This essay is about how Steven Spielberg builds suspense and scares the audience in the film ‘Jaws’. This film was based on the novel by Peter Benchley (who actually featured in the film as ‘the interviewer’), which was released in 1975. Since the early 197s, Steven Spielberg has been changing the face of cinema with his unique sense of storytelling.
From his earliest success with the 1971 television film “Duel” (released theatrically in 1973 in Europe) to the blockbuster successes of “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” and the “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park” series, to his conscientious, historical dramas such as “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Munich,” Steven Spielberg continues to amaze, enlighten and inspire audiences with his cinematic visions. Basically the film ‘Jaws’ is about a shark, also known as the ‘great white’ is attacking Amity Island. The biggest row is whether the beach should stay open on 4th July, Independence Day and a public holiday in America that brings in a lot of money to all beaches.
The chief of police, Brody, is the main character in this film, and it is up to him to do something about the shark. So after a lot of deaths, arguments, and wrong sharks, Brody, Quint (old fisherman), and Hooper (oceanographer) set of on an dangerous journey across the waters on a rickety boat, in hope of killing the shark. After a lot of dangerous encounters with the ‘Great White’ they finally manage to blow the shark up… but at the cost of Quint’s life. Although this may seem a disgusting and brutal film that it is, when it was first released in 1975 it received a PG certificate, and its original working title was ‘still in the water’.
The music is a very simple ‘dur dur’ riff that is repeated throughout the key moments of the film. The music is actually much more famous than the film itself. This music is very effective because it underscores the tension in the film, also highlighting the predatory aspect of the shark’s nature by the tune increasing in volume and tempo, just like a sharks hunger and eagerness to bite increases. Just before the shark strikes we hear a shrill ‘dur dur da! ‘ and then it is immediately followed by a ‘loud’ silence. This silence directly contrasts the event that has happened or is about to happen.
This is very effective because during such a disturbing event, people should not just ignore it and do absolutely nothing to help. Most times we are too engrossed in the film to even notice the music, yet it is the music that sends shivers up our spines as it creates a certain ‘eerie’ mood. Without the music the film would not have the same effect. As the opening credits are without the music it does not have the same effect on us, so it is a very different atmosphere than what we are about to experience in the film.
The most interesting thing about the opening credits is that we actually see the ocean from the shark’s point of view and we track his movements. Then the music comes in as the camera zooms in on a pair of legs, and the music builds to a loud crescendo. This is immediately contrasted with the opening scene as we dramatically cut from the theme tune to some seventies hippy music, and wee see the diegetic sound of a live harmonica playing. After the camera pans across the group of people drinking and having fun, it stops to focus on a young man who is smiling at a girl.
I think that the beach party represents the freedom of the people, as the atmosphere is carefree. Then we see the silhouetted figures of a man and a woman running towards the ocean. The man is too drunk and collapses, however Chrissie runs into the sea and begins to swim out. Both the audience and Chrissie are unaware of any danger. However this unawareness soon comes to a stop as the music changes and the ‘dur dur’ comes on. We now know that something is not quite right, however Chrissie is unaware of this. We then see Chrissie’s silhouette once again, but this time from under the water.
This shows us just how vulnerable she is although she is at ease. This is contrasted by the suddenness of the attack. Both our and Chrissie’s reactions are the same: shock and horror. We feel the violence of the attack as she is pulled this way and that across the water as thought she was a little rag doll. This is our first indication of the shark’s immense power. We hear her blood curdling screams and we wish we could do all we can to help her. There is a slight pause when Chrissie is by the buoy, and we can hear her prayers to God.
This makes us feel more of a connection to the person, and this whole attack becomes real- too real. Then comes the silence, the silence that we all adore at night at the beach, and that soothes our moods. We would never be able to tell that such a vicious attack has taken place. However, since we saw the attack, we are uneasy and scared of the sea. After seeing something like this, we would probably never feel the same towards the sea. Then Brody and the man from the party are walking along, all relaxed and talking.
Then we hear the sound of a whistle being blown frantically, and this sound fills us with dread- a whistle is never a good sign, yet Brody’s reaction fills us with even more dread. Brody then indicated for the man to stand back from what he is about to see by pushing him back. Brody hesitates to step forward to look, and this tells us that it is really bad, and we want to know what is wrong. The silence present creates so much tension and uneasiness. Brody takes in what he sees, and his facial expression indicates that it is shocking and bad.
