I was thinking…
…as I settled in for the Normal Theater‘s 40th anniversary screening of Jaws, how different the film would be if it were made today. In fact, I find it interesting that the movie that created the whole ‘summer blockbuster’ thing was of a genre that is all but extinct in Hollywood now: the suspense film.
And if you don’t think Jaws is a suspense film then, I’m sorry to inform you, you’re wrong.
One simple fact indicates this: the titular fish is not even seen until halfway through the film; and even then it is only partially visible through a foot or so of water. Observe.
The 25-foot animatronic, known as Bruce by the film crew, does not actually really breach the water until the 1 hour 21 minute mark. Every other early moment where he makes an “appearance,” we only ever hear screaming, see the water turn red or hear John Williams’ (Star Wars, E.T., Superman, Jurassic Park, and on and on) iconic score.
That’s something else to note. There are several moments in the film when we are misled to believe the great white is about to appear, only to find out it was really just a pair of stupid boys with a cardboard fin or an old man in a swim cap. But John Williams’ driving, mindless theme for the shark is absent in all of those moments, tipping the director’s hand, as it were. Nevertheless, the suspense remains alive.
And the suspense builds ever higher when we finally do hear that theme. The duhn-duhn, duhn-duhn becomes as much the shark as the shark itself.
That theme, as recognizable now as it was when it was written 40 years ago, has become synonymous with impending and yet unseen doom. And, it’s interesting to know, when Williams first played it for director Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan) back in 1974-75, the latter thought it was a joke.
But ol’ Johnny knew what he was doing.
And the Academy agreed with him. So influential and perfect for the film was Williams’ work that it won him his first Oscar for an original film score. He has since become the second most nominated individual of all time after Walt Disney. And, as Williams is still working and Walt is frozen in some cryogenic capsule somewhere, there’s a good chance he might overtake the Maestro of Mickey.
Okay, back to the fishee.
In all fairness, the idea of the shark being all but invisible until two-thirds of the way in was not originally due to Spielberg’s desire to move the film into the suspense genre. Rather, it was a move born of necessity. So plagued with problems was the animatronic shark, Spielberg had to “figure out how to tell the story without the shark. So,” he said, “I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’”
Well, the Master of Suspense said: “It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”
Ask any kid sitting in bed, clutching the blanket just below his eyes and peering out into the inky blackness of his room if that’s true.
Hitchcock also mentioned another aspect of suspense utilizing the example of a bomb under a table. If we, the audience, are aware of its presence, having seen it being placed there, and watch as the characters go about their actions around said table, we are held in a state of suspense. Were we to be in the same state of ignorance as the characters, we would only experience surprise when the bomb actually detonates. But as for suspense–there would be none.
It is knowing of the threat and, as Hitch said, “longing to warn the characters on the screen,” that creates the feeling of suspense.
Now admittedly, once the shark finally reveals itself in the famous chumming scene, the suspense crosses the bridge to thriller and the hyphenated genre of suspense/thriller begins. The thriller moment is punctuated by the decided lack of Williams’ telltale theme. But, in my humble opinion, the true fear is felt in the anticipation of the unseen danger and not in the revelation of it.
If any of my readers have ridden on the Universal Studios’ now dearly departed Jaws ride, they will know what I mean. As the boat courses through the murky waters and into a darkened boat house, the suspense is palpable. We know the shark will make an appearance, we just do not know exactly when or where. Therein lies the real fear.
That being said, Jaws is a wonderful example of art imitating life and then life being influenced by art.
Peter Benchley, author of the bestselling novel upon which the movie was based, himself based the book on real accounts of a rogue great white attacking along the Jersey Shore in 1916.
The book then inspired the movie, which then inspired many millions of people to fear the water, or rather, what may lurk beneath the water’s surface.
40 years later, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the coast of North Carolina may be experiencing its own summer of 1916 or 1975, as seven shark attacks have been reported in that state since the start of this year’s swimming season.
Could Jaws be back for more?
Ammo Dump rating: 10 out of 10 shark teeth.
I’ll talk more about this film and others during my (every once in a while) radio show. Listen in on Friday afternoons starting at 4:10 on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com or the “iHeartRadio” app on your smart phone. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter: @ALphaEXray.
Run time: 124 minutes