This appreciation of the significance of death is further reinforced by the scene in which Brody’s apparent triumph—some fishermen have captured what they believe to be the deadly shark—is undercut by the arrival of the second victim’s mother, Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro). Clad in black, apparently coming straight from the funeral, Mrs. Kintner walks through the parting crowd at the bustling dock and slaps Brody on the face, chastising him for allowing the beaches to stay open in the aftermath of the shark attack on Crissy, thus leading to the death of her son. Most films would be unlikely to include such a scene, but even fewer would allow Mrs. Kintner’s slap to linger like Spielberg does. In the next scene, we find Brody eating a quiet dinner with his wife, clearly overcome with guilt and shame. Make no mistake, Spielberg is accomplishing other things with these scenes, too. He’s increasing our terror. He’s bonding the audience with Brody. He’s increasing Brody’s personal investment in the shark hunt. And, true enough, later on Spielberg will quickly move on from the death of the man in the dinghy without pausing to reflect. Still, Jaws avoids treating its human victims like they are merely targets in a carnival shooting gallery, made for annihilation, as so many modern blockbusters do. In one scene, in fact, Brody walks past some kids on the boardwalk playing a video game in which they blast away at attacking sharks until their quarter runs out. That shot pretty well sums up the modern approach to blockbuster death and destruction, as well as Spielberg’s awareness that real killing is never that casual.
EH: In that respect, it’s notable that when Mrs. Kintner slaps Brody, blaming him for the death of her son, he doesn’t protest but admits that yes, he does feel responsible. Spielberg doesn’t allow his hero to come out of this with completely clean hands; he knew that there was a shark in the water, and that it had killed someone already, but he caved to political pressure from above and went along with the alternate boating accident explanation. After Alex Kintner’s death, that slap resonates for quite a while, and so too does the mayor’s quiet, shamed admission that his own kids were also on the beach that day, a devastating admission that’s almost as affecting as Mrs. Kintner’s slap.
That scene on the docks, when the first shark is caught, is just so great in general. The mood is ostensibly celebratory, but it’s undercut not only by the lingering sadness of the two deaths so far, but also at a meta level by the knowledge that the movie has more or less just begun, so of course the actual killer shark is not dead. Spielberg cuts away from the dock celebration to Quint, pulling into the harbor on his own boat, laughing, as though to say, “Ha-ha you know the movie’s not over yet, right?” There’s a certain dark humor to this scene, in that the audience, merely by virtue of knowing they’re watching a movie, has access to information that the characters couldn’t possibly know. The characters, unaware they’re in a story, think that the threat has passed, and only Quint, with his knowing grin, seems to know that it can’t possibly be that easy.
As this scene shows, Jaws is distinguished not only by its serious approach to death but also by a balancing sense of playfulness that is often interwoven with the grimmer currents of the film. Even the scene where Alex Kintner dies displays Spielberg’s balance of seriousness and dark humor. The way he builds tension throughout this scene is almost playful and comical. Brody is on shore, intently watching the water, but he keeps getting interrupted by townspeople bothering him with petty troubles, to which he half-listens while craning his neck to look over the shoulders of the people he’s talking to. Out on the water, Spielberg cuts between multiple swimmers: a woman floating on her back, a couple wrestling and kissing, a dog paddling after a stick thrown by its owner, a kid on a flotation device (the doomed Alex), other kids splashing and screaming, attracting Brody’s nervous attention with each squeal or shout. The cutting is lively and playful, knowingly generating suspense that takes the form of a question: Who’s going to die? Is it this person? This one? This one? Is the shark going to appear now? Now? Now? Spielberg seems to be having fun drawing out the moment, engaging in some Hitchcockian manipulation, delivering multiple false scares before finally getting to the real deal. The scene is very complex in its tonal blend, with black humor running through the slowly building suspense, before the scene climaxes with bloody horror and then gives way to the sad aftermath.
