The effectiveness of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws as a thriller is heavily reliant on the recurring and ominous “dun dun…dun dun” in John Williams’ score, but it also explores the power of omitting music altogether to highlight the realistic horror of Spielberg’s shark attacks.
As A.D. Murphy put it in Variety, “The fast-moving 124-minute film engenders enormous suspense as the shark attacks a succession of people; the creature is not even seen for about 82 minutes, and a subjective camera technique makes his earlier forays excruciatingly terrifying all the more for the invisibility.”
The film frequently features shots that do not show the shark but are accompanied by music, but also shots that are focused on the shark, but without music. This creates a contrast of appeals to the senses—when the shark is out of view, the music enhances the viewer’s own constructed image of what the shark looks like, but when the shark is on screen, it is often left unaccompanied by music to allow the viewer to experience the attack in as real a way as possible.
This idea of omission in pursuit of realism is also seen in the way the first shark attacks are shot. The audience never gets to actually see the shark, much like they’d never see it if they witnessed the attack in real life—or worse, if they were victims themselves.
Spielberg clearly had Hitchcock in mind while shooting this film, as he saw Alfred Hitchcock as an idol, his influence has been noted “in vast strains of horror and science fiction cinema…from Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Jaws (1975) and beyond.”
Employing all of these different techniques allows Spielberg to feed off the mystery, the thrill, and the fear of the unknown. Accompanied by John Williams’ iconic score, this is a recipe for a timeless thriller that the BFI has placed in the same league as “Hitchcock’s man-against-nature horror story, The Birds (1963)… a prime inspiration” for the film itself.
Jaws: Opening Scene
The opening scene of Jaws is the perfect example of how Spielberg employed the mystery and terror of the unknown beast that lies beneath the sea and accented it with John Williams’ score.Once the shark’s first victim, Chrissie (Susan Blacklinie) enters the water, the only shots we see are those of her head above the water, and those of her silhouette against the moonlight from beneath the surface of the water—a shot that is presumed to be the shark’s-eye-view.
As we view the swimmer from these angles, the music begins delicately and curiously, as the shark is farther away, but as we swim closer and see the human form more clearly, the music increases in tempo, volume, and intensity to signal the transition from a fish lurking far beneath Chrissie, to a shark swimming towards her, tantalized by the tasty prospect of her legs and flesh.
This is incredibly effective because it is very easy for the viewer to imagine this human silhouette as him or herself, which makes the scene all the more frightening. We see her treading water, swimming around unknowingly and blissfully unaware of the fact that she is about to be killed by a rogue shark, and we see this as a reflection of ourselves, a representation of how we would be perceived by a shark if it were to decide to attack us. As the strings and the orchestra heighten the intensity of the moment, the sound of Williams’ score is burned into the mind of many viewers to haunt them whenever they swim in open ocean after seeing the film.
The violent fervor and terrifyingly relatable nature of this scene was also brought about by the cinematographer Bill Butler, who, according to American Cinematographer “worked closely with Spielberg establishing a look for Jaws that simulated a person’s point of view while swimming”
Placing many shots of the shark attack at a person’s point of view continues to develop a sense of this could happen to me throughout the audience. Kenneth Sweeney wrote in American Cinematographer that “Butler created a special camera platform that worked with
the water to accommodate both ‘below the water line’ and ‘surface’ shots quickly,” and he “vigorously reconfigured the standard ‘water box’ casing used to hold a camera in the water.”
we see Chrissie clinging to a buoy as the shark drags her through and under the water, as well as numerous others throughout the film. The audience feels as if they are in the water right next to Chrissie, and Spielberg’s choice to keep the mystery of the shark leads the audience to ask all the same questions that she is: “What is attacking me?” “Why is is attacking me?” and the audience feels like it could be next.
Butler’s vision is to have the shot seem like the audience was in the water with the victim; we share the same eye level as Chrissie and the water splashes over the camera lens as if it was splashing over our faces as we look on and witness the horror of the attack. This draws us into her struggle, as the chaos of her flailing around and being dragged by the shark has a direct effect on how we see the scene—the splashing of her struggle splashes over the camera lens, and we feel the same helplessness and confusion as Chrissie as our point of view is compromised and we can imagine the water crashing over our face as we struggle to breathe, as she is.
