“I threw out most of my storyboards and just suggested the shark. My movie went from William Castle to Alfred Hitchcock.” – Steven Spielberg
Jaws is arguably the best thriller that Hitchcock never made. The release of Jaws in 1975 heralded the modern age of commercialised cinema in a time where successful Hollywood films had been character based studies with a strong European influence. It gave Steven Spielberg fame, clout and independence from the studios but also controversially set him at the vanguard of the blockbuster trend, where films with a simple, attractive premise appealed to mass audiences. As a result, Jaws has been relegated from sharing a pedestal with other 70s classics directed by the likes of Coppola and Scorsese, as seen in the recent Sight and Sound list of the greatest films. Jaws changed the commercial landscape of cinema forever. Print reviews became less important, while well-placed advertising on TV and radio were favoured, as studio executives targeted large, quick profits, even if it meant sacrificing the artistic consciousness of the film itself. The release of the dire Orca: Killer Whale, starring Richard Harris, being one of the more cynical attempts at recreating Jaws’ success.
While a great deal of emphasis has been placed on Jaws’ impact on the film industry there has been comparatively little study of what had influenced the film itself. Spielberg’s career can be summed up by the idea of the ordinary man being placed in extraordinary circumstances. Jaws is less abstract than other classic 70’s films, both thematically and in its characterisation. Chief Brody is no Michael Corleone and certainly no Travis Bickle. Brody’s aim is to ensure the safety of the holiday goers in the face of the corrupt local government, who are desperate for the money that comes with a summer resort. He fails to close the beach, resulting in a boy’s death, yet his motives remain good and honourable. His character is sharply defined by Spielberg, who realises the necessity of such a character if the audience are to support him in his final quest to kill the shark. The trend of the 70’s anti-hero is not present, not even in the rough seaman Quint. In fact, Spielberg’s template of character can be witnessed a few decades earlier with Hitchcock’s output.
The characters Hitchcock used were often unprepared for what faced them and ignorant of how to solve their problems. Think of them as the anti-John Wayne character. He employed these characters to make their journey more difficult yet compelling for the viewer. North by Northwest puts Cary Grant into a situation out of his control, among people who mistake him for another. Rear Window has James Stewart’s character witness a murder from the viewpoint of his own comfortable home. Chief Brody is afraid of the water and feels helpless as to how he can prevent further attacks. The setting of Jaws is the picturesque Amity Beach, which is juxtaposed with the horrible realities of the sea. Spielberg uses the shark as a menacing presence that offsets the normal realities of everyday life. Similarly, in his first film Duel, the suburban normality is shattered with the presence of a demonic, impersonal truck whose motives seem irrational to the decency of human life. This destruction of normality was a Hitchcockian technique to plunge the protagonist into a sense of confusion and then catapult them into action to prevent further chaos.
The book by Peter Benchley, released prior to the film, is radically different from the film itself. Early drafts of the script were essentially visual versions of the book, with scenes such as the icthyologist, Hooper, sleeping with Brody’s wife. Spielberg wanted it stripped down and for the film to be a man vs shark saga. He wanted no distractions from the central proposition of what the townsfolk were going to do about the monster in the ocean. Indeed, he creates the feeling that the shark’s threat is so immediate, so potent, that any hesitation would result in disaster. The first beach scene after the mayor forces the beach to be reopened, despite the opening attack, features a boy being brutally eaten. Compare this to Strangers on a Train, where Robert Walker’s character kills the man’s adulterous girlfriend barely any time after the initial conversation on the train. Both Spielberg and Hitchcock demand immediate consequences from the wrong choices of their respective characters. It cranks the tension and forces them to confront their mistakes with the ghoulish knowledge that they caused death.
Yet Spielberg’s characters learn, and they set out to rectify these mistakes. After an initial shark hunt, a large Tiger shark is caught and hung as if it is the shark responsible. Efforts made by Brody and Hooper to check the shark for human remains are blocked by the Mayor, leading them to take matters into their own hands. Of course, this plot element is vital to numerous Hitchcock films. In The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson has to discover what happened to Miss Froy in the face of the wilful silence of her fellow train passengers. The two films also have characters struggle to convince others of what they saw. Hooper drops a shark tooth to the ocean floor after being frightened by a floating, decapitated head thus giving the Mayor the opportunity to open the beach again, because he has not been confronted with physical evidence. In The Lady Vanishes, Iris struggles to find proof of Miss Froy’s existence, and finds that nobody is willing to trust her memory, instead demanding physical evidence. Hitchcock and Spielberg use this device for exactly the same reason: to create a polarised dynamic between the protagonists and the other characters. This makes their goal more difficult, but upon completion, far more satisfying.
Spielberg’s delicate structure is complemented by his unusual directorial techniques when filming Jaws. He admits this was because the special effects, such as the mechanical shark, were not working properly (the mechanical shark was nicknamed Flaws on set, because its electrical components were not suited to water). An early scene involves the shark tearing apart a dock and then swimming away. No fin is seen, only the mangled dock being dragged along the surface. The dock represents dry land, safety and economic opportunity and the shark tears it up with ease. The shark is tearing apart the town’s infrastructure and is using it against them. The scene is Hitchcockian in many aspects. Not only for its suggestive nature but the way it destroys symbols of safety. Hitchcock revelled in creating danger in places that are usually safe: homes, showers, empty fields and dinner parties. The threat becomes all-encompassing, encroaching on the lives of the characters, forcing the speed of their response.
