David Mamet, the great American man of letters, once said: “The genius of Jaws is the ability to terrify us with a shot of empty ocean.”
When those yellow barrels pop up, it only adds to the terror, ratchets it up, taking us beyond “simple” storytelling towards multi-faceted layers of myth and mystery, beyond: “What lies beneath?” to: “Oh, my God … it’s there … HE’S THERE!” As much as we fear the unfolding tragedy, the barrels intrigue us, involve us, set us on the edge of our seats, invested in the story like never before.
Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is so memorable, so difficult to wash out of one’s hair, so harsh and brutally scarring, because it is such a splendidly shrill symphony of guilt. How guilty do you feel, watching Jaws, when the yellow kegs surface and you think: “Oh good, more blood! More limbs! More heads! What larks!” A night on the tiles with Janet Leigh. Blood in the water. Lethal swirls. A macabre paradox, as Faulkner (another legendary U.S. man of letters) would have it.
Like most blockbusters (the very first blockbuster?), Spielberg’s still best movie is either very smart or very dumb … and, gloriously, both at the same time. Some would have it, though, that the greatest horror in Jaws is the sports jacket and tie combo worn by “the mayor of shark city” (Murray Hamilton).
This 1975 picture was famously hampered by the often non-compliant, imperfect engine of a mechanical fish (there were three devices, in fact) that meant Spielberg had to find other things to shoot when “Bruce” wasn’t ready, willing or able to make a splash. Which is not to say the yellow flotation barrels were simply an easy way out, to signify the presence of the monster when the monster wouldn’t or couldn’t play.
There has been such and much nonsense said and written about Jaws, numerous books and websites dedicated to this deeply, deeply admired movie, “fans” regurgitating, reheating, retelling and bastardising what might, once, have been “the truth”. The barrels are more than a filling-in-time idea (which reminds me of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, 1949, assistant director Guy Hamilton garbed in Harry Lime’s hat and coat, running through the Vienna sewers, casting a shadow while Orson Welles was … off, being Orson. That’s a bad hat and coat, Harry! Cuckoo).
BARREL ACTION: Shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) insists on fixing a transponder-type-thingy to a barrel as Robert Shaw’s “certifiable!” Quint, the modern-day Ahab (“Don’t you tell me my business!”), prepares to fire a harpoon into the 25-foot, three-tonne Great White Hope. Attached to the harpoon is a line, and attached to the line is the cask, full of air. “Don’t wait for me!” screams Hooper, his voice full of anxious determination. Writ large is Hooper’s head-to-head, science-based conflict with old-school Quint. Beer can versus Styrofoam coffee “cup”.
The other participant in the at-sea, on-boat scenes is, of course, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) – a man of the law. As it says in Isaiah: “He expected justice, but found bloodshed; integrity, but only a cry of distress.” Pounding, hollering … rip you to pieces. Brody is cut adrift, out of his depth, an environment beyond his ken. Israel. Gaza. Show me the way to go home …
BARREL ACTION: Reaching out, groping, probing. Hooper hoping against hope. Snagging the line with a boat hook … palm CUT – OWWW! JESUS H. CHRIST! – by the rope as HE races away. We buy the reality, seduced, thrown so happily flat on our back, ready to die with these guys. Roped in by the “authentic” terminology. The “cleats”. The “transom”. The “pulpit” (Moby Dick, again. Orson, again).
Quint brings the barrels (five in all, as they sail out). Quint brings the boat, “Orca”, and brings the promise of bagging “the head, the tail, the whole damn thing”. Quint brings it all to the table, and asks for money.
BARREL ACTION: “He can’t stay down with three barrels on him. Not with three barrels he can’t …”
The film-makers knew how crucial the shark would be to this venture. Spielberg had behind him Duel (1971), and The Sugarland Express (1974) – no hard evidence he was about to deliver electric, enduring motion picture history (“You wanna see something PERMANENT?”). But Spielberg had the barrels – and he had John Williams.
On the 1975 album Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Jaws (a re-recording of the celebrated score, from MCA Records), there is a 3:04-long track called “One Barrel Chase”. On the expanded 2017 Music From The Motion Picture Jaws (from Mondo, showcasing “the entire score as composed and recorded for the actual film”, also including several previously unused selections), there is “Barrel Off Starboard” (1:41) and “Three Barrels Under” (2:17). Not to mention “The Pier Incident” (2:30), another example of what we see on the surface only hinting at the horrendous doll’s eyes, toothy grin and vice-like bite of the bubbly Beelzebub below.
BARREL ACTION: Williams’ musical notes skim across the water, flirting with the depths, twinkling, then spinning up all at once together, coruscating towards a crescendo, back to the boat and, rhythmically, CUT TO the feet, dicing with danger, dancing with death, sidestepping to the prow, along and aweigh, as Quint prepares to fire his projectile, his box of tricks revealing what looks like a Bond villain’s weapon of choice, more Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee, 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun, directed by the afore-mentioned Guy Hamilton) than Red Grant (Shaw himself, From Russia With Love, 1963. Dir. Terence Young).
The genius of Jaws is the empty ocean, the barrels, the music and, crucially, what is left UNSEEN. And Shaw. All of that and more, much more. AND ROBERT SHAW. No one element dominates as there is a primal symbiosis at play, a collaborative nous that is at the heart and soul and bloody guts of all truly great filmmaking (along with that little bit of luck, of course. And Shaw! Robert Shaw!). The sea air, the salt on your cracked lips, the wind in what’s left of your hair. The SOUNDS of it – the click, click, click, clicking of the ratcheting (that word again) rod’s reel, like an invitation to a symposium of grief. “GET BEHIND ME!” Shaw!
As Williams said in the notes for the Mondo record release: “It’s one of the beauties of the film medium … that combination of sound and image, forming a memory.”
Forming a memory …
The barrels play their part in the denouement, helping keep Hooper and Brody afloat after all else has been lost to the sea, lost to you, you sonofa …
Trivia fans may have noticed a familiar yellow shape doubling as a planter on the front porch in Jaws 2 (1978). But there really has been too much already regurgitated and recycled about Jaws. I, for one, would rather watch the movie again, as life is, honestly, too short – Shaw, remember, was dead at 51. That’s the stinger. Jaws, at 48, is older now than Shaw when he made the movie, globetrotting and dodging the tax man while delivering the classic, unforgettable U.S.S. Indianapolis speech, a scintillating, spectacular, sinisterly sibilant showpiece blessed by a certain solemn seriousness that calls back to Shakespeare, or Greek drama, even.
“Herbie Robinson, from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boatswain’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.”
Bobbed up and down like … a barrel?!
Hooper: “I’m coming around again!”