We revive Stevesees today despite the lamentable absence of our beloved Hippolyta to cheer us on (she vanished from the site at roughly the same time as the Reichmarshall did - do we detect Romance in the air? Perhaps a whirlwind trip to Argentina to visit some, um, old friends of the Reichmarshall? Alas, we'll probably never know...), and we do so not only to honor the memory of recently deceased actor Roy Scheider but also to sing the praises of sequels.
But first, Scheider, a perennially underrated performer who managed to impart an extra bit of grace, an extra ounce of believability, and most of all an almost imperceptible twinkle into even his most mediocre parts. He was the quintessential knockaround part-player, of a type the stage and screen will always have and always need - the character actor who turns in the work and eschews the histrionics.
Unfortunately, histrionics almost always gets the attention and wins the awards. This was the case in 1979, when he was nominated for Best Actor for his part in All That Jazz and lost to Dustin Hoffman vamping in primary colors in Kramer vs. Kramer - the one is a scintillating, bravura star-turn, the other a deeply boring assay at suburban ennui, of a type that's always popular with the Academy. And look at his most famous performance, as Police Chief Brody in Jaws: he's impossibly bracketed between the ham of Robert Shaw and the wry of Richard Dreyfuss.
Which brings us to sequels, because it's in a sequel that Roy Scheider's craft shows to perfect advantage. Of course we're referring to Jaws 2, the sequel to the record-breaking Jaws - and as in most cases, the sequel is better than the original.
Purists will howl, of course. Jaws 2 better than Jaws? Unthinkable! What about the stagecraft, the narrative, the filmic cohesion? To which we here at Stevesees say: there ain't no Muse of filmic cohesion. Jaws 2 wins out over Jaws because it resolves the mystery that's central to both movies and ignored by the first: the shark. In Jaws, a twenty-five foot great white shark starts eating humans off the shores of Amity island. After some initial reluctance, the town council agrees to pay professional shark-killer Quint (the Shaw character) to take a boat out after the shark. Police Chief Brody and marine biologist Matt Hooper (the Dreyfuss role) go with him, and they quickly find themselves demoted from hunters to hunted by a shark who's always one step ahead of them, mysteriously canny and malevolent. Emphasis on mysteriously. The film tries hard to convey a sense of realism - scores of 'natives' are trucked in from Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and Scheider gives Brody a very appealing everyman fallibility - but the elephant in the room is the shark itself, a superhuman monster who's swum in from a different genre altogether.
In Jaws 2 (Jeannot Szwarc directed it with a fine eye for visual contrasts, always violently juxtaposing violence onto tranquility), this mystery is cleared up: the shark in this movie is motivated by plain and simple revenge. It is supernatural, and almost no attempt is made to tell us otherwise. When a group of local kids find a killer whale carcass washed up on the beach with a giant bite taken out of it, Brody calls in a local expert and hesitantly asks her about motive, specifically whether if a shark were 'destroyed' off Amity, another shark might come along and ... to which the expert (the actress sounding exactly like the factual old biddy in Hitchcock's The Birds) tartly replies, "Sharks don't take things personally, Mr. Brody." Which, as all fans of horror movies will tell you, is the movie's way of lock-solid guaranteeing you that sharks do take things personally - or at least that this one does.
And just look at all the things it does in its brief reign of terror! It chases a water-skier and gulps her down; it plays peek-a-boo with a scuba diver; it successfully eats a Coast Guard helicopter; and, in the film's best, most emotionally satisfying sequence, it terrorizes the shit out of what has to be the most obnoxious group of teenagers this in film. The first movie's shark would have been pooped after twenty minutes at this pace.
And Jaws 2 has the requisite horror movie puritanism. The beginning of the young snot killing spree when the shark zeroes in on one sailboat that's straggled behind the others. And why has it straggled behind? Because young Billy and Tina want to do it without being ogled. In fact, he's in the very act of spreading a blanket on deck so she won't get bruises when the shark head-butts the boat and sends him ass-first into the ocean.
The movie is full of memorable scenes, and Scheider shines in all of his. Probably two are best, and they're connected. In the first, Chief Brody, his instincts tingling at the possibility he might be dealing with another shark, is positioned high atop a shark tower, ignoring the happy scenes down on the beach in favor of scrutinizing the water. There he spots a vaguely shark-shaped shadow, trains his binoculars on it, trains them again - Scheider's body-language is a perfect little depiction of a man whose fears are convincing him of something as we watch. In one quick decision, he knows he's looking at the shark he's begun to suspect is out there; he descends from the tower, pulls his gun (Szwarc drily shows us that nobody on the beach is at point afraid of anything but the gun-waving Brody), yelling for everybody to get out of the water. When he comes to the edge of the surf, he raises his weapon and fires - just past a boy still running to get out of the surf. And when the shadow turns out not to be a shark at all ("It's just bluefish!" yells a fisherman, thus christening a semi-popular band by that name that played Nantucket hot spots for a couple of years, until sharks got them all)(just kidding about that last part: it was boring old heroin). The crowds ignore Brody's pathetic calls for them to go back in the water; they drift away, leaving him alone on the beach with his little boy, both of them very quietly picking up his shell casings.
The scene that follows is very different and equally good: Scheider's Brody has been fired off-camera - and drunk a skinfull off-camera too. He comes home and tells his wife he's been fired - something that hasn't happened to him since he was a kid - and Scheider gives the confession a pained, bewildered tone another actor would have curdled.
So here at Stevesees salute Roy Scheider for a first-rate job entertaining us over the years, and we salute sequels - many of which, like Scheider himself, are a whole lot better than people think they are.
And we'll let Stevereads have the final word for now: Richard Sackler's novelization of the movie (he co-wrote the screenplay) is actually a first-rate adventure novel full of great lines and sharply-drawn characters. Many of you have received this book compliments of Stevereads; we suggest you dig it up and give it a try. You won't be disappointed.