[This post is part of “The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made,” co-sponsored by Tales of the Easily Distracted and ClassicBecky’s Brain Food, both excellent sites and highly recommended: they offer perspectives refreshing to my sometimes cynical eyes.
If you’re in search of massive amounts of imagery from and related to Jaws, and much, much more, feel free to visit the image bank at The United Provinces of Ivanlandia.]
“[T]he killer shark in Jaws can signify anything from repressed sexuality to unbridled capitalism and the threat of a Third World to America… The way out of this deadlock is not via deciding which of the multiple meanings is ‘true’… what one should do is rather to conceive the monster as a kind of fantasy screen where this very multiplicity of meanings can appear and fight for hegemony.”
—From Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in
It’s as perfect as the shark it describes and chases; Jaws is almost as good as 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three—
I freely admit it, I love 1975’s Jaws—heck, I’ve loved it since I first saw it that summer at the Kings Plaza Twin!—I was there first, man!
So rather than rehash old ground about a classic flick that everybody has seen and loves—
“What if Alfred Hitchcock directed Jaws?”
This comes about because Steven Spielberg has been name-checking Hitchcock as an influence on the direction of Jaws since the very beginning—
but Alfred Hitchcock was still alive and working even as he was being turned into “history.”
What if Hitch got the gig instead of Steve?
How would the film be different? How would it be similar? What surprises does The Master of Suspense have up his sleeves? What patterns can we trace, what guesses can we make?
Let’s start speculating!
Editorial/Intro/How Hitch Got Hired
That said, some background, possibly revisionist, is necessary:
Now considered the quintessential—heh, heh—July 4th movie, the 1975 film Jaws has been analyzed and praised to high heaven, despite generally mediocre reviews at first.
The film’s production has become legendary, subject to many documentaries—much has been made of the mechanical and weather problems, last minute rewriting, and so on.
Jaws certainly forever changed
and how movies got made—and not necessarily for the better, I feel. Hollywood
But I notice that Spielberg’s ascension is always presented as a fait accompli, that everybody knew he was a boy genius, blah-blah-blah….
Not that he hasn’t taken the ball and run with it, but lets’ face it: He’s a hired hand who got lucky, really lucky.
Sure, there’s great action in Duel and The Sugarland Express, but that first film was from a script by suspense grandmaster and genre vet Richard Matheson, and the second was produced as a vanity project for Goldie Hawn’s return to the screen after she’d won the Oscar.
Jaws was greenlit because it was perceived as a continuation/variation on the popular Disaster Movie cycle of the early-1970s—with a bit of conspiracy theory zeitgeist (ripped off from Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) thrown in for good measure.
And Uncle Steve wasn’t the first choice as director, either—
More than a “Steve Spielberg Film,” Jaws was a Zanuck/Brown Production—just like Sugarland Express—
and the producing team first wanted action vet John Sturges as director, then settled on
Dick Richards (director of 1977’s March or Die), who was then given the boot over creative differences.
As history would have it, L’il Stevie was in Zanuck’s office around the time of the firing, saw the galleys for Benchley’s novel there, and begged for the job.
The rest is…you know.
But now let’s “What If?”
Suppose Zanuck & Brown have fired Richards (because he kept referring to the shark as a whale), and they call up MCA-Universal honcho Lew Wasserman and his hatchet man Sidney Sheinberg (later of the “Terry Gilliam vs. Brazil Re-edit” infamy) to give them the news.
Sheinberg is also considered the guy who “discovered” Spielberg as the kid was hanging/sneaking around the Universal lot, even setting up shop in an empty office (isn’t that a little creepy? Reminds me of that Asperger’s dude who keeps “stealing” subway trains…).
Now, consider this: what if Sheinberg has other plans for his discovery—this shark flick is a Zanuck/Brown production! Not a Sidney Sheinberg Production!
Sheinberg’s seen the rushes for The Sugarland Express, and while the flick is tiresome nonsense, the action sequences and car crashes look great.
Let’s say Sheinberg wants to hang up his own shingle, start producing movies on his own.
And he has plans for Steven; the producer wants “his discovery” to direct the movie that will put both of them on the map. Something… spectacular—and upbeat!
