to use “things dangling from the ceiling” as a visual cue, but it’s worth noting that he got mileage out of the same spinning overhead light in Something Evil.

1:35:58 — Brody comes out on deck and loads his gun. A meteor passes through the sky, traversing his eyeline. Pure genius. I remember the first time seeing the movie thinking I was imagining it — exactly like when you see a meteor in the night sky. I know that meteor showers take a prominent place in Spielberg’s life story, but 30-odd years later I still have to sit and wonder at the presence of mind it took to put, at considerable expense I’m guessing, an animated meteor into the background of this shot. Was the shot planned that way, or did Spielberg decide to put the meteor in in post? In any case, in the midst of this already extremely-heightened experience, it takes a special kind of mind to say “Oh, and let’s have a meteor go by in the background — because the scene where the shark decides to attack the boat isn’t interesting enough.”

The shark, of course, at this point is no longer a shark, it’s an actual bad guy, with an actual Bad Guy Plot. The shark, fully confident of its abilities, is going to taunt the men on the Orca, get them to squander their resources, pick them off one by one, and then I guess proceed to eat every person on Amity Island. (It jumps up on theboat — I can easily imagine it leaping up onto the dock, stealing a car and driving to City Hall to eat the Mayor. Or maybe it would let the Mayor go — professional courtesy and all.)

It’s important to keep in mind that Spielberg keeps his protagonist helpless and ineffective to the very end of the narrative. Brody watches and reacts to the very end — his one attempt at action, calling for help, is negated by Quint destroying the radio. Keeping the protagonist helpless winds up our anxiety about his predicament to such a high degree that when Brody finally blows up the shark the release of tension is so great it’s hard not to stand up and cheer.

Quint destroying the radio, of course, is an allusion to Moby-Dick, where Ahab destroys the sextant. In case the Moby-Dick fans in the audience don’t catch the reference, the screenplay calls for Hooper to exclaim, moments later, “Fast fish,” a reference to Moby-Dick‘s “fast fish and loose fish.” (The novel Jaws is even more explicit about Quint’s Ahab-ness — he dies in an almost identical manner.)

1:38:20 — Quint and Hooper have to lean out way over the water to snag the ropes on the barrels. Again our breath stops, as we equate the water itself with danger and unspeakable evil.

1:43:20 — The shark, stuck full of harpoons, pulls the boat backwards through the water. The oxygen tanks almost fall over again, our second reminder of them.

1:45:40 — The “machete beat.” Quint cuts the ropes and sticks the machete in the rail of the boat. This shot perplexed me for decades, until I realized later that Quint grabs the machete to stab at the shark as it’s eating him. Live and learn.

1:47:20 — Now that the shark has decided to wreck the boat, a plan is announced to lead him into shallow waters and drown him. Quint is visibly disappointed by this plan and proceeds to destroy the boat’s motor. Why does he do this? For the same reason he destroys the radio — he wants the boat to sink. He’s expecting to die, we can tell because he starts singing “Ladies of Spain”, his “goodbye” song.

Act IV of Jaws is all about “moments of truth.” Quint has been waiting 30 years to get back in the water with a shark, to see if, through his intense hatred, he can triumph over his nemesis. Hooper has brought along all his equipment to prove that, through his love of sharks, he has gained the scientific knowledge to destroy it.

And so he proceeds to try to do that. There is a short “preparation” montage where we get our third reminder of the oxygen tanks. (I love the shot of Hooper carefully measuring the poison into the syringe — careful, not too much.) Hooper goes into the water to prove his worth and fails miserably.

I love the shot of the interior of the boat, the wood a sliding to one side as the boat tips in the water. It strikes me as typically Spielbergian, an understanding of exactly the shot that will sell the physical reality of whatever the action sequence is trying to get across. A cousin to the screw coming out of the grate in Close Encounters and a hundred others.

The shark jumps into the boat. Quint, I think, would like to fight the shark, but this, it seems, was not his battle plan. He grabs hold of a table, but Hooper’s oxygen tank rolls over his fingers and he lets go. And so we could say that the “new idea” of Hooper’s science has triumphed over the “old idea” of Quint’s hatred. Which seems like a New Testament-Old Testament debate, but probably for a different movie.

Quint gets eaten, and Brody, who has been clumsy, inefficient and hapless throughout the second half of the movie, improvises a solution. He fuses Hooper’s science (the remaining oxygen tank) and Quint’s hatred (the rifle) and blows the damn thing up. Finally, in the last moments of the story, the protagonist Proves His Worth and shows that One Man Can Make A Difference. The tank and the rifle indicate that Brody has gained his triumph by paying attention to the warring warriors who went before him.

(In the book, they simply wear the shark down and it dies inches away from attacking Brody, apparently from exhaustion. Benchley’s protagonist is much more related to Melville’s Ishmael, an innocent bystander who survives through dumb luck — good enough for a book but a severe setback for a movie. I remember the cheers echoing through the theater when seeing it the first time, thinking “well, of course they went for the more spectacular ending, and the crowd seems to like it, so…”)

The shark sinks in a cloud of blood in an almost exact visual echo of the truck falling off the cliff in a cloud of dust in Duel. The visual parallel occurred to Spielberg and he put a modified version of the same sound effect from the truck scene over the shot of the sinking shark.



27 Responses to “Spielberg: Jaws Act IV”
  1. craigjclark says:

    “Take this, you son of a bitch.”

    If Bruce the Shark really does equal the Mayor, then does that make Chief Brody a political assassin?

    Also, I’d be curious to see what you have to say about Piranha, arguably the best of the Jaws knock-offs (in large part because it was directed by Joe Dante and scripted by none other than John Sayles).

