To grab an audience you have to start well, all the great films pull the audience in, you could argue that you need to grab them in the first 5 minutes or people may lose interest. Like writing, if I waffle on too long you won’t read the rest so without further blathering, here is my personal TOP 10 opening scenes in Steven Spielberg directed movies.
10. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
Spielberg’s first foray into the world of motion capture is occasionally forgotten when discussions around Spielberg’s most dynamic films arise. Unfairly labelled by some as an animated Indiana Jones film, The Adventures of Tintin packs enough of an individual punch with scenes of audacity bravado as to clearly stand on it’s own two feet. None more so then this cracking opening tracking shot as the camera follows the mischievous Aristidis Silk through an outdoor market. Shot largely from the ground up the camera stops on a street artist painting a portrait of a young man who’s back is to us. On completion the Artist shows his finished article, it’s Tintin as familiarised in Herge’s collection of stories. It’s the first of a number of lovely moments in a vastly underrated film.
9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
“Are we the first?…Are we the first to arrive?” Yes, I annoyingly shout this whenever I go to a friends or family members house for dinner etc, in my head it never gets old, however some of the invites have dried up over the years.
The opening scene of Close Encounters is packed full of mystery and red herrings (see the headlights come out of the dust) and sets the scene perfectly for the wonders that are to come. Subtle and made with practical effects, it hooks the audience straight into the story. Where did these planes come from? Why does the old man claim the sun came out at night and sang to him? Great stuff.
8. Always (1989)
A very brief moment here in one of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but it is a moment of perfectly dexterous showmanship. Two sleepy fisherman whiling the hours away when in the background, entering the shot from above a seaplane making an unexpected landing. The plane disturbs the fishermen from their slumber but it’s breaking system doesn’t seem to be helping much. The camera stays transfixed as the plane stealthily approaches the stricken boat with its panicked occupants and just as the we the audience grip the corners of our seats as the Fishing boat is about to be made into two the plane lifts off, tickling the tops of the heads of the fishermen, who duly make a swift exit into the lake. You can watch the whole wondrous 55 seconds here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upPHSDqj5x0
7. Munich (2005)
Changing tone completely now, we have one of Spielberg’s most controversial films, Munich. Starting with opening titles that tell us “the following is based on real events” we are greeted by a group of men trying to scale a fence outside the Munich Olympic village. They are given a helping hand by a group of unwitting American athletes, all the while John Williams, tense heart beat of a score pounds away in the background and Janusz Kaminski’s bleak cinematography creates an atmosphere of incredible unease. We are then thrown into the middle of the terrorism plot as we watch them change clothes, load up their weapons and move to their targets apartments. It is nerve shredding tension that never lets up in the two and half hour running time that is perhaps Spielberg’s best kept secret.
6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Who doesn’t love a good origin story? Who loves them even more when they last no more than 10 minutes? Indiana Jones’s third adventure is just a fantastic film, it really is, it’s packed full of laughs, family bonding and adventure. None more so than this opening salvo that returns Indy to his childhood as a Boy Scout. The casting of Sean Connery is often talked about as a stroke of genius by Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas but do not underestimate the casting of the late River Phoenix as a younger version of Harrison Ford. His screen time may be very short but that introduction of the character, including the origins of his fear of snakes and the famous scar on his chin is beautifully put together.
I could have quite easily included all four Indiana Jones films opening scenes in this top 10 as they all start with a bang in one way or another, but I plumped for Last Crusade (and spoiler alert one other) because it gives Indy a little bit of backstory, and 10 minutes in we are already grinning from ear to ear.
5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
I know what you are thinking, FIFTH???? Well, it’s only so low because strictly speaking it’s not the opening scene, which of course is the old man (who I won’t name in case hasn’t seen it yet) visiting the war cemetery.
Taking 25 days to shoot with over 1000 extras the Omaha Beach landing is the most visceral attack on the senses. With no accompanying score the audience are asked to dodge the bullets and mortars and they come whistling across the soundwaves as we catch glimpses of limbs being blown off, men being incinerated, men being mowed down by relentless machine guns. We want to look away, we want it to be over but we don’t.
Personally the for me, Spielberg’s greatest achievement with this scene is making the audience realise that these were not trained killers, they were ordinary men sent into an extraordinary/hellish world to try to defend their freedom. That first 25 minute is one hell of a History lesson and one that should never be dismissed as just entertainment.
4. Jaws (1975)
Dur-dum………Dur-dum……..Dur-dum. Ok if you’ve never seen Jaws, then why are you reading this blog? No only kidding, but if you’ve never seen Jaws you have been stood next to a body of water, where somebody, usually your dad has made the Dur-dum sound, and you know what that means, that your dad is implying there is a man eating shark in that water. It’s universal, it’s know globally, that’s the brilliance of it.
Now on the face of it, who wouldn’t take Chrissie up on her offer for a touch of skinny dipping, fortunately for Tom Cassidy, too many sherbet lemons meant that he missed out on a night time sea based frolic and Bruce therefore had to waltz in the waves with Chrissie alone, albeit a tad aggressively.