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Universal Studios lot, Sir Alfred Hitchcock is working on pre-production for Family Plot, his 53rd and ultimately last film, released in 1976.
So, on the conference call with Wasserman, Zanuck and Brown, sly Sid says, “Hitchcock is prepping a comedy-thriller for us right now; why don’t we offer Jaws to him? Hitchcock knows something about suspense….”
Hey, who wouldn’t want Hitchcock to direct their hungry shark movie? Zanuck/Brown are on-board.
Later, the four men take four separate golf carts across the lot, to visit King Fear…
Why Hitch wants the job—
There are six immediate reasons Hitchcock wants the job:
Mario Bava, Dario Argento, William Castle, George Romero, Wes Craven and Brian De Palma.
And if not them, then others—
You can’t tell me AH wasn’t aware of the competition!
Hitch knows that these directors are out there, ripping him off, trying to beat him at his own game, and he seethes.
Which means Big Al is ready to up his game, make the scariest damn film ever.
Hitch’s themes: icy blondes and an amoral town’s supernatural punishment…
And so, "What if Alfred Hitchcock Directed Jaws?"
Sir Alfred has just started the publicity machine, and goes to
Catalina Island to film inserts for a
special trailer, akin to his director-centric ads for Psycho and The Birds.
he intones in the coming attraction, “a delightful little vacation spot to get
away from the crime and grime of the city. Oh look, here comes Christine
Watkins. This vacation she hopes to meet someone large and fearless…” Amity
There are plenty of opportunities for new “Janet Leighs” in Jaws, and Hitch is making the first victim the center of this trailer.
In addition to hiring Mimsy Farmer because of her “cool, but neurotic blonde” look, AH was aware of her stardom in Euro-horror and juvenile delinquent flicks, like Riot on Sunset Strip.
The ad shows Chrissie enjoying her day: shopping for a new bikini, rubbing suntan lotion on herself, flirting with a boy at the ice cream stand, then suggestively licking the cone, getting invited to a clam bake, teens dancing at the clam bake (a la an AIP “Beach” movie), and so on.
Hitch would appear as an ice cream salesman, a hot dog vendor, a lifeguard and as a fisherman on the pier with a pole (that gets yanked out of his hand)—always in his black suit.
“That night, Chrissie thought she’d cool off with a little dip… Poor gull didn’t know about nocturnal aquatic predators…”
Quick shots of Chrissie swimming, screaming, disappearing beneath the waves.
Jaws (1975; Universal; 130 min.)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, and Richard Zanuck & David Brown
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Walter Hill (John Michael Hayes & Alfred Hitchcock, uncredited)
Based on the novel by Peter Benchley
Edited by John Jympson
Cinematography by Philip Lathrop
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Production designer: Robert F. Boyle
Art direction: Henry Bumstead
Special visual effects: Albert Whitlock (mattes); Douglas Trumbull (aquatic and hallucination opticals); Bill Taylor (matte photography)
Jim Danforth (stop-motion animation), uncredited
Special mechanical effects: Robert Mattey
Special make-up effects (and shark “skin”): Dick Smith
Special visual consultant and opening titles: Saul Bass
Shark photography: Ron & Valerie Taylor
Quint: Lee Marvin
Brody: William Devane
Hooper: Jan-Michael Vincent
Mrs. Brody: Yvette Mimeaux
Chrissie: Mimsy Farmer
Mrs. Kintner: Martha Hyer
The Mayor: Bruce Dern
Councilwoman: Olivia de Havilland
Ben Gardner: Woody Strode
The Coroner: Strother Martin
The Newspaper Editor: Woodrow Parfrey
The Deputy: Richard Bright
Alex Kintner: Jack Wild
Mob Associates: Jesse Vint, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Spinell and Kip Niven
Ernest Borgnine as Mr. Andrews
(Janet Leigh and Suzanne Pleschette, uncredited as floozies in Quint’s booth at the bar)
Former hippie Chrissie Watkins has returned to Amity after her divorce trying to find peace, but the place has become a garish “hot spot” for partying vacationers.
Disturbed by the commercialism (the library is now a discothèque) and heavy gangster presence, Chrissie visits some friends at a clam-bake.
