Hey Women and Men of Action –
Here at ActionFest, we mainly focus on the behind the scenes heroes, the stunt performers and coordinators who make our stars look great on screen. But today I want to talk about an onscreen badass. This won’t be any sort of comprehensive piece, as the eternally rugged Robert Shaw played in dozens of films over the span of his career. I’ve only seen a few of them. But that hand full have made such an impression on me that I just wanted to get my Shaw-love out into the open.
Sure, everyone on earth remembers him as Quint, the crusty old sailor and shark hunter from Jaws. And that is an incredible role to be remembered for. One thing I’ve always liked about his characterization of Quint is that he is kind of a grey area character. Jaws clearly has a villain… the shark. And while Quint certainly can’t be seen as Jaws’ villain, Shaw plays him with a hard edge. He steals every scene in the movie and puts viewers on edge whenever he is on screen. Quint is the best of the loveable rogues gallery of Hollywood characters. And he sure goes out in style.
But I want to talk about two very different roles in two other films I’ve re-watched recently. Strikingly different roles no less.
In 1977’s Black Sunday, Shaw played a hero Israeli Mossad agent named David Kabakov. That film is an excellent thrill ride helmed by John Frankenheimer and produced by Robert Evans. The plot centers around a Palestinian terror cell who has planned an attack on the Super Bowl using the Good Year blimp as it’s weapon. I have a feeling that plot might have sounded over the top in 1977, but viewing the film in 2012 it feels ahead of its time and remains thrilling. Shaw’s take on his character is ruthless and efficient. Let’s just say he wouldn’t have a problem with waterboarding. But Kabakov is a haunted man and clearly expresses doubt that his methods have ever really made a difference in the world. While the final showdown is the only part of the film that feels dated by its special effects, it remains a tense action classic and Shaw very comfortably takes the role of reluctant hero onto his shoulders. Check out Black Sunday if you’ve never seen it before. With enormous set pieces apparently shot at a real super bowl, this thing is a big budget ’70s era action dream.
But before that, in 1974, Robert Shaw played a clear cut villain in another terrorist plot film, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Directed by Joseph Sargant, Pelham tells a fairly archetypal story. A group of unnamed hijackers, led by Shaw’s Mr. Blue, take over a subway car and demand money. Like all heist films, the beauty of Pelham is in slowly learning what Mr. Blue’s plan is and how he intends to escape with the money. Playing against Walter Matthau as an unflappable New York City Transit cop, Shaw and Matthau own the screen playing two very different dudes. Shaw is ruthless. As Mr. Blue, you feel like Robert Shaw could kill you with a gaze. And his line delivery throughout the film is chilling. Matthau diffuses the tension with humor but he’s masking a keen mind that will stop at nothing to dismantle Mr. Blue’s plan. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of the great action films of the 1970s, and Robert Shaw deserves to be included in our Hall of Badassery.
Robert Shaw died too young but left a host of films in his wake. He will live eternally in my mind in the 1970s, where he ruled the screen with an iron fist.
What other Robert Shaw roles stand out for you all? What should be next on my own list from Shaw’s resume? Share your thoughts.
And I’m Out.