A lot of the success of Jaws was down to onset mechanical failures, proving once and for all that the things you can’t see are far scarier than those that you can, and this opening scene continues to terrify to this very day. A real stomper.
3. Bridge of Spies (2015)
I make no secret of my love of Bridge of Spies, I think it is a piece of immaculate film making that demonstrates that classical methods can still be effective. In an almost dialogue free game of cat and mouse the opening 10 minutes of Bridge of Spies, is a lesson in meticulousness and attention to detail that can be sadly lacking in the current age of quick cut superhero dominated cinema.
There is a quiet assurance on display here, a calmness to Mark Rylance that embodies his performance throughout. It’s one of Spielberg’s quieter opening scenes but it’s massively effective, who is the man? Why are they after him? It’s a quite wonderful opening to a wonderful film.
2. Minority Report (2002)
How do you explain a rather tricky concept to an audience without overdoing the exposition? Simple, show the entire process from start to finish in one nail biting, ass kicking 12 minute opening salvo. It worth pointing out that as slick as Spielberg is here, this is another Janusz Kaminski masterpiece. The saturated grey and blue tinge adds to the cold atmosphere of a man going through the personal turmoil of watching his life unravel as his adulterous wife is locked in the arms of her suave lover. Meanwhile, Det Anderson (Tom Cruise) pieces together the future crime, almost in balletic fashion as Schubert’s No8 Unfinished Symphony plays dauntingly over the action.
As the time ticks by we know already they are against the clock to prevent the crime, we are totally engaged from the get go. The arrival at the street the Mark’s live on a moment of pure beauty as the pre-crime officers descend on zip-wires onto the lush, green, parkland. The slight delay whilst Anderton confirms that Howard left the door open all add to the palatable tension.
It truly is a most wonderfully choreographed scene, it’s Spielberg at his most playful.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Quite possibly the greatest opening of any film, never mind a Spielberg film. It’s quite difficult to imagine now, but coming off the back of the disappointing 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark was considered a huge gamble by the studios involved. The Wonderkid had come unstuck with the commercial and critical failure of 1941. In order to start to rebuild his reputation, Spielberg has claimed that he has never been so prepared to make a film as he was for Raiders. Every scene had a storyboard, every minute detail was planned in advance, this film had to come in on budget and on schedule. He achieved both, with scene after scene of perfect action and adventure.
The opening scene has got everything, thrill, spills, gore even humour, note Indy’s face when he grabs the branch to prevent himself from falling into the Abyss, only for the branch to slightly give way, this was no superhero, this is was an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation etc.
If filmed today, this scene would have been edited within an inch of it’s life, imagine if you will Michael Bay shooting this opening scene, but thankfully Spielberg allows the scares and the claustrophobia to prevail, Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography and Norman Reynolds stunning production design instantly transports the audience into this hellish, booby trap ridden cavern.
Then the crowning glory, the rolling boulder, pure genius. The brilliance of Raiders is that as breathtakingly stunning this opening sequence is, it doesn’t peak here and keeps going for the next 100 or so minutes. The opening sequence isn’t even my favourite in the movie, I reserve that for the truck chase, but this is Spielberg at his most prepared, at his most free, at his most playful, he is here to entertain and boy does he ever. What a way to introduce you to one of Cinema’s most iconic heroes.
I dedicate this blog to commemorate the sad loss of Allen Daviau 14/6/42 – 15/4/20 – a true Spielberg legend in every way.
My name is Dominic Holder and I like to promote the beauty and wonder of Cinema in my writing. I spend a lot of time promoting the power of Cinema as a tool of wellbeing to anyone and everyone. I love all kinds of films but in particular I am a devoted fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, John Williams, Star Wars, Disney and Marvel. My love of Cinema stems from a trip as a 4 year old to local cinema in Bolton to watch a Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back double bill, it was the first in a series of life changing moments, I knew from the moment the Imperial Star Destroyer engulfed the screen at the start of A New Hope I was hooked. Thankfully nearly 40 years later I still get excited and still find escapism and happiness within this wonderful medium.
In preparation for the (at time of writing) December 2020 release of Steven Spielberg’s 33rd feature as Director, West Side Story, I have decided to attempt to put some more Spielberg blogs together. I have previously written about how Spielberg’s films, themes and styles changed thorough each of the last 5 decades, you can read some of those here if you wish.
Interestingly enough, I thought one of the few advantages of quarantine would be I could watch more films and write more about them, this hasn’t been the case so far, as looking after easily bored kids take priority when I’m not doing my day job. I am however, the newly crowned house champion at Monopoly and Uno, although I’m trailing in last place in Twister due to being the most inflexible man on Earth.
Anyway onto the blogs, I like the idea of doing a series of Top 10 blogs based around Spielberg, so that is what I will be working on, however, to get me back into the swing of things, a more standard essay on Spielberg’s first two Cinematic films (in Europe at least) Duel and The Sugarland Express.
Both films are road movies, both feature scenes of desperation, one is a no-holds barred, seat of the edge thriller, the other, based on real events, is a story of divided families, mistrust, and a reckless pursuit of potentially unattainable goals.
