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Analyse the ways that Steven Spielberg builds suspense and scares the audience in the first 20 minutes of the film Jaws

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Analyse the ways that Steven Spielberg builds suspense and scares the audience in the first 20 minutes of the film ‘Jaws’

On 1st January 1975, director Steven Spielberg unleashed the blockbuster ‘Jaws’ into the world of film. When a gigantic Great White Shark attacks the small, summer town of Amity (New England), new chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Sheider) sets out to stop the killer with the help of marine scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark-stopper Quint (Robert Shaw). Brody wants to close the beach, but with 4th July (Independence Day) looming – and the busiest time of the year- Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) has other ideas, saying: “Amity is a summer town, it needs summer dollars”. The 124 minute film was based on the book by the Peter Benchley, who (along with Carl Gottlieb) wrote the screenplay.  image00.jpg

        In the opening sequence of the film, the audience are introduced to the presence of something in the waters of Amity. It starts off with the peaceful noises of dolphins and other sea creatures, as the camera flows slowly in the water, the fact that the camera is slow connotates peacefulness. Then, the “Jaws” Leitmotif (written by John Williams, who also wrote the Imperial March leitmotif for “Star Wars” as well as the music for “E.T.”, “Schindler’s List”, “Superman” and the “Indiana Jones" series) starts very quietly. Immediately all other noises cease. The camera shot starts to move faster and more sharply, it is from the point of view of the shark. As the music becomes faster and louder, the movement of the camera becomes faster and sharper. This shows that the Leitmotif and the camera correlate. As with all Leitmotifs, it recurs several times during the film, and connotates the shark’s presence. This is exactly the same as in Star Wars, as the Imperial March leitmotif (also written by John Williams) represents the presence of Darth Vader. As the music becomes louder and faster, the audience become more and more wary that something is going to happen, in short how tension is created.

        As soon as the music has stopped, the audience is introduced to a group of teenagers. It immediately focuses on a young girl and boy. image01.png

Spielberg makes the audience specifically focuses on the girl, who

 says her name is Chrissie. The pair has  had a few drinks. As they run

off to the beach (and the sea), the boy

collapses, as a result of too much alcohol,

this shows the audience that Chrissie is alone

 and unprotected. As she enters the sea, she swims

 further and further away from the shore: again this makes Chrissie even more isolated. Whilst she is swimming, there is no music; this makes the audience unaware of the sharks position and makes the audience feel calm with very little tension. The camera goes under water again, and the Leitmotif begins to play, and continually gets louder and faster- like a heartbeat. This immediately tells the audience that the shark has arrived and its target is Chrissie. The camera keeps alternating between the top and the bottom of the water, which builds up a lot of tension as the audience keep wondering when the shark is going to attack. There is a shot of the girl’s legs and the camera slowly zooms in making the viewers know the shark is really close to her. The camera moves to a medium close up of Chrissie’s face and the music stops.  As she is attacked by the Great White, all you can hear is her screams. The close up on her face is effective because the audience can see the expressions on her face in great detail. After the shark attack, the scene is silence and the camera goes to a long shot of the sea, all is normal at the beach.

        Within seconds of the scene, the shark’s two victims, the boy and the dog are identified. By using a medium shot, Spielberg just fits in the main characters and the beach.  The boy runs over to his mother, and he is introduced as Alex Kintner, just like Chrissie only the important characters are given names. Mrs Kintner wants Alex, to come out the water because he has been in there too long, but Alex argues and ask for more time. Brody is reintroduced with a close up to show how much he is worried about what is in the water. The dog is reintroduced, this time with its owner. The owner throws a stick in the water for it and the dog runs after. The stick becomes slightly significant later on in the scene. The dog and the boy are both shown going into water; this shows both victims and the place of their deaths. Then the camera shows a medium close up of the dog with a stick, and then the boy on the lilo; showing that the 2 victims are both becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the crowd, just like Chrissie.image02.jpg

Throughout the scene, Brody is watching the ocean, but is disturbed several times, for example, when a man talking to him is blocking his view. There are two false alarms. The first when a man is wearing a grey bathing cap, which, makes Brody think, is the shark. The other is when a girl screams and is lifted out of the water; the audience soon realises that it is her boyfriend playing with her. The false alarms make the audience tense and think that the shark is going to attack, after two false alarms; the audience is slightly in a false sense of security.

The camera goes back to a long shot of the sea, with Alex swimming further and further away from the crowd, making him isolated.  A medium close up of the dog’s owner, shouting for the dog, and a baby singing shows that something isn’t right. Then there is a close up shot of the dogs stick shows the “remains” of the dog.

 The camera goes back under water, and the Leitmotif starts to play. The shark moves up towards the air and the Silhouette of Alex and his lilo. A long shot of the sea focuses of the splashing of massive tail fins behind Alex. A medium shot of the people on the beach shows that they have realised what has happened.  

Here, Spielberg uses a smash-zoom on Brody. This is when the camera moves backwards, but zooms in; this gives the audience the idea of Brody realising it has finally happened. Another look at the sea (again from long-shot) shows the shark lifting the boy out of the water and an explosion of blood. The parents come running to the edge of the beach and retrieving their children. A medium close-up of Mrs Kintner shows that she hasn’t yet realised what is happening. By the time she has got to the beach, it’s far too late. A close up of shows the lilo floating to the shore. An extreme close-up on Mrs Kintner’s shocked face shows the emotion in her face, focusing on the fact that she has lost her son.

The lilo and the stick coming ashore symbolises that an attack has happened. This also happens in the attack of Chrissie Watkins, whose remains come ashore.

In Jaws, the colour yellow connotates the shark’s presence. In this scene alone, the dog’s owner’s T-shirt and the boy’s mother’s hat is yellow. Later on in the film, yellow really does mean the shark’s presence as Quint’s barrels (which he has shot onto the back of the shark) are yellow. We don’t see the shark properly until later in the film, because Brody and the audience believe the shark to be big, but nowhere near as big as it turns out to be. This way Spielberg makes the shark seem even bigger later on. The two attacks are so close together and right at the start of the film to really introduce the problem of the Great White.

I think that in the first twenty minutes of the film Jaws, Steven Spielberg builds suspense, using different camera angles and a great script to scare theaudience. Many times he can use different levels of suspense within a small space of time, which means that the audience is always on edge and never sure what is going to happen.

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