Thursday, 9 September 2010

Classic Performances: Robert Shaw in Jaws

Jaws has a fairly unique position in cinema history in that it helped create a mythic fear of a creature that endures till this day. Sure, people were aware of the stories of man-eating sharks but for most they were rarely regarded as a direct threat. However, after seeing Jaws, an awful lot of people became hesitant to go back in the water. Steven Spielberg had given us the ultimate movie monster; powerful, relentless, remorseless, and a significant threat to human beings.

I, like most youngsters upon first viewing Jaws, was captivated by it. But unlike many, the shark was never the star for me. I saw Robert Shaw's Quint as the best thing about the film, and I still do till this day.

The character has plenty of critics; Quint is often viewed as too much of a caricature, a character to be parodied. It's true that he was a part of the film that perhaps required a further stretch of the imagination than for the shark itself, but for me he was such a charismatic and menacing character that I was fascinated by him.

Many would suggest that Quint wasn't too much of a stretch for Robert Shaw. His grizzled and temperamental attitude was something that Shaw had made a career out of, playing similar characters to Quint before and after Jaws. But Robert Shaw was a brilliant actor, and demonstrated it in a single speech which, to me, was the most memorable thing about the film;

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We'd just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.

Didn't see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin' by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and sometimes that shark he go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away.

Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn't even seem to be livin'... 'til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin' and your hollerin' those sharks come in and... they rip you to pieces.

You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don't know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin', Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson's mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he'd been bitten in half below the waist.

At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper here, anyway he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol' fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

This speech is rightly viewed as one of the greatest in cinema history. The intensity with which it is delivered is mesmerising and it is one of the academy's great mistakes that Robert Shaw was not even nominated for an Oscar; he should have got one based on the strength of the delivery of this speech alone. It contributed so much to the depth of Quint's character; a complicated, often dangerous man bordering on obsession who has experienced the true horror of his aquatic enemy.

Jaws is fundamentally a horror film; the shark is not too far removed from slashers like Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers, but one of the reasons it rises so far above these genre conventions is the strength of its main characters; Chief Brody's cautious heroism, Hooper's boy-like enthusiasm, and most of all, Quint's maniacal intensity. It will always be one of my greatest film performances.

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