As the director, Spielberg is a puppeteer, eliciting gasps, screams and sighs of relief at will with his portrait of a carefree town collapsing into chaos because of circumstances beyond their control. He confounds all expectations with the scene of the child playing a prank with a fake dorsal fin. The audience expects an attack before the teenager reveals himself. Only for the relief to be punctuated by the strangled yelps of a girl screaming “Shark! Shark! In the pond.” Significantly, the pond is where Brody told his children to swim, because he thought it would be safer. Brody is forced to witness his children’s boat being overturned by the shark and a rower being eaten yards away from his own son. The tension is heightened by Spielberg’s kinetic camera-work. After hearing the woman’s screams, the camera moves in her direction as though trying to force the action to the pond. The camera dolly moves towards the pond, leaving Brody with the crowd yet a few seconds later, Brody sprints into the shot. It is as though the camera is Brody’s mind, heading towards his son before he has forced his legs into action.
Spielberg experiments with his camera regularly. It was rare at the time for the villain (in Jaws’ case, the shark) to not be fully seen until the third act. Spielberg uses the fin, instead, as a symbol of imminent danger. He also takes great artistic risk in favouring the Point of View shot from the shark, which could have potentially looked cheap. Spielberg turns the viewer into a voyeur, looking up at the playful splashing of innocence, as the victim is chosen. Immersing us into the water’s murky darkness, with the staccato bass of Williams’ score, is a masterstroke. The aim is to make the victims look as vulnerable as possible and the point of view shot of the shark allows their dangling legs to seem helpless against a shark attack. Nobody is safe; it’s just a matter of who will be the victim. There is no safety in numbers and no escape from the shark’s looming presence. Hitchcock was noted for his experimentation with this technique, often using it to show a character’s impairment from drugs, alcohol or phobia. The most iconic example is, Vertigo, in which James Stewart looks down from the top of the bell tower, his view distorted by fear. Spielberg even steals this ‘Vertigo zoom’ for Brody’s reaction shot to seeing an attack, as his biggest fears have just been realised. Spielberg, however, uses the shark’s view not to convey a disability but to demonstrate the cold cunning present in its hunt. The camera glances to various splashing legs, staying deep and out of sight. Then it locks onto its victim and travels devastatingly quickly to attack, its killer instinct on full display.
His use of this technique in the first act means Spielberg is able to add further tension to attacks that are showcased in other ways. When Brody is throwing bait into the water to entice the shark to the boat, everything appears calm, banter among the crew – “Slow ahead? Come on down here and chum some of this shit!” – Then the shark reveals its six-foot wide jaw, startling Brody. Yet this is not a cheap scare. It’s a culmination of the tension built up on the boat over the shark’s whereabouts, not to mention it being the first time in the whole film that we see the shark above the water. The scene itself is similar to the shower scene in Psycho. An activity is punctured by a threat in the background. In Hitchcock’s case, the knife-wielding Bates tugs the curtain open, knife in hand. Spielberg’s curtain is the dark sea, his knife the teeth. Legend has it that in test screenings, the audience screamed for so long that Spielberg was forced to add more time before Brody utters the famous line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
The weatherworn captain that Brody is speaking to is Quint, a survivor of the Indianapolis disaster in which 800 of his fellow navy men were killed by sharks. Benchley likely modelled him on Ahab, the tyrannical captain from Moby Dick. Quint sees his nightmarish past in the jaws of this shark and has the need to kill it to absolve himself from any guilt he felt at surviving. Spielberg is fascinated by his obsession, as seen by giving Quint an entire three-minute monologue on his Indianapolis experience, which could have threatened the fast pace of the shark chase. In the original script, he dies from being dragged overboard after firing a harpoon at the shark, which is exactly the same way Ahab dies in Moby Dick. However, Spielberg chose a one on one showdown between Quint and the shark: knives out, frantic screaming, flailing legs, quiet sinking as the life is torn out of him. Hitchcock had many characters obsessed with death. Norman Bates cannot cope with the death of his mother, instead becoming obsessed with a fantasy in which she is still involved in his life. In Vertigo, James Stewart is obsessed with a dead woman, who he fails to save after being overcome with a fear of heights. Parallels with Quint can be drawn. Unable to cope with the memory of the Indianapolis, he uses the shark hunt to eclipse his guilt. His final confrontation with the shark is similar to James Stewart climbing the bell tower with vertigo. Both characters need to overcome this obstacle in order to carry on with their lives.
Jaws is essentially a tale of a town reliant on the ocean to make a living being tormented by the nature they use for profit. What makes these attacks so shocking is that there appears no reason for them. No protocol to follow once they happen and no end in sight unless they find a solution. Similar to Hitchcock’s The Birds, the vicious animal attacks are most frightening for their seemingly irrational nature. The fact they are never explained. The way they created chaos with ease. It is a mystery that is never properly explained. Hitchcock would have called it a macguffin.