If we take a look at Duel first, a battle of good against evil, a tale of triumph over considerable adversity, it is the story of man versus technical beast, as Dennis Weaver’s wimpish salesman, David Mann (that’s M.A.N.N) Duel’s the unstoppable, pollution spewing oil tanker, with it’s anonymous driver, culminating with one of them succumbing to a gear crunching, metal- scraping end. That is the simple premise and Duel, originally made and released in the US as a TV movie of the week, never needs to delve any deeper than that, just hold on and with a complete lack of pretension and pointless subplot, Duel just gets on with it. Imagine if you will the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a half hour short and you get the idea
The Sugarland Express on the other hand, allows almost begrudgingly a little bit of character introduction and development. We meet Lou Jean Poplin, an almost annoying Goldie Hawn, as she helps her very slappable husband Clovis, played with particular mardiness by the always watchable and sleaze inducing William Atherton, break out of a minimum security prison to go and reclaim their baby son who has been taken into foster care due to the inept couples various indiscretions. En route they steal a car from the fantastic Mr and Mrs Nocker and kidnap and hold hostage Police Officer Maxwell Slide. The problem with the Poplins, and this is one of Sugarland’s Achilles heals, is that they are very difficult to root for, they are not very nice people and watching it now we are on the side of the authorities.
What characterises both as Spielberg films is a sense of isolation, in Sugarland’s case from Officer Slide, here the latest incarnation of the normal everyday guy caught in extraordinary situations, a staple of Spielberg films that has continued through his entire back catalogue. Both Slide and Mann are caught in situations that neither prepared for and both to a certain extent, (especially Mann) are being toyed with by protagonists and in the case of the Slide in particular, are being used as a bargaining chip to greater goals.
Mann and Slide also share a redemptive journey, they both prove to themselves that they are more than the bookish worms that they start out at the start of the film, again another trait that graces Spielberg work for generations to come, such as Brody overcoming his fear of the water, or Dr Grant embracing his responsibility of surrogate parenting. Don’t forget both Brody and Grant could have left the impending chaos to the experts but choose not to.
Early on in Duel we eavesdrop on a phone call between Mann and his wife, who is haranguing him for not standing up for her whilst being harassed at a party the previous evening, asking Mann to be more manly. Note here how Spielberg point his camera slightly away from Mann whilst he is being berated. We are embarrassed for him, in the way when you can listen into an argument on a bus or a cafe, here Spielberg utilises his favourite shape to help hide the fact that we are listening in.
So the simple question I always ask myself when watching Duel is, why does he not just turn round? Why does he continue on this path into danger? I feel the answer lies in the fact that David Mann has never stood up to any challenge in his life, this is his chance to prove himself, pass this ridiculous test of manhood.
Likewise, there are a number of opportunities where Slide could have escaped his captives, but over time he starts to bond with them and almost develops a sentimental attachment to them, even though there were numerous occasion where as driver of the car he could have changed the course of the narrative.
From a direction point of view we have Spielberg desperately trying to showcase his abilities, Duel is insanely flashy movie, with Spielberg using every camera trick that he has in his arsenal, from close up tight shots of the petrified Mann to extravagant belong shots of Mann’s car screeching to a terrified stop as viewed from the under carriage of the trucks beast like belly.
Likewise Sugarland contains a wondrous moment midway through when Spielberg produces a tracking shot through two moving vehicles including dialogue between both vehicles. Its a beautiful shot that once again showcases the young directors sheer dexterity with the camera.
What also dominates both films, and is in fact a rarely mentioned theme that runs through Spielbergs work in the 1970s in particular, is the Director’s almost disdain for the locals. In both Duel and Sugarland the general American public are almost looked down upon as redneck hicks, who have low IQs and are less that warm and welcoming to strangers. You can also throw in the local fishermen in Jaws and the white trash hill dwellers who Roy Neary of all people, looks down upon in Close Encounters.
In one of Duel’s most captivating scenes, Mann is sat in cafe trying to figure out who the mysterious driver of the truck might be. In Mann’s head everyone is a suspect, he looks down on these people, he trusts no one, he has an air of superiority to him, he spells out RYE to the waitress in the cafe to ensure she gets his very simple lunch order correct. He ends up confronting a man simply because of the way he dresses.
In Sugarland, we have the previously mentioned Nockers who are easily hoodwinked by the Poplins, who are hardly the greatest of con artists. Add to this Buster Daniels the drunkard who Slide is taking home before he is accosted by the Poplins. What follows is a stream of incompetence from the strong arm of the law to local shopkeepers and townsfolk, who are never portrayed as being too high on the social scale.
The scoring of both films follows similar traits, with John Williams’s whimsical first Spielberg score captures the isolation and open highways in Sugarland perfectly, whereas Billy Goldenberg’s Hermann esq score perfectly adds to the tension and fear of Duel. Goldenberg’s score can be found in its glory on the following link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjEcmWvcmjY
All the Spielberg hallmarks are in both of these films as he hones his craft to enable him to move onto bigger things. What happened next propelled him almost by accident into the stratosphere, but what we witness in these two fraternal films, is a young Director packed full of self belief, something that almost 50 years later is still going strong.