This scene is reminiscent of the famous scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho in number of ways, and it is undeniable that Spielberg is employing some of Hitchcock’s minimalistic techniques in developing a good thriller film. Firstly, the iconic shower scene in Psycho
opens much like this scene in Jaws: it is a woman (Marion Crane portrayed by Janet Leigh) enjoying what she believes to be a leisurely activity—in Chrissie’s case, a nice skinny-dip in the ocean, or in Marion’s case, a nice hot shower. Both scenes play off this perceived easygoingness (See Figure 1.5) as we are allowed to see the women enjoying themselves before the inevitable attacks that are to come. Also, much like the shark in Jaws, the assailant in Psycho is kept a mystery in this scene. All we see is a dark shadow of a figure and his hacking knife—no facial features, nothing distinguishable about him. This minimalism achieves the same end in Hitchcock’s film as it does in Spielberg’s, the viewer is invited to play a horrifying game of fill-in-the-blanks, and come up with his own monster, his own murderer. Furthermore, much like the way that Butler shot the opening scene of Jaws from a swimmer’s point of view, Hitchcock, the cinematographer in Psycho, John L. Russell, shoots the assailant through the shower-stream (See Figure 1.6), from a shower-taker’s point of view. There is
also no denying a similarity in the music in both of these scenes: Bernard Herrmann’s composition, which “nicely plays counter-point with the pictorial action and editing” (Variety Staff, Variety) for this scene is undoubtedly more high pitched than the low “dun dun…” of Williams’ score for Jaws, but Williams did employ high pitched strings screeching in the background, as well as abrasively loud strikes of a xylophone. Even the build-up of the scenes are the same; the shower and swim are not accompanied by any music at first, but the attackers bring with them an onslaught of violins and terror. Both soundtracks have a very strong pulse to them, as if to mimic the rising heart rates of the victims at their last moments struggling against death. The minimalistic approaches taken by Spielberg and Hitchcock in these two scenes are perfect examples of how to make effective scenes in a thriller: They both begin with familiar, even comforting scenarios that all people are familiar with, they then take these familiarities and interject an intruder who remains mysterious and obscured, and then the victims are killed in what they believed to be an entirely safe environment. All the while, these scenes are shot from a point of view that is close in relation to that of the victim, forcing the viewer to feel, “this could happen to me.”
Alex Kintner Attack
Spielberg and Butler continue to build the frightening mystery of the shark in the scene where young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is attacked in broad daylight at the beach. The scene opens just like any other pleasant summer day at the beach, the townspeople are all unaware of the fact that there is a killer shark lurking in the waters off the beach because they think it has been caught and killed. We see that a dog named Pippin has gone missing in the water, and begin to suspect that the shark is nearby. Our suspicions are confirmed when the shot cuts to the underwater shark’s-eye-view of all the children’s feet as they kick and splash about, and the sinister “dun dun…dun dun” of Williams’ score begins. Again, as the shark zeroes in on his victim, the music picks up and we see him approaching another set of legs, as he did in the Chrissie attack (See Figure 2.1).
However, this time, once the attack begins, the music cuts out for a moment and all we hear is the children playing in the water contrasted with the monstrous splash of the shark tossing Alex Kintner’s body around like a rag doll (See Figure 2.2). This causes the viewer to feel the moment as if he or she were actually there watching the boy from the beach. The terror of the music and the build-up to the attack is extremely effective, but cutting out all of that extra noise and music in order to just be able to focus on the sound of the boy being eaten, the sound of the children playing, and the screams of everybody as they find out what is happening is equally if not
more effective. This attack scene is more horrifying than the opening attack Chrissie as she swims alone because we are able to feel the chaos and pandemonium that would ensue if a shark attack actually occurred right off of the beach in a summer town on a beautiful day. It takes the “it could happen to me” factor that we feel when we see ourselves in Chrissie’s ambiguous silhouette to a whole new level. The silhouette of Kintner’s legs achieve this same end, but we also get the feeling of “how would I react if I witnessed this from the beach?” “Would I be able to get out of the water fast enough if I were swimming next to Alex Kintner?” and the most terrifying: “has there ever been a shark stalking me below the surface while I was swimming at what seemed like a safe summer beach with lots of other people?”
