Steven Spielberg is now recognised as one of Hollywood’s leading directors; a filmmaker who expresses his identity over a body of films. However, when he directed Jaws in 1975 he didn’t have the expansive film technology that he now carries. The film does, though, contain several important elements that would be eventually recognised as part of a Spielberg film. His work in creating suspense and tension is recognised by critics all over the world.
The film was surrounded by hype; mainly due to the lack of order in financing the film after it ran over budget, but readers of Peter Benchley’s novel JAWS were anticipating a blockbuster of their time. Whilst Spielberg stated that “the film was tacky but marvellous” it proved to be a benchmark in his passage into stardom, his use of tension techniques becoming a main element within a Spielberg film.
The tagline “Don’t go into the water” has been etched into cinema folklore and the “dur dur” theme tune can be heard in a variety of films, quite possibly making it one of the world’s most renowned theme tunes.
The title sequence is an important element in the film JAWS with the “dur dur” theme tune being introduced. The point of view shot (POV) along with the “dur dur” theme music creates a fear factor that is prominent throughout the film. The shark’s power is amplified right from the beginning. The camera, or the shark, increases its speed in conjunction with the music increasing in tempo, demonstrating the incredible speed that the shark is capable of moving. This early signal alerts viewers to the alarming power the shark possesses. This implements a tension that is long spanned in the viewer’s mindset.
The film begins with a mid shot of a seemingly average teenage party with a strangely chilling diegetic harmonica. This may alert viewers to the factor that everything might not be as it seems. The only light sources are the moon and a blazing fire. Lack of light can build a strong tension due to strained visibility. Fire, although it can provide warmth and comfort, it is often used in the visualisation of hell, and the use of the fire could also be read as a warning signal of what is to come. Chrissie asks to go skinny dipping and the track shot follows Chrissie and Tom, attempting to get undressed but Tom seems to be struggling, this shows us that he may be a liability to Chrissie’s cause.
When Chrissie gets into the water the long shot shows her insignificance and scale to water, telling us that there is no escape. The bells clang, reminiscent of bells at a funeral, the shot and sound combined creates a scary prospect considering the title of the film. The setting is the most obvious element of the suspense. The scene is set at night, the setting where the majority of most horror movies takes place, severely limiting both the character’s and the audiences’ visibility. As we seek more as Chrissie’s life hangs in the balance, we are restricted, building a frantic suspense. While in the water, Chrissie is suddenly jerked around by an unseen force and then pulled under.
A close up of the horrified girls face builds a tension because you don’t know what it is that is yanking at her legs. Her screaming is frantic, her legs splash, the audiences know this is the worst thing she can do. We care about her life and as the suspense grows we worry more. The sound at this point is very loud for a long period of time as the tension builds as Chrissie eventually goes under the water. The silence that follows this will scare audiences; this theme is continued throughout the film. Silence is a tension similar to the other tactic employed by Spielberg; keeping the shark out of visibility. The phobia of “the water” is enforced during this scene, a long spanning tension employed by Spielberg.
This first attack may leave the killer open for debate as you do not see the shark during the duration of Chrissie’s death. As the film continues you see more and more of the shark, this creates an aura of tension and suspense as before every attack audiences are unsure to how much they will be exposed to. Spielberg is increasing the film’s psychological impact. The audience is forced to imagine what the shark looks like, rather than be told.
Music in the film JAWS is used to fulfil the genre, however, when Quint, Brody and Hooper are on the boat, adventure seeking music is used occasionally. Spielberg only uses the “dur dur” when the shark attacks, not as a red herring. The audience may feel trapped through even the slightest and most subtle use of sound. In the second attack more horrific variations on the shark ostinato alter the way the shark is perceived, however in the Ben Gardner’s Boat scene an evocative, ominous searching cue that features an alien, strange tone conveyed through ascending string notes, and flute triads give an eerie feel rather than a frantic one. Hints of the shark ostinato play throughout, finally climaxing in a huge synthesizer tone. These changes in sound all add to tension as they are different false alarming teqniques.
The genre Thriller is sometimes defined by suspense and Spielberg’s critical use of false alarms develop a firm grasp with audiences. The director picks his moments to strike.
The second attack makes use of false alarms to build tension, after Chrissie’s death audiences are nervous as to when the shark will strike once more. This attack takes place in daylight and comes as a surprise to the people of Amnity Island; however, for audiences the tension is stronger due to the amount of people present. This signifies more danger and more chance of death. As Brody sits and examines the beach, false alarms occur to develop this pattern in the film. The yellow lilo is prominent in this scene as a shot of the lilo going out is concluded later in the film with a shot of a ripped up version of the lilo. Brody, alone, watches the beach, a man with a secret. His neighbours discuss various topics, and one of them comes to pester him about some parking hassles obstructing the camera angle of the sea, this brings back the tension of sight difficulties.