This blog was first posted in May 2017 and has been edited and updated in January 2023.
Welcome to the first of a series of blogs looking at the Cinematic work of Steven Spielberg across the decades starting here with a review of his work in the 1970s
I will take a look at each film in turn and comment on styles, trademarks and how he has changed over time as a filmmaker. I will look at how he was influenced and how his films have influenced others.
Obviously, as a fan, I highly rate the majority of his work but if you are concerned that this is going to turn into slushy love in for Spielberg then fear not, there are some of his films that I am not a fan of, including one that I rate as one of the most frustrating 10 films I have ever seen.
Each blog will take a look at each decade separately starting with the 1970s, a decade that began with Spielberg being talked about as director of taut thrillers in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Almost by accident, he was then catapulted into the stratosphere as the new Hollywood golden boy with astonishing, unexpected success. However, by the end of the 70s, his career had taken a considerable knock. The decade that had started so brightly was coming to an end with a monumental thud.
In the summer of 1968, Spielberg released Amblin, a mainly (apart from an ever-present soundtrack and the occasional giggle) silent 28-minute short film that was made in part to showcase his visual flair and shot construction. This charming tale of two strangers who meet whilst trying to hitchhike down a nameless American highway has no script and relies almost entirely on suggestion and apt visuals. It’s a curious piece that foreshadows upcoming road movies but scarcely hints at what was to come. The full 28-minute movie can be watched on YouTube and for devotees and completists, it is worth a viewing.
As a result of Amblin’s success, Spielberg found work directing episodes of TV shows such as Columbo and the middle segment of Night Gallery which starred Hollywood legend, Joan Crawford. Despite her diva reputation and initial reservations about “this kid” Spielberg and Crawford got on very well and remained close friends until her death in 1977.
Spielberg continued to progress and was finally given the green light to direct his first feature-length movie. It was to be a TV movie of the week in the USA but thanks to word of mouth and strong support it would receive a longer cut and theatrical release in Europe.
I’d like to report a truck driver who’s been endangering my life
13th November 1971 was the date that Steven Spielberg first began to tap away at the public consciousness of America when ABC aired his first full-length feature film Duel, the tale of mild-mannered suburbanite David Mann being chased along desert highways by a malevolent truck.
For an original running time for TV of 74 minutes, plot development and backstory are not required, terror and tension are the only items on the viewers’ menu. However, the more familiar cut of the film, that was played in cinemas across Europe in 1972 ran to a more theatrical 89 minutes and incorporated more subplot such as a heated telephone discussion with his wife who is frustrated with him for picking a fight at a party they had both attended the previous night.
The film survives purely on its slim concept and idea. A truck, whose driver is never seen, seems to have little motivation for the terror it afflicts on Mann, it is a cold killing machine, a bully of the highways, a forerunner perhaps to future nemeses such as the shark in Jaws or the calculated velociraptors in Jurassic Park. There are early touches of Spielberg iconography throughout Duel, such as the sunburnt arid landscapes. The handheld first-person camera techniques, a future staple of Spielberg films, are employed and used to create a sense of claustrophobia and tension experienced by some people in nightmares when an individual struggles to run away from a potential assailant. The whole film is taken from David Mann’s point of view, we are with him all the way, we are desperate for him to get away, we want locals to help him, we want the car to have a bit more horsepower, we want him to be safe. David Mann himself is the first of a long line of lead protagonists who exist as an unremarkable everyday kind of guy who gets caught up in extraordinary situations.
The characterisation of Mann is an interesting one, initially, he is a wimpish character, crawling back to his wife to apologise in a public petrol station, but as the film progresses I get the feeling that Mann may have been getting some kind of masochistic kick from the ordeal he was going through. Take the dramatic hooks out of it for a moment and ask “Why didn’t he just turn around and go home?” Well if that viewpoint is too simplistic and plays into the hands of the plot hole seekers of online internet forums, does Mann continue on his journey in an attempt to face up to his responsibilities, prove his manhood if you will, is he secretly enjoying himself?
The scene in the cafe where Mann is trying to remain calm and figure out which one of the cafe’s patrons is the driver of the killing beast is full of enough nervous tension to be able to chew on. It’s ruined slightly by the intrusive narration which the studio insisted on for the TV movie, it’s a shame that Spielberg didn’t remove this from the theatrical release, after all, we are in no doubt at this point what is going through Mann’s mind.
As a viewer Duel is non-stop action that fills every second of the taut running time and is not layered with any sentimentality, a facet that would burden some of Spielberg’s later films. The climactic chase up the mountain as Mann’s car begins to lose fuel and power is nerve-shredding tension at its best. It is right up there with the likes of the shark attack on young Alex Kitner in Jaws or the T-Rex attack on Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park for sheer Spielberg adrenaline rush moments.