Spielberg then uses a clever devise that employs fear throughout the whole film- making us use our imaginations. He does this by letting us see a brief glimpse of Chrissies decomposed and severed arm, only letting us imagine what the rest of her body is like. Only we know our biggest fear, and what we imagine is indeed our biggest fear. By letting us use our imaginations, Spielberg rooted so much fear into the film that even he would not have been able to do. An important point to include is that we notice no ‘beaches closed’ signs.
This tells us a lot about the town: it values the money rolling in more than the lives of the people that they are making the money on. The reason for this may be that Amity depends on the tourists and visitors- that is the ‘whole point’ of the island. The island is very calm and almost sleepy, and this is exactly why Brody and his family moved here from the busy town of New York. Another thing we notice is that the complaints that the people are throwing at the chief are very small and petty, much unlike the tragedy that is actually happening.
We see a rehearsal of the marching band and this tells us that the town is preparing for the 4th July, and that the town wants to be well prepared (as some posters and adverts indicate) and perfect for when the sea of people comes pouring in. Then comes the second attack. It starts of as a typical day at the beach, yet something is not right, and only Brody and we know it, much unlike the unperturbed tourists. Brody is watching the water as thought his life depended on it. Brody’s paranoia creates comedy, but then we see a bald man swimming and a young girl screaming on her boyfriend’s shoulders.
The comedy is soon forgotten as we become tense and scared. Then we have separate camera shots of a boy and his dog. We see the colour of neon yellow- a colour that is bright, and usually on things that warn of a danger… Brody continues to watch the water obsessively. He creates so much tension, that we are on the edge of our seats, knowing that something will happen, but not knowing what and when. Each time someone passes in front of him the camera snaps closer to his anxious face, creating a dramatic irony.
We then see legs in motion underwater at low angle shots, as if we are viewing them from a shark’s perspective. However, the attack is viewed from a distance as though it was Brody watching it. We see the boy dragged down into the water, surrounded by the red of his blood, and screaming for his life. Then there is a zoom in on Brody as he realises what is happening; this is deeply highlighted by the music. Then there is a general panic from everyone at the beach as people run screaming all over the place and trying to get out of the water and as far from the shark as possible.
Brody is followed and focused on by the camera. At that time there is a sudden calm, and we see a mother looking for their son, Alex. This makes us feel scared and anxious, as the boy may have been a victim of the shark himself. We feel sorry for the mother, and wish her that she will find her child. Subsequently we see a broken lilo washed up on the beach, and the water around it is dyed red. We can only imagine what has happened. This is followed by the hustle and bustle of a meeting. In this meeting Brody declares that he is going to close the beaches, and the reaction he gets is not at all supportive.
Everyone starts arguing and Brody loses the attention of the crowd. In the midst of all this we hear the nails scratching down a blackboard. This silences everyone immediately, although the sound goes on into the silence. The scratching of the nails down a blackboard makes shivers run up and down our spines, and that was Quint’s big entry. He greatly contrasts with the crowd around him, and he is like an outcast and a freak in this community, yet he is calm and controlled. The fact that he is eating an apple at the time states that the present situation does not move him.
His attitude engages everyone present. A shark is caught, and everyone celebrates, all that is except oceanographer Hooper. Hooper next informs Brody that this is the wrong shark because ‘the bite radius’ is not the same as the one on Chrissie. The mood changes abruptly and the mayor tells Hooper to keep quiet as Hooper wants to cut open the shark and see if the boy’s body is in there. Unfortunately the dead boy’s mother arrives and publicly slaps Brody, accusing him of not saving her son, as he knew about the shark on the lose and still let the people on the beach.
This makes us feel sorry for Brody, as it was not entirety his fault as he did indeed want to close the beaches but the mayor refused. We feel our bond with Brody become stronger, as he blames himself for this death too. Later, Brody is looking through books about sharks and their attacks; this is to give more information about sharks to the audience at let them know about shark’s brutal nature, that they are hunters and just how viscous they can be. Brody and his wife are next arguing about their son being in a boat, and the book that Brody is reading influences that decision.
Soon later Hooper and Brody go on a boat, the Aurora, in search for more evidence as to the shark’s species. It is pitch black except for the stream of light that the boat lamp emits, and extremely calm. The boat comes across a shipwreck, and Hooper decides to dive under and inspect the situation. Whilst underwater, Hooper discovers a hole in the bottom of the boat, ad there is a shark’s tooth there. Hooper nears the hole and plucks the tooth out from the bite in the wood. As he is still inspecting the tooth, there is a sudden appearance of a head from the hole in the boat.
