Analyse the ways in which Speilberg builds up tension and suspense in the hit film jaws

Categories: FilmMusicSuspense

Jaws was a film, which from its first release reeled in and captivated the imagination of audiences worldwide on its release in 1975. Nothing quite like it had been seen on the cinema. It remains one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films to date and also one of the classics of the silver screen. It was a box office smash and wad deservedly nominated for many awards and arguably assured Steven speilberg as one of the elite directors to the modern day.

Speilberg uses four main techniques to create tension and suspense within the film. These four techniques are music, camera angles, facial expression, and also structure.

The film is set on a small American tourist island named Amnity meaning friendship. Subsequently in the summer a number of unforeseen deaths occur. When the mystery is solved it turns out that there is a great white shark dwelling on the Amnity shores. The Amnity chief of police Brody makes the discovery, and he knows it is up to him to save the island, however chief Brody has a fear of water and the 4th of July is approaching fast so Brody is on a race against time to Kill the murderous marine beast not only to save the people of Amnity but to save the Economy of the island which key earnings is made from tourism.

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One of the most important aspects of the film and how people would Probably recognize jaws would be the theme music. The jaws theme tune was the brainchild of composer John Williams He did the composing and musical arrangements for jaws and gifted the film with its own signature tune, which is recognised worldwide.

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The signature tune is a steady piece of low tones, Quickening Rhythm and an ostenato pattern was used and played When the shark was about to attack, thus training the audience to recognise when the shark was in close proximity to her prey. Williams and speilberg also crafted the music to fit the shark’s movements. A quality exemplar of this is the opening scene the camera is underwater acting as the sharks’ eyes as the audience are led through weeds in tune to the music, furthermore when jaws swims faster the tempo becomes quicker and leads to a big crescendo.

Another significant point about the storyline is that it is set in America on the 4th of July American independence day which in America is the prevalent public holiday of the year. Amnity Island relies on its tourism industry to provide for all its dwellers and if the shark were loose the beaches would have to be closed so no tourists would visit the island.

One of the ways suspense and tension is built up is the music used in the film which usually signals the presence of the shark. The music has an increasing tempo which builds into a crescendo as the shark draws closer to its victim, and eventually changes to a finale as it attacks, very similar to that used in the shower scene in the classic Hitchcock film ‘Psycho’. The increasing tempo is used whenever the shark is in the vicinity, and the audience comes to recognise it as a signal that the shark is going to attack. By varying the length and volume of the building crescendo, the director is able to bring fear to the audience as the music begins, and to tantalise them as to whether it is actually going to attack or just swim by. The music has the effect of transforming the image of the sea from safe, fun happy place into one where the audience gets nervous if a character is going into swim or paddle. The audience quickly comes to associate the music with the arrival of the shark.

However on one of the shark’s appearances there is no music whatsoever which is an enormous shock for the audience as they have been trained to recognise the shark by the ostenato, angular minor composition composed by John Williams which generally signals the arrival of the shark and that an attack is imminent.

Nevertheless there is more to the music of Jaws than just the world famous shark “theme” as for instance the barrel tying scene where Quint shoots the shark with a harpoon and the barrel is buoyant on the sea. As the shark is shot the music changes from hunt music, which is somewhat fast and low pitch to joyous music, which is also rather fast, but exceedingly high pitch which symbolises to the audience an illustration of accomplishment.

An additional example of this is the opening scene of the film where the music is the non-digenetic sound of the man playing his acoustic guitar on the beach and the mood is happy and joyful but you can hear the sea in the background and two of the people go down to the sea as the girl goes for a swim. As she is out in the water there is an eerie silence as she is all alone then after the attack the silence is back and everyone is unaware as to what has happened.

Another thing Speilberg uses for shock and suspense is the camera movement

and different angles used, such as in the Alex Kinder attack scene. Prior to the attack we see Chief Brody in a continuous shot with his eyes focused on the water, looking at different people swimming and playing, wondering if everyone is safe, and then a man blocks his view which provides us with an over the shoulder shot. This shows us Brody’s frustration. Soon after, Brody sees what is happening, and the camera angle is a shallow focus zoom which shows his facial expression as horrified realisation. There is general panic, which shows everyone running out of the water, using a scrambled camera angle, which conveys a feeling of chaos with all the different angles. The scene appears to quieten, but then the yellow lilo washes up on the beach, bloodstained in a high angle shot, which makes the lilo, look helpless and vulnerable. One of the best shots in this film was the underwater high angle shot of each of the victims shown from beneath, the ‘shark’s eye view’, which gave the audience a sense of the imminent danger and certainty of the attack, sealing the victim’s fate before it happens.