She smokes some grass, tells the boy she’s with she’s feeling much better. The two make out, then he offers her some LSD (he’s come back from a rock concert and been tripping and drinking all day).
Later, feeling groovy, Chrissie and the townie head for the beach, but very stoned, he falls and conks out on the path.
Laughing, Chrissie disrobes and splashes into the bay.
Then tripping out under the stars, the unfortunate woman is attacked, then thrashed by some hideous, infernal shape—she’s dragged under, screaming for Jesus to save her.
Then Saul Bass’ title sequence begins…
[Filmed completely from her POV once she’s out by the buoy,
with effects by Albert Whitlock and Douglas Trumbull, supervised and storyboarded by Saul Bass,
Chrissie’s death is a classic of “nightmare psychedelia.”
The Al Whitlock clouds in the sky almost have a H.P. Lovecraft vibe to them, and
using multiple passes in his hand-made optical printer, “solarized” the footage
to AH’s exacting standards. Trumbull
(Whitlock and Trumbull had previously met and liked working together on Robert Wise’s 1971 science fiction classic The Andromeda Strain—also for Universal; both men would have substantial ties to the studio: Whitlock was the head of their effects unit, and Trumbull’s 1972 directorial debut, Silent Running, was also for the company.)
Shot in a specially widened pool on the lot, Chrissie’s death scene only required actress Mimsy Farmer for a few days, but the effects unit took six weeks to get the right perspectives of the victim being torn apart—seeing themselves be eaten—by Dick Smith’s hyper-realistic shark head,
Smith has been hired because, after years of anonymity, his work on The Exorcist has made him hot. Smith works mainly with the machine shop in water-proofing and applying the “skin” to the beast—as well as providing body parts, and realistically articulated mannequins.
It was in pre-production brainstorming that AH came up with staying with the victim’s POV.
“If the audience doesn’t all run out, we’ve got them.”
But he knew it has to be stylized in some way, and called up frequent collaborator Saul Bass to lend a hand.
Regarding Saul Bass’ titles: the letters gliding over cool blue underwater footage, as well as high contrast photos of shark victims, newspaper headlines and historical documents—a Ye Olde Map with the legend, “Here Be Monsters”—and so on. The letters of the titles intersect, reveal the name, then separate—making the words look like they are being elegantly placed and sliced.
Hitch would bury the hatchet in his feud with his favorite composer Bernard Herrmann, and add the prickly musician to the team.
Herrmann winds up outdoing his Psycho theme with the Jaws theme, “inspired by a steam engine’s slow and steady start-up at Victoria Station,” said the composer in a BBC interview two days before his fatal heart attack on December 24, 1975.
Sheriff Brody wants to close the beaches, but the Mayor won’t let him—not especially when very shady businessman Mr. Andrews is due at any time to make sure The Fourth of July runs smoothly. “He’s protecting his investments! People come here because of the beaches, and we get more of their money in the town.”
The Mayor and Newspaper Editor browbeat Brody and the Coroner into changing their stories. To sweeten the deal, the Mayor gives Brody two tickets to the show at the casino that night.
On patrol that afternoon, a Coast Guard helicopter first flies over a boat pulling a very talented, sexy blonde water-skier, who does several tricks, and waves at the helicopter.
Flying on, the helicopter spots an empty small sailboat, drifting just off Amity point.
Further out, local fisherman Quint is taking a charter cruise to catch big tuna, when the fish is bitten in half, sending the fisherman ass-over-teakettle, and the tuna’s big head flying into the boat.
The helicopter passes over Quint; he glares at it.
On their way back to base, the helicopter sees the water-ski boat stopped in the water, with neither the pilot nor skier in sight.
That night the Brodys take in the casino’s show: pre-teen pop star Alex Kintner (HR Pufnstuf’s Jack Wild) performs, concluding his set with “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.”
During dinner, Mrs. Brody, played by sexy blonde Yvette Mimeaux, says she’s dissatisfied with life in the sticks; she misses the excitement of the city. And Amity isn’t anything like the snootier area where she grew up. She finds the town vulgar.
That night, Brody tries to make love to Ellen, but she won’t let him.
The next day, Alex Kintner, star of stage and screen is bitten in half while on an inflatable raft!