It’s incredibly showy in places, Spielberg camera movements are almost balletic with a “hey look what I can do with this shot” feel to them, but this is to be expected from a young director desperate to impress. The overall balance of the film goes from taut Hitchcockian thriller to terrifying road movie. More than 40 years after its release it has aged remarkably well and still manages to scare the hell out of viewers. It is the first in a long line of Spielberg films that demands repeat viewings.
Why should you watch it?
Duel is packed full of themes and calling cards that Spielberg would continue to use throughout his career, such as the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Spielberg demonstrates to all his ability to build high tension and excitement whilst using the basic of techniques. Further to this at 83 minutes long why would you not want to take a second look.
The Sugarland Express 1974
I want my baby back
Each decade that I will write about in these blogs features one film that passes under the radar for the casual Spielberg observer. These are the ones that would probably score single figures in the TV quiz Pointless should the contestants ever be fortunate enough to get a round asking to name a Steven Spielberg film. Despite being his Theatrical release debut in the US, Sugarland Express is the film from the 1970s that people tend to bypass on their way to bigger, and only in some cases, better things. This is a shame as there is plenty to enjoy in Sugarland and if looked at closely you will see many traits that will come to dominate Spielberg films for the next 4 decades and beyond.
Like Duel, Sugarland, which is loosely based on true events, is essentially a road movie as a desperate mother, Lou-Jean (Goldie Hawn) helps her husband Clovis, (a typically weasly William Atherton), escape from prison to attempt to kidnap their young son who has been taken into care. Things do not go according to plan and before long they have what appears to be the entire Police force of Texas on their tail, which is heightened when Lou Jean and Clovis take hostage Highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks here somewhat fulfilling the Spielberg every day ordinary fella in extraordinary situation role). As the trio race across Texas, they become minor celebrities as local townsfolk begin to side with the young parents, and a media circus begins to develop around them. If the above all sounds a little dour, prison breaks, attempted kidnapping, hostage taking etc, then it’s worth pointing out that the first hour, in particular, is very light and is played subtly for laughs.
The issue I have with Sugarland is that it tonally shifts wildly in the final act as the breezy, humourous road movie descends into a dark, desperate conclusion that quite frankly has perhaps never been repeated by Spielberg since. It is clear in the final reel that this isn’t going to have the happy, victorious ending the viewers had invested in. Lou Jean and particularly the waspish Clovis both push the levels of goodwill that the audience built up for them and raise the real possibility that the authorities made the right decision to take their young son into care. Similarities between Bonnie and Clyde and to a lesser extent, Kit and Holly from Badlands are accurate, but unlike those two movies, it’s very difficult to root for a character like Clovis when in reality you would just like someone to give him a good slap.
That apart, Sugarland does have some high-quality set pieces, including a deafening shootout in a car lot and a police chase that demonstrated that Spielberg could handle action on a larger scale. Vilmos Zsigmund’s cinematography of dour and burnt landscapes is a welcome throwback to the superior Duel, and the performances, in particular from Sacks are engaging enough. I may not be Clovis’s biggest fan but Atherton plays this sort of character well in what is an early blueprint for future slimeballs in films such as Ghostbusters and Die Hard.
Sugarland also saw the first collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams. Williams and Spielberg’s collaborations have led to some of the most recognisable and popular film themes of the past 40 years, here William’s score can be seen as an analogy for Sugarland in general, a quiet, subtly effective score that gives little hint of what was to become in future partnerships between the two. A harmonica-led bluesy score that never feels the need to be intrusive. The score never attempts to tell the audience what they should be feeling at any point, unlike say the score for Jaws which practically ratchets up the tension before anything is seen on the screen and works as a riveting plot device. The Sugarland Express score, is effective yet quiet and unassuming, a score that doesn’t necessarily jump out at you or live long in the memory, a gentle introduction of what was to follow for one of cinema’s greatest partnerships, which is startlingly similar to The Sugarland Express as a whole.
Why should you watch it?
Despite Sugarland’s low-key reception and lack of appearances on most people’s Spielberg Top 10 lists, it does resoundingly reward repeat viewings. All the hallmarks are there, the family theme runs throughout, and Zsigmonds’ beautifully parched and sunburnt landscapes paint the background to what is in all sense and purpose a tragic tale. It cannot be underestimated the contribution The Sugarland Express makes to the annals of popular culture as audiences bear witness to the first collaboration between John Williams and Steven Spielberg.
You’re gonna need a bigger boat.
Jaws is actually quite a difficult film for me to write about as it is very difficult to find things to say that haven’t already been said many times by many people, so I will stick to what the film means to me. Firstly I probably watch Jaws 2 or 3 times a year, it’s on ITV4 all of the time so I don’t even need to get off my backside and faff around with DVDs, it’s very accessible. Earlier this year I showed it to my 12-year-old son (Jan 23 edit, now just about to turn 18 years old son), in an attempt to see what the current generation would make of a film built on tension, where the “monster” is only glimpsed in the final 3rd of the film.