Twenty five per cent of the film Jaws was filmed in the point of view shots, including that of the shark. Point of view shots give the impression that you are in that character’s shoes and you see what they see in other shots like high and low angle shots thing look either grand and threatening or helpless and vulnerable, close ups are used to show a characters facial expression, long shots are used to show where the action is taking place or to make a figure appear small and isolated. This is used to great effect prior to and after the shark attacks.

There are also different camera movements in Jaws for different effects, such as track; meaning to follow a subject, pan; pivoting the camera side to side to scan the scene and a whip pan is a fast version of a pan. Each of these techniques is used in the Alex Kinder scene to heighten the tension as his mother looks desperately around for him, but discovers the bloody and torn lilo.

Another way to create shock and scare the audience is through special effects and the damage something has caused, as in the example of the damage caused by the shark to Ben Gardener’s boat. As Hooper dives in to see the damage caused to the boat, you can see the big hole in the side with a tooth stuck in, also the yellow lilo which finished up back on the shore. In these two incidents the damage is to inanimate objects and immense with the complete destruction of the lilo into pieces and bloodstained and the hole in the boat with the tooth in and the debris inside. This technique is used to great effect in the systematic destruction of the boat in which Quint, Hooper and Brody are hunting, culminating in Quint sliding down the fatally tilted boat into the shark’s open Jaws. The damage here builds to illustrate the hunt to catch and kill the shark, as if it were a personal vendetta between Brody and the Great White shark.

There is also the damage to humans that the shark caused, such as when they are out at sea and the shark attacks the boat as Quint slips down into the sharks jaws, blood comes out through his mouth and he is swallowed in two. This image shows how much more powerful the shark is than man. Also with the 4th July attack where you can see on camera the victim’s leg just drop past with blood pouring out of it; this is again illustrating the superior physical power of the killer shark over man. These gruesome scenes make the audience look away and literally cringe at seeing them. (At the time it was released this was state of the art technology, but now technology has moved on and it is a lot gorier with the help of computer graphics etc. In conclusion it was very gory in its day).

In my opinion the scariest moment in the film was the part where Quint slides into the sharks mouth because there is a lot of tension and it is a prolonged death. As the cage is lowered with Hooper in it, the shark starts to attack the cage and destroy the boat, subsequently the cage was wound up and it was wrecked and Hooper had disappeared under the sea. The tension builds here, as if suggesting that the shark had the intelligence to use this method of damaging the boat, since Hooper is not visibly attacked. As the boat was bobbing the shark was slumped at one end weighing it down and the boat tilted; Quint was literally hanging on for dear life, and Brody tries to hold him, but he just doesn’t have enough grip to hang on and he slides into the sharks mouth to be eaten, after a lifetime’s experience of hunting killer sharks.

Furthermore to prolong his pain he isn’t eaten whole, he is bitten in half and there is no music to be heard just a non-digenetic deafening, repeated scream from Quint as he vomits blood as well as being shaken side to side by the shark. This scene is scary because of the cliff-hanger start and the very gory finish. No music to this killing with no fast tempo seemed to prolong the killing, because all you heard was screams with no tempo to give the murder a fast pace it seemed very leisurely and agonizing. One of the main reasons why it was so scary was because of the point if view camera angle from Brody made me put myself in his shoes and gives us a superlative view of a graphic and gruesome killing.

Furthermore, you are left with the devastating image of Brody alone and seemingly defeated, on a small sinking boat in a sea which is dominated by the shark, waiting for his turn. The techniques used by the director leaves the audience with little credible hope for Brody to survive and defeat the shark, resulting in surprise when his fast thinking has the desired effect. The image of Brody and Hooper swimming for shore in a leisurely fashion serves to underline the fact that the seas are now peaceful once again, but the audience do not have enough time to really believe this…. Surely there must be more sharks out there? (Cue Jaws 2!)

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Analyse the ways in which Speilberg builds up tension and suspense in the hit film jaws. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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