The singer’s legs spiraling down into the murky ocean-bottom sand…
The shark also nabs an old man, knocking him out of his rowboat, on the way out of the bay…
Mrs. Kintner (in her last role before retiring from acting, a MILF-alicious Martha Hyer doing a full-on Oscar-bait hysterics number) puts a bounty on the shark, and a human frenzy results.
Oceanographer/shark expert Matt Hooper shows up to help. He’s familiar with the area, he grew up in the same snooty area Ellen is from—in fact, she and his older brother used to go out.
The town council meeting falls apart until Mr. Andrews shows up: “The beaches stay open! Now go kill that shark!”
That night, some of Mr. Andrews’ goons show up at Brody’s house and kill his kids’ cat (snapping its neck) in front of him as a warning to shut up about the shark.
The sheriff then takes the dead cat and swings it right into the Mayor’s face!
[Brought over from the now-postponed Family Plot are actors William Devane and Bruce Dern, who adapt quickly to their respective roles as Sheriff Brody and The Mayor. Dern received particular praise for the scene where he breaks down in the hospital after the estuary attack: “MY KIDS…were on that beach, too…Marty.”
Oh yeah, with AH in the driver’s seat, and the flick being made in Hollywood, Lee Marvin signs back on (remember, Spielberg tried to get him, but Marvin blew off Martha’s Vineyard to do some “real fishing”).
The art department mixes and matches parts of the redressed backlot, parts of San Pedro, Catalina Island and
to create a Northeastern fishing town that’s inbred and sleazy: neon and
rain-splashed streets, the stench of dead fish and shipwrecked dreams can be
felt through the screen. Venice Beach
Best of all, AH doesn’t have to leave
Southern California! The second unit will take care of much
of the oceanic footage, and shark documentarians Ron & Valerie Harper are
hired to amass as much great white shark footage as they can. They shoot off
South Africa (to catch the area’s legendary leaping sharks in action), and then
off Australia, where they take several articulated dummies of varying sizes
that Dick Smith has built for real sharks to attack.
Sexy, pre-tragic Jan-Michael Vincent is cast as oceanographer Matt Hooper. Back in the day, JMV could really thesp if he tried, and Hitch will make him. Besides, most of Hooper’s scenes are either on the boat, fooling around with Mrs. Brody, or in the cage underwater.
That’s right; Hitch is hewing close to the source material in regards to the sordid and immoral
maybe even expanding it. Amity Island
The almost sexless film that now dominates over its source material comes from a book that had been very, very popular not because of any quality of writing, but because of the sex scenes—
I bet you forgot that Mrs. Brody and Matt Hooper bump uglies in scenes right out of Penthouse Letters, and that’s after he’s already finger-fucked her on the ride to the seedy motel.
To adapt the book, first Hitchcock brings over Family Plot’s screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who manages to wrestle a 200-page screenplay from the potboiler page-turner before succumbing to writer’s block (which had stricken him during the writing of North By Northwest) and an admitted lack of empathy for the characters.
John Michael Hayes, another former scriptwriter for AH, is brought in: Hayes has had much success turning “best sellers” into successful movies, and he does manage to make the material more manageable.
But it isn’t until Walter Hill takes a stab at Jaws that the script finally “gels.”
At that time Hill was winding down his career as screenwriter-for-hire and segueing into his phase as a film director, but what if Universal held up a huge bag of money? And while it’s not Kurosawa or Hawks, Hill might not have turned down the opportunity to work with the Master of Suspense, either.
Continuing on this thread, I’d also like to think that Hill would use his sparse, haiku-like style (famous from his rewrite on Alien) with the Jaws script—and that Hitch would like it; its sterility dovetails nicely into his precision and attention to detail: the physical elements of the scene, camera, props, etc., are all covered by his storyboards: Hitchcock finds Hill’s style comfortable precisely because of its lack of detail.
“No sense in confusing the cattle with unimportant deee-tails,” murmurs the director.
For cinematography, Universal offers Phil Lathrop, who is confident about this assignment: he shot the massive and complicated Earthquake for the studio, worked with Lee Marvin in 1968 on John Boorman’s Point Blank, and just finished shooting The Killer Elite for that lunatic Sam Peckinpah—Lathrop is ready for anything, but working with the meticulous Hitchcock will be a nice change of pace.