It is well documented that the shoot was a tough one, an original 55-day schedule ballooned to 159 days, the mechanical shark steadfastly refused to perform and the young Spielberg was under enormous pressure to deliver with the plug threatened to be pulled at any time. However, it is with great credit to producers Brown and Zanuck that they stuck with their young apprentice as movie history was about to be made. The problems with the mechanical shark actually worked to Spielberg’s advantage. With so little usable footage of the oversized prop, Spielberg had to hint at the presence of the beast using clever camera techniques and the power of suggestion. A personal favourite sequence of mine involved the two elderly fishermen who use their wives’ Sunday pot roast to attract the Shark. The shark naturally takes the bait and sets off back to the open water demolishing and dragging the wooden jetty that the fishermen were perched on off into the ocean. As the fishermen flounder in the water, Spielberg produces a piece of subtle magic. Without any sight of the shark, the floating bits of wood stop heading in the direction of the vast open water and menacingly turn 180 degrees and start heading back to the fishermen. This visual flair and innovation would become staples of his work over the next few decades. The entire Alex Kittner beach sequence is a masterful scene full of visual red herrings and daring camera work that leaves the audience breathless after its alarming completion.
Apart from the vicious shark attacks, breakneck tension and thrills, Jaws would be nothing without the strong characters on screen, from the three leads to the colourful town folks who are cast perfectly from Murray Hamilton who plays the head in the sand County Mayor with particular slime and regret, to small but memorable turns from the likes of Jeffrey Kramer and Fritzi Jane Courtney, but its the three leads who all have placed themselves firmly into the annals of pop culture.
Roy Scheider plays Police Chief Martin Brody, a Police Officer who is scared of the water and spends the majority of the film trying to please everyone, from the business owners and mayor of Amity to his responsibilities as a father. Brody knows nothing about sharks and is the latest of Spielberg’s ordinary men in an extraordinary situation, Brody leads the exposition of Jaws, asking the questions that the audience wants to know “Is it true that most people get attacked by sharks in three feet of water about ten feet from the beach?”
Richard Dreyfuss makes the first of his 3 appearances for Spielberg as oceanographer Matt Hooper. Hooper is the conscience of the film, the doubting Thomas too much of the town’s hysteria. Hooper is the expert, the voice of reason that only Brody really listens to. Here Dreyfuss plays the exasperated Hooper as an embodiment of Spielberg’s personality. Hooper’s onscreen frustrations match the offscreen problems that Spielberg went through making the movie.
Robert Shaw plays the most cliched character as the grizzled old sea dog Quint, a pro-fisherman who takes Brody and Hooper out to sea to catch and kill the shark. Quint barks and growls through the second half of the film, making life for his two companions, in particular, Hooper, difficult. As an audience member, we see the cantankerous Quint meet his untimely end and actually don’t feel too bad about it. We care about Brody and Hooper, we put up with Quint.
It is also impossible to write about Jaws without mentioning the iconic score from John Williams. Initially dismissed by Spielberg as a joke, the two-note shark motif has now passed into folklore as a sign of impending doom. Spielberg later confessed that not only was the score effective it was scarier than the mechanical shark itself and was a phenomenal tool in the tension building that particularly dominated the first 2 acts of the film. The problems with the mechanical shark were beginning to benefit Jaws. The nerve-jangling score coupled with rare glimpses of the shark, playing along similar lines to never seeing the driver of the truck in Duel, only heightened the fear that the audience was going through.
The success of Jaws was a surprise to everyone, none more so than Spielberg himself after the torturous shoot that had nearly broken him. After the quiet, under the radar, Sugarland Express, Spielberg was now catapulted into the stratosphere, movies were big business again, the summer blockbuster was born, the mass merchandising was launched, and the pressure was firmly on Spielberg now……how will he top or even match this? The answer to that will come in 2 years’ time with a film that even today, in my view stands as the definitive Steven Spielberg film.
N.B. my son loved it and it will also be remembered as the first time I heard him utter a swear word when Ben Gardiner’s head popped out of the boat.
Why should you watch it?
Ok, if you are reading this blog it is highly unlikely that you have not seen Jaws at least a dozen times, but watch it again. Watch it for the quieter more subtle moments. Considering Jaws is widely regarded to have given rise to the bloated Summer Blockbuster it is an abject lesson in understatement. Due, in no small part to technical difficulties, the less-is-more, hidden terrors provide far more scares than if everything had gone to plan.
1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Have you recently had a close encounter… A close encounter with something very unusual?