JB: Yeah, I think one of the big reasons that Jaws is so rewarding over multiple viewings is due to Spielberg’s ability to juggle so many seemingly converse moods so adeptly (Hitchcockian, indeed). People rarely refer to Jaws as a complex film—indeed, “complex” is a word that’s hardly ever applied to summer blockbusters, unless, as with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, narrative convolution is basically the point—but what Spielberg does here is really quite intricate. The scene of Brody sitting on the beach prior to Alex’s death is probably the best example. Each time someone passes in front of Brody — blocking his vision of the beach and our vision of Brody—the ensuing camera angle of Brody is tighter. All Scheider really has to do in this scene is look toward the beach, but the cinematography makes Brody’s tension palpable. And yet, like you said, humor is just a few beats away: the gray hump headed toward the woman floating on her back turns out to be an old man in a gray swim cap; a screaming woman turns out to be wrestling with her boyfriend; and so on. Back and forth it goes: tension and release, tension and release. At one point in the sequence, Brody has to crane his head to peek over the shoulder of one of the islanders, and in the reverse shot both the man in the foreground and the people frolicking in the water in the background, over the man’s shoulder, are in focus. In that shot, we fully sense Brody’s preoccupation with what’s happening in the ocean and the intensity of the distraction he feels from everyone else.
Brody is fearful. Of the water, we’re told, but it’s deeper than that. In some sense, Jaws is a study of the human response to danger and fear. There’s a terrific sequence in which Brody is flipping through a book, reading about sharks, and he is so absorbed by the images, so gripped with fear, that he leaps in surprise when his wife sits down beside him, which in turn startles her. Brody laughs at himself, at his fear, but when he hears that his son is playing on a small boat tied to the dock, his fear instantly returns. That’s where the scene really gets interesting. As Brody yells at his son to get away from the water, his fear seems unreasonable, overprotective, and we can sense that his wife thinks he’s overreacting. But then Brody’s wife casually opens his book, and the first image she sees is an illustration of a shark tearing into a small boat, and now she’s the one screaming at her son to get off the water. That sequence is principally designed for a laugh, but it’s deeper than that: the wife’s response perfectly exemplifies how quickly our sense of security can be shattered. Is her fear reasonable? In a sense, of course it is: a shark has killed someone. And yet, what is she responding to? Actual danger, or perceived danger created by an illustration in a book? Although the man-eating shark is real, what we see from the wife is typical fear of the unknown, wherein a lack of familiarity increases one’s level of distrust and paranoia.
Of course, lack of familiarity doesn’t always lead to fear. It can lead to foolish bravado, too. The reactions of Brody and his wife stand in contrast to that of Amity’s population of dick-measuring men, who respond to the shark hunt as if it’s a game, overloading small boats with men, guns and beer. They’re fearless, so long as the danger is abstract and unseen. But in a subsequent scene, Spielberg observes what happens when danger is imminent. When a dorsal fin crests the surface of the ocean near the beach, it’s every man, woman, and child for him or herself, as everyone in the water goes stampeding toward dry land, at one point knocking over and trampling a fully grown man. That the dorsal fin turns out to be made of cardboard, belonging to two snorkeling kids pulling a prank, further underscores what seems to be the film’s point: our emotional response to danger, our sense of fear or security, is often out of balance with the actual danger at hand.
EH: That’s a good point. Back in our conversation about Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, I suggested that really great horror movies don’t just provoke reactions of fear, they’re also about fear. You can see that in Jaws in the way that Spielberg cleverly manipulates the audience’s fear so that sometimes we’re responding to genuine threats and sometimes it’s not so clear. The dorsal fin prank is a good example, especially since it’s immediately followed with a scene in which the real shark’s fin appears, heading towards “the pond” to threaten Brody’s kids. I love that shot of the fake shark fin unobtrusively appearing in the background behind two bathers; it’s so casual that it takes a moment or two to even register, and when it does it’s utterly chilling, a moment of surreal calm before the chaos begins. Once again, there’s some meta gamesmanship going on here: the people on the beach respond more slowly to the second threat because, having been pranked already, now they’re suspicious of being fooled a second time. But the audience’s reaction is the opposite, partly because we know how narrative works: the second shark fin is unlikely to be another prank because that would be narratively pointless, whereas following a fake scare with a real one is a common horror movie device. Once again, Spielberg uses such extra-filmic knowledge to place the audience a few beats ahead of the characters in the film, ramping the levels of fear up and down as though he’s conducting an orchestra of emotions.