AH asks for, and gets John Jympson as editor: He’d worked on Hitch’s Frenzy in 1972, and is an action flick vet, with Zulu and others under his belt.
After a tiger shark is brought in, everyone breaths a sigh of relief, except for the Sheriff—who gets bitch-slapped by Mrs. Kintner—and Hooper, Quint and Ben Gardner, none of whom believe this is the killer fish. Ben says he will set sail again at dusk to find the critter.
Later, Hooper visits Brody (the oceanographer and Mrs. Brody recognize each other, and then a sense of profound lust develops between them).
Hooper and Brody autopsy the tiger shark, and finding nothing, they go out on Hooper’s boat to do some night searching.
They find Ben Gardner’s boat instead, all torn to hell, and in the wreckage is poor Ben’s severed head…
The next day, while Brody is arguing with the Mayor and Mr. Andrews, Hooper and Mrs. Brody sneak off to the motel.
During sex, she keeps telling Hooper to “Bite me, bite me!”
The Fourth of July arrives, and two kids with a fake fin cause a stampede and a riot, with many people trampled.
Shark swims into estuary and chews up a bunch of people—it’s not even really eating, it’s just being mean—and scares Brody’s son into shock.
The shark then stalks Hooper in his speedboat, playing chicken and bumping the boat until Hooper must beach the craft to escape the monster.
After confronting the Mayor at the hospital, Brody goes to the bar to hire Quint.
The bartender, whose wife works at the motel, makes an offhand comment to Brody about “when the cat’s away, mice will play…” and after that, he doesn’t trust Hooper as much.
[To hell with filming on the ocean, Hitchcock is no Hemingway-wannabe: the second unit has been given extensive notes to go from, with stuntman doubles for the trio of fishermen performing various actions. Aside from a few shots off Catalina, the Orca scenes will be shot at Universal’s hyper-enlarged studio pool under very controlled circumstances. Because of his precision and attention to detail, Hitch has a smooth ride during this part of the production.]
On the fog-shrouded seas, Quint, Brody and Hooper stalk the huge carnivore, but even after harpooning it with three barrels, it seems like the damned fish is toying with them.
Hooper gets them to let him try using his shark-cage to get close enough to use a bang-stick to kill the monster.
[Hitch, Hill & Co. have scripted it so the ocean is foggy—otherwise, why doesn’t the Coast Guard go out with some radar and depth charges and blow this monstro-fish into little pieces?
One day on the set, Zanuck/Brown come up with the idea that maybe Quint should have some “back story,” some reason for hating sharks. They approach Hitch, who’s in conversation with Marvin at the time, and broach their idea.
The director looks at the producers for a very long time, and then asks, “Why?”
Marvin bursts out laughing, and the producers leave.
Wiping the laugh-tears from his eyes, Marvin says to AH, “Next they’ll want to know the shark’s ‘motivation’!”]
Underwater, the shark glides by Hooper’s cage several times slowly, and the oceanographer tries to take some photos of the great creature—but exactly when Hooper’s distracted by the equipment, Mr. Shark attacks with maximum fury—busting open the cage and biting him in half.
But that’s what you get for making the beast with two backs with the sheriff’s wife in this morality tale.
via that South African leaping shark footage, as well as some Jim Danforth-animated, almost-subliminal effects (Danforth is a pal of Whitlock’s)—
it devours Quint.
Crashing into the wheelhouse, the monster gets stuck, and Brody takes the pump-action shotgun he’s brought along and empties it into the angry, roaring beast’s head until it stops thrashing.
The shark is dead, its black eye glaring malevolently at Brody.
The sheriff heaves a sigh of relief—only to see the ocean filled with about a dozen other dorsal fins.
The new sharks start feeding on the Great White’s carcass, and make a general mess.
Brody scrambles up to the crow’s nest, but the boat’s sinking and sinking, and the sharks are in a frenzy and it looks like Brody’s out of the fryer and into the fire, but here comes the Coast Guard helicopter, closer and closer—but so are the sharks….