The last 30 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are in my opinion the finest 30 minutes in the Spielberg canon, they may well be the finest 30 minutes in cinematic history. However, if you take away the aliens, the light show, and the sheer wonder of the movie you are still left with a classic human drama of (this is a Spielberg film after all) an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Roy Neary starts the film as a nondescript family man, who has model trains in his living room and an inability to keep his young family under control. His life changes forever when Roy, who is an Indiana Electrical lineman, has his Close Encounter whilst investigating one of the large-scale power outages. The UFO files over Roy’s truck and burns part of his face, he then pursues the UFO, along with the Police over the Indiana highways. Roy’s encounter leads to him developing an obsession with UFOs much to the chagrin of his increasingly frustrated wife, Ronnie. He continues to see visions of a mysterious mountain, in inanimate objects such as shaving cream and mashed potato, that seem to him to have a connection with the UFO. Over the course of the film Roy continues to alienate (pun very much intended) his family with his erratic behaviour, it is quite heartbreaking to witness Roy’s apparent descent into madness as his children openly weep at the dinner table ” I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”
Spielberg has, you could argue, made a living out of portraying father figures as absent or abject failures. Here we have Neary, played at times almost maniacally by Richard Dreyfuss, as the suburban-dwelling father of 3 by the end of the film, he has deserted them all and set out on a life of his own. He befriends Gillian, who also is having visions of the mountain after her son Barry is abducted by the Aliens. In one of the stand-out scenes, which balances wonder and spectacle with elements of pure horror that leave the viewer checking their fingernails to see if there are any left, Spielberg again encourages the audience to use their imagination by not showing the abductors but by dazzling us with a light show that is just a prelude to the films last 30 minutes. Along with the lights, the manipulation and use of kitchen appliances add to the claustrophobia witnessed in some of the more graphic horror films of the 1970s. The constant orange glow recollects the horrible scorched earthhouse in Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one example. As terrifying as Barry’s abduction scene is, and let’s be frank here, it is as nerve-jangling as anything in Jaws, there is a feeling that Spielberg is in full control and is showing to the world that Jaws was not a unique success and that he can produce spectacle on the biggest scale.
Spielberg’s personal coup with Close Encounters was to cast French New Wave director Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe a French government scientist in charge of UFO-related activities in the United States. Lacombe is the antithesis of Roy throughout the film, whereas Roy is battling personal demons and is descending down an almost Dante-inspired path, Lacombe views the events unfolding before him with a childlike wonder. He reminds me in a way of Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, (a film that Close Encounters owes a massive amount to), by offering what little exposition is needed to the audience and by guiding Roy and the audience through the almost wordless ballet of the last 30 minutes.
So to the last 30 minutes which uses the old adage that a script should only have dialogue if the picture cannot tell the story. It is a masterclass in visual cinema. Using an old, disused, aircraft hangar, Spielberg designed the biggest set of its kind at the time. The mysterious mountain was revealed to be Devils Tower in Wyoming, which acted as a backdrop to the grand finale. The arrival of the majestic mothership keeps the promises that the audience has been made throughout the film. The sense of wonder and some may say childhood abandonment that the cast of characters show as they watch the ship move into place is beautifully observed. The interactions with the aliens themselves are perfectly done, using sign language instead of actual dialogue. The idea that music is a universal language to communicate with is pushed front and centre here. The odd line of dialogue, concurs with what the audience is thinking, “I just want to know that it’s really happening.” says an awestruck Roy.
Spielberg himself was unhappy with the final cut and wanted Columbia to allow him a further 6 months which was denied due to the severe financial troubles the studio was in at the time, they needed a big hit and now. To Columbia’s immense relief, the film was a box office success, not quite to the excess of Jaws or another science-fiction movie released in 1977, but a success it was. Due to this Spielberg was allowed to go back and revisit the film in 1980 and produced what’s known as the Special Edition. Columbia allowed him to do this on the proviso that he showed the inside of the mothership. Spielberg reluctantly agreed and added 5 minutes of footage at the end as Roy enters the mothership. It was not a popular move from the fans’ point of view and takes away from the wonder of the original, however, it is not as disastrous as some have reported. It certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the plot, Roy still abandons his family, and the Aliens still leave Earth. Incidentally Spielberg would once again recut the film in 1998, known as The Directors Cut. This removed the footage of the inside of the Mothership but kept other scenes added to the special edition such as the discovery of the SS Cotapaxi in the Gobi Desert. Personally I think there is merits to all three versions, but I agree with he great man himself, and The Directors Cut would be the version of choice if had to choose.
What is interesting when watching Close Encounters alongside Spielberg’s subsequent work, is that thematically Spielberg would make a very different film if he was to make it today. Spielberg himself has alluded to this in many interviews over the past 4 decades. He has publicly stated that if he was making the film now he would not have Roy abandoning his family and as a result, the story arcs would be different. Personally, I’m glad that Roy did abandon his family because it works for the story being told. We don’t know what happens to Ronnie and the family once Roy arrives at Devil’s Tower but quite frankly are we that bothered? I like most people like to see happy families but domestic bliss is not what Close Encounters is about. It’s primarily about one man on a voyage of discovery, his treatment of his family is an unfortunate consequence of his change in psych. If Spielberg made Close Encounters post-2000 then I think it would have been a considerably different film.
Performance-wise, it’s note-perfect. The aforementioned Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perfectly cast, but top marks must also go to Melinda Dillon as the single mum left devastated by the Alien abduction of her son Barry (a non-precocious gem of a child actor Carey Guffey). Bob Balaban gives able support but the stand out for me is Terri Garr, who demonstrated what a fantastic but often underused actress she is as the put-upon and doubting Ronnie.
I make no secret of my love for Close Encounters, I try and find time to watch it 4 or 5 times a year and I always spot things I have never noticed before with repeat viewings. To me, it is the quintessential Spielberg film, with its sense of unending wonder, practical simple effects that makes the audience work, stories of fractured, suburbanite families, a wondrous score and a finale that makes you realise why you fell in love with cinema in the first place. I implore all of you to watch this film in the dark without any distractions….. you are repaid handsomely with every frame.