The frisson between the triviality of Amity life and the life-and-death struggle Brody is silently engaged and it’s unbearable for him to cope with. There’s the old man with the hat scene, a false-scare that serves as a small misdirect due to his strange likeness to a shark. There is some more suspense as a boy calls for his dog that is missing in the water. Along with a clever camera angle (shallow focus which sees everything blurred but the girl on shoulders) that makes a girl on a boys shoulders look menacing. Tension has been built as to when the shark will strike. As audiences are sucked in, Spielberg strikes. Young Alex Kinter is killed in very spectacular fashion, the shark seemed to come up from underneath him and cause a volcano of blood.
A long shot of his climatic death provides the extravagant and disturbing suspense needed. This death makes use of shark POV shots from under the water. Children splashing and the scene with the yellow lilo are viewed from the shark’s perspective, the splashing very reminiscent of Chrissie’s death. As the shark moves steadily underneath the children, tension is built as it lifts closer to certain individuals, unsure of who will become the next victim.
Brody has now seen the shark in a dramatic zoom shot from the beach; his perspective has been altered along with the audience. The holiday date of 4th July suddenly seems to dawn on audiences. We know this is the perfect time for the shark to kill; the suspense every time someone goes near the water is torturous.
The next attack sees two comedic characters attempt to catch the shark with a holiday roast. The suspense surrounding this attack is very strong after previous events. You fear for both the men. The shark takes the bait and heads out to sea, taking the end of the dock, and one of the men, with it. This moment makes use of the mid shot, making sure all significant factors are in the shot. The second the man goes into the water, we fear for his life, and we do not relax until his feet get out of the water, this tension has been built up through the “fear of the water” factor. Spielberg even lets the camera linger (low angle) on his feet scrambling over the collapsed dock, knowing that we are waiting for the shark to leap up and snatch the man away. We don’t see the shark in this scene adding to the psychological barrier being built up between the shark and viewers. This build up of tension has been cancelled out by the man getting away; we are being lulled into a false sense of security.
In these first attacks, Spielberg has established the water as the dividing line between safety and danger. “Do not go into the water” is firmly etched into viewer’s mindsets.
When Hooper and Brody go out on Hooper’s boat to investigate, Hooper gets into the water. The darkness is a suspense builder especially with a fairly timid flash light being the only source of light. As a POV shot of Hooper’s movement edges closer to the boat, tension builds as an ostinato of music builds. Ben Gardner’s head emerges from the hull of the boat in the music’s climax, a high point of climatic tension in the film JAWS.
Spielberg has used a variety of camera teqniques to build such tension in the film Jaws. Long/distant shots of boats show the vulnerability of a boat to the sea, creating a tension that there is no escape. Tracking shots in the 2nd attack are used to create suspense and mid shots in the scenes with Quint, Brody and Hooper allow the audience to examine the scale of human to shark and the strength the shark possesses.
The 4th of July Regatta arrives, amid great controversy. Thousands of people arrive at the Amity dock, but the first thing Spielberg shows us in this scene is a souvenir stand selling shark jawbones. This is a tension that is built after we are shown that they are selling their worst fear as souvenirs. Brody has an armada of deputies surrounding the swimming area, helicopters and walkie-talkies, all the security 20th-century technology can muster, the suspense is rising, and we think that something is going to happen.
A midshot takes in the happy holiday swimmers but we know that in the water is danger, only being free and clear of it is safety. Brody’s fear becomes our fear; we are in the exact same position, which is where Spielberg wants an audience to be. This mindset has been stemmed from tension built earlier in the film. There is the “cardboard fin” false alarm, and the panic on the beach as the swimmers pound in to safety. The “cardboard fin” false alarm gives the audience a sigh of relief after a build up of suspense. Our attention is on the beach and Spielberg now puts the camera in high angled fashion on “the pond,” the place for “old ladies,” where Brody’s son Michael is boating. Michael now becomes the vulnerable person nearest the shark and the tension rises when an onlooker sees the shark before Michael. A track shot of Michael’s mother running down the beach alerts us as to who is in danger. The shark swims right by Michael in an above the water shot, we expect him to be attacked; however, he is raised from the ocean and taken to hospital safely. The suspense is lowered briefly until another above the water shot moves speedily towards a man in the water. Despite the success of Michael, a man is killed with his leg bitten off. An underwater shot tracks the leg as it hits the ocean floor. The tension that had been brewing had climaxed with an element of gore.
The shark is slowly exposed more and more, a tension technique that is used to impeccable effect, especially when Brody, Hooper and Quint go out on the boat. A close up shot from behind Brody shows him coming face to face with the shark. Brody is playing with some knots but Spielberg’s timing is impeccable. The scene of Brody looking at the camera, building a suspense as the sea is in view, and griping about the knots, to him standing up stock-straight as he comprehends the monster, to him backing into the cabin to say “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” is excellent. The suspense is slowly built up, the camera never leaving Brody’s face but allowing the audience to see the water.