The helicopter is getting closer, Brody’s reaching out, the sharks’ snapping is much louder, when smash-cut to BLACK—
After a heartbreaking moment, the image fades up on the Coast Guard helicopter landing on the Amity beach, disgorging a bruised and battered Brody.
Mrs. Brody is there, chastened, but glad to see him. They embrace.
Fade to black.
As the pinball machine repair man in the arcade on the Four of July. This was AH’s sly acknowledgement that this movie was like fixing a game—and an old one at that. But that the threat to his age and venerated status that these damn children represented was a game he could play at, too—even better: he’s the man who made the machine.
Critics leapt on this, and celebrated the director’s return to “playful evil,” of making the audience squirm and squirm again.
Hitchcock’s name sells tickets, and it doesn’t hurt that this is an action-packed, blood-drenched, very frightening thriller: Jaws is a hit, critically and financially, satisfying everyone. It recoups its $11m cost in two months, and 25 months after its initial release breaks the $100m mark. It becomes AH’s most successful motion picture.
The success of Jaws enables Hitchcock to make another picture, The Short Night. But that’s another story…
All that said, I’m assuming the Mad Magazine version of this flick would be
“Alfred Hatchplot’s Jaw’d.”
This essay/phantasies/midsummer’s night fever-dream may be badmouthing Uncle Steve quite a bit, but he’s big enough to take it, don’t you think?
As I mentioned earlier, from the get-go, in an attempt to appear sincere and respectful, Steven Spielberg has been name-checking Alfred Hitchcock as an influence for his direction of Jaws.
Which is swell, but I can’t forget an interview with Orson Welles that I read ages ago.
In it, Welles describes getting an appointment with the then newly-crowned King of Hollywood, and how when they met, Welles’ attempts at pitching new projects were routinely turned around to Spielberg’s quizzing the multi-hyphenated auteur about old films. Welles felt as if he’d been used like some sort of old library.
Some more background info/gossip about SS:
From My Life as a Mankiewicz by Tom Mankiewicz—
Mankiewicz, screenwriter for such H’wood-UK blockbuster fare as Live and Let Die, Superman and The Eagle Has Landed (along with the cultish Mother, Jugs & Speed) was hired to do some uncredited rewrites and pump up/polish the script for The Deep, released in 1977—also based on a Peter Benchley novel.
During the shoot, Mankiewicz got to know actor Robert Shaw, who was also a playwright of some renown—and after seeing a couple of films based on his scripts, I am now totally in the camp that suggests Shaw heavily rewrote the infamous Quint speech.
Shaw was enjoying a career renaissance due to his perf as Quint in Jaws, and one day, Mankiewicz asked the actor about working with Spielberg.
Shaw responded: “Young Steven has exquisite taste…. He is a wonderful director. But he has one problem: a rather plain-looking fellow, and they're already sending private jets for him and he's going out with actresses. Steven will never be able to make a film about a man and a woman. Ever. He'll never know what it's like to sing under a lady's balcony.”
And there it is in a nutshell.
Hitch had his well-documented preferences for the “Cool, Icy Blonde,” and this reminds me that I have no idea of what kind of woman Spielberg is attracted to, even in a psychosexual way.
No, not all directors lay out their Freudian cards in their films, but better ones tend to have themes and philosophies they expound upon.
Or else they routinely feature hot chicks.
Think about it: when does Uncle Steve ever populate his films with genuinely hot women?
And when he does, they’re going to be either neutered moms (Laura Dern and Dee Wallace Stone), action tomboys (Karen Allen) or screeching horrors (Kate Capshaw).
More often, it seems that Uncle Steve really enjoys putting children—especially prepubescent quasi-androgynous ones, often blonde—in mortal danger.
But he’ll never kill them, not since Jaws—children will be put through hell, tortured unmercifully, but never killed—even when it defies logic, common sense and good storytelling.
Isn’t that just too sweet?
And all the little boys in his movies, especially the ones played by grown men? There’s an unhealthy psychic vibe present, one that I can only consider to be either Michael Jackson-esque or Woody Allen-like going on here. And this disturbs me.
NEXT TIME on “What If?”:,
“What If Robert Aldrich Directed Alien?”