Steven Spielberg’s Jaws 45 Years Later
There are innumerable critical choices involved in the production of a great film, but one of the most apparent (and important) is determining how an important character first appears. It can happen in a flash, or slowly build to a satisfying reveal, but however achieved, much of a movie’s success can hinge on these moments. Heroes, villains, and anyone in between; the first impression is often how we remember them for the rest of our lives, so filmmakers had better make it count. How to Make an Entrance hopes to celebrate some of the greatest film character entrances of all time by attempting to examine and explore why they work so well — and along the way, perhaps introduce readers to some classic cinema.
Quint in Jaws (1975)
Not so much a grand entrance as a grand pronouncement, Quint’s first appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a screeching introduction to a salty eccentric who rubs the wrong way, goes against the grain, and has a score to settle. Indelibly played by the great Robert Shaw, Quint is this shark story’s Ahab, a man obsessed with a past he could not control, and one for which he wants revenge. In addition to bringing much more interesting human conflict into the equation, Quint also supplies an emotional connection to the killer shark that police chief Martin Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper cannot. Though he couldn’t be called the antagonist exactly (there is still a giant Great White out there), Spielberg perfectly understands the grizzled fisherman’s importance to the story, and a scene at Amity Island’s town hall appropriately brings the production to a halt so that the audience will as well.
The weathered hand dragging across the chalk depiction of a comically oversize shark swallowing a helpless victim whole is, of course, the most remembered visual from this scene, and it certainly is effective in immediately conveying Quint’s general attitude towards his prey (and superficial role in the plot). But Spielberg has more in store than simply portraying his veteran seaman as a mere cartoon character.
What he does here is position Quint as an outsider; he lives on the island but isn’t really a part of it. Until his dramatic attack on an innocent doodle, no one has even noticed that he’s there. The natives (or “islanders”) have been squabbling among themselves about petty things like beaches being closed and whether or not their hotels and restaurants will suffer from a lack of tourists, but by silencing them with his ear-piercing scrape, Quint announces himself as a man apart from the local bureaucracy — someone to actually solve the problem instead of endlessly discuss it in a committee.
Spielberg emphasizes Quint’s individualistic nature by having him sit in the back of the room, away from the rest of society. All eyes and bodies turn toward him, staring as if an alien has suddenly walked into the building, and his otherness becomes even more defined while the camera slowly dollies through the crowd, curious to get a better look. He stares right back at them, unconcerned with blending in, comfortable in his contrary position as he munches on some crackers. The staging here immediately conveys that Quint does not belong, and cannot be trusted to act within societal norms; his presence will be an uneasy one.
Because the character won’t return for a little while, Spielberg then makes sure that he is not forgotten. Though Quint starts small in the frame, dwarfed by the room and the people in it, by the end of the shot he looms large over the screen, the only one in the room that matters. His status within the space and the film has grown, and his tone as he delivers his offer becomes more arrogant. “If you want to stay alive, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter.” In less than two minutes the character has gone from being so unimportant that he wasn’t even noticed, to commanding the attention of the most influential citizens in town.
Spielberg wraps up the monologue by foreshadowing the stormy relationship Quint and Brody will eventually have with a couple of push-ins that imply the old captain is speaking directly to the police chief that will inevitably hire him. “I don’t want no volunteers, I don’t want no mates; there are too many captains on this island.” It’s a warning that Quint doesn’t play well with others; he has no place in any community anymore, so best not make him join one.
A friendly smile before exiting eases the tension a bit, and both Amity Island and Jaws carry on as if nothing happened. The audience knows they will see Quint again, however, and most likely under direr circumstances. And they probably can’t wait.
That’s how to make an entrance.