The attack on Kintner also is a continuation of the mystery of the shark, as aside from a big flailing fin for a mere second or two, we never see him; we only see what he is capable of. We see Kintner being dragged, screams muted by the ocean water he is submerged in, down to the depths where the shark will eat him (See Figure 2.3). We watch him get sucked
down deeper into water that grows redder and redder with blood. We don’t see the shark actually eat the boy, and we do not see any of the action that occurs under the water. We simply are given the beginning of the attack and then the aftermath: Alex Kintner’s shredded yellow float washing ashore in a blood drenched pool (See Figure 2.4). Much like in the first attack on Chrissie, this leaves a lot up to the reader to fill in the blanks, the horrors, and the gore of the shark attack. The trifecta of Spielberg’s continued hiding of the shark, the points of view from which Butler shoots, and the foreboding soundtrack of John Williams combines to condition the viewer to instill fear in his own mind once he hears that unmistakable “dun dun…dun dun.” By leaving the monster a mystery, Spielberg has allowed each
individual audience member to formulate an idea of his or her own shark, his or her own personal nightmare. There is power and genius in this, and it was a technique often employed by Alfred Hitchcock, one of Spielberg’s icons.
One of the outliers of shark attack scenes in Jaws is the death of Quint (Robert Shaw), who dies in a shark attack in which the shark is entirely visible and there is no music whatsoever.
This accomplishes two things: first, it allows the viewer to focus on the realism and gruesomeness of the attack, second it makes it clear how the fear of the shark truly lies in its mystery, in the way it lurks beneath the surface and cannot be seen. Of all the shark attacks in the film, this is the least awe and fear-inspiring due to the fact that we can see everything that is happening, nothing is left to the imagination.
We watch Quint slide down the deck of his sinking boat (The Orca) right into the jaws of the shark. From the moment the shark launches itself out of the water and onto the boat (See Figure 3.1), there is only diegetic sound. All there is to hear are Quint’s screams, the groaning of
the boat as it sinks, the splashing of water, and the biting of the shark on Quint’s legs. The realism of this scene is truly horrifying, from the sound of the sharks bites crunching through Quint’s bones, to the blood spurting out of his mouth (See Figure 3.2) as he is dragged into the sea to his ultimate demise.
Spielberg and Butler briefly use the technique of shooting from the victim’s point of view as they had before with certain camera angles that would allow the ocean-water to splash over the lens, but it is only brief in this scene, as we see from Quint’s perspective what it looks like to slide into the jaws of the shark and attempt to
kick its nose (See Figure 3.3). However, without any music, it seems as if there is something lost in this final attack by the shark.
Not only are we missing the music, but we are also missing the mystery of the shark—we are able to see it in full view, chomping down on Quint and we are even made aware of how truly big the shark is when it is in frame with Quint’s body to provide some scale, but still Quint’s death seems rather disappointing and insignificant. Even at the end of the film, when Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) are reunited by the wreckage of The Orca, the only mention of Quint is Hooper asking “Quint?” as in, is Quint alive, and Chief Brody responding “no.”
Then they just make small talk and paddle back to shore. Quint’s death is clearly an insignificant, maybe
even a desired event. He was a crass loner who rubbed most of the other characters the wrong way, and his death is not seen as a tragedy.
Because of this, it makes sense that Quint’s shark attack was presented in such a way to make it un-magnificent. He gets no music, he gets no really interesting camera-work, and the shark is in plain view.
Even at the end, the shark attack is bland and nondescript. Quint is simply dragged into the water and forgotten about (See Figure 3.4) This sequence is not so much frightening as it is horrifying simply because of the blood and gore. The true scariness of the shark lies in its mystery and its elusiveness. The audience doesnt even see the shark until over an hour
into the film, and once the shark makes its on-screen debut, its merely in the background of a shot of Chief Brody (See Figure 3.5).
The effectiveness of Spielberg’s shark can be found in its omission from the screen. He taps into our fear of the unknown but also finds ways for the audience to know enough to be afraid. For example, when the shark is represented by the floating barrels (See Figure 3.6) that Quint shot into its back, the viewer knows that every time the barrels come onto the screen that something is about to happen, and every time Williams’ theme is played the viewer sits in nervous anticipation of what is to come. The key to a truly terrifying and exhilarating thriller is in the mind of the viewer.
Alfred Hitchcock once said “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it,” and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is the perfect example of this. The first hour of the movie is just the anticipation of seeing this monstrous shark, and when we finally do see it in person we realize that the scariest thing about it was our own imagining of how terrible it would be.
The key to a strong thriller movie is minimalism—Hitchcock knew this and Spielberg knew this as well. The more you give an audience, the less they will be afraid of for themselves.
Factors like the soundtrack of a movie and the way it is shot help to create a story where the audience has to fill in all the blanks with his or her own personal nightmares, and that is what makes Alfred Hitchcock’s movies so memorable, as well as what makes Steven Spielberg’s Jaws memorable and timeless.