    • Todd says:

      Brody’s line is actually “Smile, you son of a bitch.”

      The shark is more than the Mayor, the shark is Harry Freakin’ Truman.

      • craigjclark says:

        Ah, yes. I got it mixed it with James Coburn’s line during the climactic shootout in The President’s Analyst. Another reactive protagonist, Coburn’s professed pacifist is finally compelled to take up arms against the evil corporation that has been working against him the whole time (and which has likewise gone largely unseen until the final act), and so comes out guns a-blazing, declaring, “Take this, you hostile son of a bitch.”

        • Todd says:

          Well, Brody isn’t a passive protagonist per se. He’s an active protagonist, but an ineffective one. He does act throughout the narrative, but none of his actions amount to anything. The shark keeps raising the ante against each one of his actions.

      • greyaenigma says:


        One thing I was surprised to realize during my latest viewing was that the line seems to be “Smile, you son of a [BOOM]”. I don’t mean this as a nitpick, I remembered it with over the decades as the full line, even complaining about other movies cutting it short when they stole the line (which I blamed on prudishness in those lesser films). Maybe the “bitch” is actually there, just obscured by the blast.

        Is it just coincidence you’d done a full Moby Dick analysis so close to Jaws?

        Isn’t there a meteor around the end of the third act as well? That’s the only one I remember seeing. (Granted, my memory is failing.)

        The shark, of course, at this point is no longer a shark, it’s an actual bad guy, with an actual Bad Guy Plot. The shark, fully confident of its abilities, is going to taunt the men on the Orca, get them to squander their resources, pick them off one by one, and then I guess proceed to eat every person on Amity Island. (It jumps up on the boat — I can easily imagine it leaping up onto the dock, stealing a car and driving to City Hall to eat the Mayor. Or maybe it would let the Mayor go — professional courtesy and all.)

        I say again, you’ve got to see Orca. Especially if you’re on a crazy seafaring revenge kick. Even if you don’t like it — Bo Derek!

        • Todd says:

          Re: Smile!

          The DVD places the meteor at the end of Act III, I place it at the beginning of Act IV. The DVD says the act ends when night dissolves into daytime, I say it ends when the shark interrupts their song.

      • Damn right, it’s “Smile, you son of a bitch!”

        That growl is the best on-screen snarl of revenge in all of cinema.

        Hats off to Roy Scheider.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I hadn’t thought of the connection wherein Brody fuses Hooper and Quint’s methods. I really admire that.

  3. serizawa3000 says:

    Some weird little thing that sticks in my memory pertains to how Quint tells Brody to pump out the water that’s getting into the Orca… but Brody doesn’t comply, and for some reason this made me ponder whether the Orca might have gone down closer to shore if Brody had pumped the water out… somehow it slipped my mind that Quint was deliberately trying to wreck the Orca’s engine. I mean, I got “I’ll never put on a life jacket again” but… and of course, he gives life jackets to Brody and Hooper, but doesn’t take one himself.

    That book about Spielberg films I read that pointed out the misspelling of “coroner” also pointed out that because the Orca was pointed toward home, the audience gets some hope that things will turn out okay. There was also something about subliminal stuff (ghostly images of shark fins) inserted in the frame when Quint gets eaten.

    (It jumps up on the boat — I can easily imagine it leaping up onto the dock, stealing a car and driving to City Hall to eat the Mayor. Or maybe it would let the Mayor go — professional courtesy and all.)

    This must have what been going through the minds of the people at SNL when they did their “landshark” skits…

  4. jbacardi says:

    Quint’s machete also brings to mind another Moby Dick reference- the line “from hell’s heart I stab at thee”.

    I feel like I’m in the Q&A section after a college lecture…

  5. planettom says:

    I always get a chill when the bell on the Orca starts ringing as the boat is pulled into the water.

    Which also reminds me of the scene at the end of DELIVERANCE where the taxi has to stop because a church is being moved on a truck, and the church bell in the steeple starts ringing, sounding the death knell of the town, soon to vanish beneath the lake that will form due to the dam.

  6. I just want to comment that your blog has become my favorite thing, and I can’t believe how much content you’ve been churning out. I’m eager for your commentary on Close Encounters.

  7. strangemuses says:

    Aren’t there two meteors in Jaws, one real, one added in later? I seem to recall that the meteor you mentioned above was real, and they just happened to capture it on film when they were filming the scene with Brody.

    • Todd says:

      According to this, one of them was a real meteor. I find this difficult to believe in the extreme. First, I find it hard to believe that a meteor would show up on film, especially as they were shooting day for night, second I find it difficult to believe that the meteor would just happen to pass directly through Brody’s eyeline for a perfect composition.

      I find it much more likely that Spielberg, already thinking about Close Encounters, said “You know what would be cool…?”

  8. Anonymous says:

    There is a short “preparation” montage where we get our third reminder of the oxygen tanks.

    This part has one of my favorite shots of all-time. IIRC, the three men are discussing whether to use Hooper’s equipment, and the shots go from, something like, Quint to Hooper and then ending on a close shot of Brody — the order and compositions of the shots make it look like they’re waiting to hear what Brody has to say, but then the bars of Hooper’s cage come into the frame, and we suddenly realize we’ve jumped ahead a little bit in time. Man, I friggin’ love this movie.

    — Kent M. Beeson

    • Todd says:

      The editing in that scene, and Spielberg’s visual scheme, underscores Brody’s essential lack of authority. You think they’re turning to him for an answer, but the director reveals that he’s just there to, literally, hold up a wall.