The head looks eerie and the eyes of the dead man are open. The camera flashes quickly to Hooper and we see air spurting from his mouth as he screams under the water. He drops the tooth, and swims back to the surface, the boat and safety. The appearance of the head would have mad the audience jump about two meters into the air, and this is also an indication of how strong and large the shark is. This is because the hole in the boat was very big and the tooth was about the size of Hooper’s palm. On the 4th July, the people come pouring into the unclosed beaches, yet nobody is in the water.
The beaches themselves are packed so that there is not even a meter left unoccupied, yet there is not a living soul in the water. This shows us that the news about the shark has spread, and that people either did not know about the shark being caught (unlikely) or they are still scared in case there are other sharks. Then the mayor comes and persuades his friend with his family to go for a swim. When they do, the people rush forwards into the sea as well. Soon everyone is bathing in the sea, but then a fin is spotted. People run screaming out of the water, and lifeguards blow their whistles and boats go towards the fin.
Yet this only turns out to be two boys snorkelling under a cardboard fin. The next thing we know is that Brody’s son is swimming playing in the pond, and a young woman is shouting ‘there’s a shark in the pond! ‘ Then we have a tracking shot of the shark, and we realise how huge it actually is. We see a man talking to boys on a boat, and the shark coming at them from behind the man. There is a lot of tension here as the audience is probably holding their breath and praying for the man to realise what is happening and get away in time.
However, the massive shark knocks the man out of the boat, and for the first time we see how big the shark is as his massive jaws open to pull the man down. A severed leg falls to the bottom of the pond, streaking the water red as it falls. Then Brody and his wife run towards the pond to save their son, Michael. Now would be the time for a decision, so Brody decides to set sail with Quint and Hooper. There is a relaxed atmosphere as Brody shovels fish into the sea. Suddenly the shark rears its head from the water, and Brody jumps back with a shocked and petrified facial expression.
Brody then calls to Quint and Hooper and says ‘we are going to need a bigger boat’. At that first sighting of the shark, Quint and Hooper debate weather its size is twenty or twenty five feet. This is the first time we see the shark in its full glory, and the boat sinks under its weight. That night Hooper and Quint compare and compete on scars. This leads Quint to showing them a scar when they ask him how he got it, Quint tell them the story about the SS Indianapolis (a true story of men lost to sharks while hoping for rescue). Quint mentions how ‘dead’ the shark’s eyes were.
This gives the audience a lot of background information on sharks and the audience become much more terrified of sharks, it also gives Brody and Hooper more information on Quint’s experiences. Then the shark attacks the boat. Hooper decides to go down underwater in his cage, but when he has to clean his goggles he cant get ‘no spit’ due to his nerves. When Hooper is in the water, we see the shark, and it makes the cage look really small compared to the gigantic shark; Hooper looks vulnerable. The shark attacks the cage by colliding into it, and the music underscores this, but when he shark give one impressive barge, Hooper loses his poison.
The shark wrestles on top of the cage, but Hooper manages to escape and hides in the nearby growth. When Quint and Brody bring the cage up, it is massacred and there is a large hole where the bars were bent back. Brody and Quint chase around after the shark, but it manages to ‘leap’ out of the water and land on the boat, weighing it down. Body and Quint try to grab on to something, but a bottle rolls over Quint’s fingers and he lets go. Brody tries to catch him but Quint slips off and slides directly into the shark’s jaws. Quint lets out a blood-curdling scream and we hear the crunching of his bones.
Blood surges out through his mouth, (the camera at an extreme close-up), and this in a way involves the audience as the blood was aimed at them. Quint is shaken from side to side buy the shark, and he finally dies and goes limp as the shark drags him away into the water. We are very relieved when all that violence is over. Subsequently, Brody is sinking on the boat, when the shark smashes through the glass. We see the ‘dead eyes’ of the shark that Quint was talking about previously and we know that the shark does not have feelings.
Brody ‘chucks’ a gas canister into the shark’s mouth and climbs to the highest point of the boat with a gun. There is fast music to underscore the building tension, and Brody shoots at the gas canister that the shark is carrying in the side of his ‘mouth’. However the shark keeps getting closer and close, and the tension rises with each second, until finally Brody hits it and the shark explodes. There is a lot of relief and joy, as the falling shark pieces splash into the sea. Everyone is happy. Even better still, Hooper swims out of the water and the calm after the chaos is restored.
They talk for a while, as Brody tells Hooper that Quint is dead, and they swim back to shore. In conclusion: Spielberg uses many effective techniques to terrify the audience. For example he lets us use our imaginations, as he only shows the shark in the last ten minuets of the film. This relates back to what I have previously said about the use of imagination. Also, the shark’s attacks increase in severity as the film goes on, and this is because Spielberg wanted the audience to dread what was coming, because they would know that it would get worse.