Perfect Scenes: Jaws

Jaws is an iconic movie on a lot of fronts: for being the real starting point of Stephen Spielberg’s career, for essentially defining what a “summer blockbuster” was and for being the touchstone for movie suspense and tension up to the present day. In this post, I want to look at the film’s final moments as a brilliant example of how Jaws creates that suspense and tension.

Jaws – “Smile, you son of a…”

No man better than Alfred Hitchcock to outline the vital importance of the “ticking clock” concept when it comes to story-telling:

Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.

As we wind things down in Jaws, Police Chief Brody is left alone on the doomed Orca, with Hooper trapped in the literal briny deep and Captain Flint dispatched to the figurative one. As the titular shark continues its relentless attack, Brody is reduced to attacking it with a spear and when even that is ripped away from him, he is left with one final chance to kill the beast.

With all of this happening, we can identify three separate ticking clocks, all acting in tandem:

  1. The Orca is sinking rapidly, as well as tilting sideways in the process, with the mast essentially the last place Brody can lean out to take aim in any kind of effective way. Once Brody is in the water, his chances of survival – and of being to fight back in any way – reduce to practically zero. For the last hour of the film the Orca has been a very small island of safety and succour in a very vast and scary ocean: it departing from the stage is both an effective removal of such safety in the eyes of the audience, and provides that creeping sense of impending doom. In essence, the shark has altered the playing field to its own singular advantage.
  2. The shark itself is advancing on the remains of the Orca one last time, fin displayed above the surface, and the film’s signature theme doing everything required. Past experience within the confines of the film has shown us that this kind of running start for the shark is going to end badly for the human cast: just ask the recently devoured Flint. The last section of the film, wherein the shark moves from being an especially large predatory animal to exhibiting frightening levels of intelligence have only emphasised its threat.
  3. Finally, and perhaps only known by those among the audience knowledgeable about the gun that Brody is using to try and kill the shark, the last survivor of the Orca is using an M1-Garand as he climbs atop the mast. This gun, seen at other points throughout the movie, has a clip that contains only eight bullets. Before the climactic moment, Brody fires four times without success, so he is down to his very last few shots (and that’s only if it has a full clip).

I suppose you can frame these three instances in terms of audience expectation that Brody will succeed. Spielberg has set up his finale so well that multiple things can go wrong: maybe the Orca sinks before Brody can hit the mark; maybe the shark gets to the Orca before Brody can hit the mark; maybe Brody uses up all his ammunition and has no time to reload (or maybe he only has one clip). With a healthy dose of suspended disbelief, the audience has been masterfully put into the mindset that Brody’s survival is less likely than suffering the same horrific fate as Flint just a few moments before.

This makes Brody’s eventual triumph – marked by the brilliant cut-off remark “Smile, you son of a…” that, perhaps inadvertently, nods to the film’s title – all the more cathartic, with the bullseye of the tank embedded in the shark’s mouth as potent a sign of hope as the exhaust vent at the end of the Death Star trench. Sure, he’s out of weapons and the boat is sunk, but he’s alive and the shark is dead, and not in that “Maybe he’s still alive” kind of way, but in a “That fish is in pieces” way, the remains of the shark falling to the bottom accompanied by a distant roaring sound effect. The music changes in these moments too, with the tension-filled strings replaced by something more relieved sounding.

There are no glitzy special effects, not even a really booming score to mark the moment: just a guy with a gun, facing multiple ticking clocks, a shark model primed to explode, and a brilliant release of tension and suspense, as the audience surely whoops and cheers as Brody does. Jaws is full of great scenes and set-pieces, and a lot of work is done before the finale to build up the tension and the suspense, but it is all paid off brilliantly in that finale, in a sequence that Hitchcock would have been proud of.

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