Why should you watch it?
As stated above, even to this day, this is the film that thematically sums up what Spielberg is about as a film-maker. It is clearly a film about wonder, magic, childhood inquisitiveness and exploration. However, it is more than that. It is a story about family, self-discovery, trust and most importantly about hope. Despite the abandonment of the family, Close Encounters’ ending is a tale of success, acceptance and above all optimism.
Madness – it’s the only word to describe it. This isn’t the state of California, this is a state of insanity.
After the critical and commercial success of Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg was now box office gold, and the press labelled him the new golden boy of Hollywood. Studios were falling over themselves to offer him their upcoming projects. He was at one point linked with Superman, eventually made by Richard Donner and circled a number of projects before settling on his next choice. Spielberg had become a megastar, as famous and as sought-after as some of the leading box office stars of the 1970s. Films were marketed around the leading actors of the time. In the 70s it was the likes of Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and to some degree the likes of Jane Fonda and Barbara Streisand. Now there was a director, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg’s name above the title of a film was all that was needed to get public interest piqued. His last two films changed the way that films, in particular, summer movies were made and marketed to the masses and Spielberg along with fellow movie brat and Star Wars creator George Lucas were seen as the main instigators in this. The world waited with bated breath to see what magic Spielberg would produce next.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Spielberg chose a comedy as his next project. People close to him, those who knew him well, questioned whether this was the sort of material that he could make work. Furthermore, this was a comedy set against the backdrop of the Pearl Harbour bombings that ultimately led to the US joining World War 2. What was ultimately produced is, in my opinion, Spielberg’s poorest film to date.
The film from the very first scene, a terribly misjudged spoof of the opening scene of Jaws, sets the tone for a film that at its best is wildly out of control, to at its worst offensive (is attempted rape ever funny???) and just plain annoying (Slim Pickens is the stand out of awfully grating performances here). It’s an incredibly noisy film, every line delivered as if someone 10 miles away needed to hear it at the time, and the attempt to fill the screen with non-stop spectacle constantly gets away from Spielberg. Looking at it now it would appear that the young director was untouchable with studio execs not daring to reel in their young superstar when what 1941 desperately needed was an Editor who would have steered the film to safer water. This is surprising when you think of the work that Michael Kahn had just produced on Close Encounters and would continue to do over the next 40 years of Spielberg, but I guess like the director himself everyone is entitled to a bad day. The shoot alone took a staggering 247 days and reports suggest that Spielberg shot over a million feet of film during that time. If that doesn’t demonstrate the chaos that was the shoot then I’m not sure what does.
Sadly positives are as rare as a quietly spoken line of dialogue, however, I will offer praise to Robert Stack who gives a charming performance as Major Stillwell who spends the majority of his screen time sitting in a cinema watching Dumbo whilst the carnage continues unabated outside. There is also a terrific visual gag that involves an out-of-control (what else) tank going through a paint factory and getting splattered as it crashes into giant vats of paint only for it to then career through a paint-thinner factory and come out the other side looking brand new. That scene apart, however, 1941’s biggest problem is that it’s just not funny. It tries really hard and the ideas are there but the execution is completely out of control.
Co-written by Robert Gale and Robert Zemeckis who would go onto much better things such as Back to the Future, it seems in an attempt to impress they threw every idea they had at the script without the realisation that a semblance of order and plot is required to make a film watchable. Spielberg shows the chink in his armour with material that he never seems to have a firm handle on, I doubt it is no coincidence that he has not directed a straight-up comedy since.
The film was a box office and critical failure. It is too long and could easily lose 30 minutes of subplot that adds nothing of interest. For the first time, the knives were out for Spielberg and questions were raised about whether his previous output had been some kind of glorious fluke. Here was a director who had largely been left to his own devices but had gone months over schedule and budget and delivered a mish-mash of a film that frustrated and annoyed in equal measure. I personally find it very difficult to watch and is by some distance my least favourite of his theatrical movies so far. I stated at the start of this blog that one of the films from the 1970s was in the top 10 worst films I have ever seen, obviously, this is 1941 but I think that is down to disappointment as much as anything.
You should watch 1941 to demonstrate an old cliche that you learn more as a person from your mistakes than your successes. The film’s bombastic excess has never been repeated by Spielberg and his films are more professionally put together as a result of 1941. I watched it again recently and I smiled more than I did previously. It is still a tough watch for me but I am aware that it has its fans which is great. If you haven’t seen it before, give it a go.
So there you have it, the 1970s, 5 films made with wild abandon and imagination. A steady if at times unspectacular start that then exploded into mega box office and mega-stardom. The decade then finished with a quite frankly disappointing film. Spielberg’s confidence was knocked by this setback, he needed a hit, and he needed people to believe in him again, luckily a close friend was on hand to offer Spielberg an opportunity to show that 1941 was a blip. This opportunity would be the creation of one of the most iconic characters in movie history.