A long shot of the boat in front of a dark moonlit sky shows the possible insignificance or scale of boat to sea. We are beginning to see that there is no escape and the shark’s intelligence combined with the size of the boat is a tension that Spielberg has cleverly placed. The three begin singing “Show me the way to go home” in a mid shot of Quint and Hooper, whilst banging on the table in joyous moods, productively adding to their own downfall as they can’t hear the shark banging against the boat. The camera lingers on Quint, Brody and Hooper before flashing back to the damage being done by the shark, the tension increases because we yearn for them to notice it for their own safety. The boards bend inward and water spurts inside the hull, a low placed camera shot, possibly from the top of the stairs, shows the water level rising. Our breathing stops because the water is coming in the boat, and Spielberg has done such an excellent job, through tension, of establishing that the water itself is an object of dread. Seconds later, the shark rams the boat and Brody falls into the water portrayed from a low angled camera shot.
A close up shot of Brody shows him trying to ring for help only for Quint to destroy it. This suspense is a reaction to the reality that the threesome will be deprived of the outside world. Now that the shark has decided to wreck the boat, a plan is announced (A mid shot in soft focus shows Brody and Hooper talking. Quint, who is blurred, stands at the helm of the boat, bringing the attention to Hooper and Brody) to lead him into shallow waters and drown him. Quint is visibly disappointed by this plan and proceeds to destroy the boat’s motor. A mid shot in deep focus shows Quint at the forefront of the boat, singing in a slightly insane manner. A background of Hooper and Brody in disbelief builds suspense because they look incapable of stopping Quint. We are worried as to what Quint is doing and the tension is built as the smoke intensifies. We are maybe waiting for the boat to explode in a time bomb fashion.
Another high point of tension is the scene when Hooper goes in the water. A close up shot of Hooper sees him declare his plan with, “Have you got any better ideas”. A shot from above the metal container has Brody, Quint and Hooper featured, this being a very tension filled scene, you feel this is the climax. There is a short “preparation” montage where we get our reminder of the oxygen tanks. Going “into the water” builds a tension within audiences because we expect Hooper to die however, he goes into the water to prove his worth and fails miserably, hiding behind a rock. Various angles are used to portray different sides of the shark. A shot from underneath the container shows the shark tangling with the container, suspense runs through this scene as we see the shark in full. Some POV shots show the power of the shark ramming into the metal, the tension rises as the metal bends more and more. A mid shot of both Hooper and the shark shows the size comparison and when Hooper loses his spike that was to be used to kill the shark the suspense raises to its climax and we think this is Hooper’s end. A fairly long shot of Hooper swimming to the rock is a nerve wracking moment as we know the shark could appear at any moment.
In another scene, following Hooper’s attempts, the shark jumps into the boat; a parallel sound accompanies the shark. Quint wants to kill the shark but falls steadily towards the gaping hole of the shark’s mouth. Reverting shots of Quint and Brody show the contrasts and Brody’s incapability to save Quint. The close up shot of just Quint’s legs struggling to avoid his end creates a massive tension as we await his legs to be bitten. A mid shot from behind Quint features the shark’s mouth and Quint struggling to get away from the shark’s mouth; the variety of shots show different angles that build tension. It seems to take for ages for Quint to die, the tension increasing per second. This is coupled with the loudness increasing ostinato that accompanies this scene. None diegetic sounds with a frantic feel add to the audiences feelings of suspense. This could possibly be the highest moment of tension within the film.
In the final scene, there is already a remaining tension from Quint’s death. The boat is sinking and Brody is alone. The music ostinato begins again and long shots of the shark build the tension as the shark moves towards the boat. Brody fuses Hooper’s science with Quint’s rifle and prepares to kill the shark. A long shot shows Brody climbing up the mast before preparing to shoot. The suspense is building and you know this is the climax. Mid shots that involve Brody with the gun and the shark’s fin moving closer build tension as we prepare for the shark to get to Brody. The sound loudness and speed of ostinato grows as the shark gets closer, another suspense builder.
A close up of Brody’s face shows his concentration as one of his shots goes wide. The boat continues to sink, portrayed with more long shots. A POV shot shows the shark getting closer and when the oxygen tanks are thrown into the mouth of the shark, this is were we see the shark’s mouth in full. The tension is at a climax in this scene and Spielberg allows the ostinato to reach its finale before Brody, in a close up, fires a gun shot that hits the oxygen tank. A long shot shows the volcano of blood and skin that erupt into the air. The tension is killed after a slow rise throughout the film.
A close up of Brody shows his exhaustion and excitement, as audiences we are relieved.
This is the product of a build of tension created by music and camera shots. Spielberg uses building ostinato and misdirecting “dur dur”s to build tension. The art of false alarms create suspense due to their misleading traits. The tension is also built through silence and not showing the shark, we are made to think.
Spielberg has done a great job of creating a tension ridden masterpiece using camera and sound.