In terms of blockbusters, you don’t get much more iconic than Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws. A masterpiece of modern cinema, it helped to usher in the dawn of “high-concept” cinema, and made all of us scared of going into the ocean.
Starring the likes of Roy Schieder, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, the story follows the residents of the New England beach town of Amity Island as they try and track down a man-eating great white shark that has been terrorising beachgoers. While, on the face of it, it doesn’t sound like the most exciting of narratives, Jaws is a masterclass in suspense.
The movie is famous for the way that Spielberg made the killer shark an ominous yet mysterious threat, as the Amity locals try and track it down. The space and size of the ocean is used to send shivers down the spine of the audience, as the imagination does all the work for us. It’s what we can’t see that makes us shuffle uncomfortably on the edge of our seats, a simple but effective trick.
We are familiar with the shark from Jaws being one of the most iconic movie antagonists of all time, with many of us wrongly believing that it is actually named Jaws, but what is remarkable about this leviathan is its screen time is rather limited. Unsurprisingly, in letting our imagination do the work, Spielberg took his cues from one of the best auteurs of all time, the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.
As Spielberg used a mechanical shark when shooting, he and the crew encountered many challenges, ranging from electrical problems to design flaws. Notably, a lot of money was wasted on numerous models of the shark that turned out to be unusable. Because of the numerous technical difficulties, Spielberg was forced to cut many shots that featured the shark. “I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” the filmmaker is quoted as saying in Robson Green’s book Extreme Fishing.
Needing to utilise what he had at his disposal, Spielberg turned to one of his heroes, Hitchcock, for inspiration. Eventually, he realised: “It’s what we don’t see that is truly frightening.”
Whilst the technique has its roots in earlier horror films such as the 1931 German expressionist film M, it was Hitchcock who popularised it. The most famous example came in 1960’s Psycho, when Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is murdered whilst showering by an unknown assailant. The anonymity of the killer in this scene exacerbated our sense of fright and the overall feeling of tension, creating one of the most influential scenes in movie history. The killer could come from anywhere, and we were to see this directorial tactic employed time and time again over the coming years.
Luckily for Spielberg, in the face of a logistical nightmare he managed to augment the film and turn it into something truly extraordinary. Later, he told The Roanoke Times: ”The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller”.
I wonder what trajectory Steven Spielberg’s career would have followed if he had not taken that artistic decision when making Jaws. Certainly, we would not have been talking about the film today.