Though there are countless memorable scenes in Steven Speilberg’s summer blockbuster Jaws, one of the most famous is Chief Brody witnessing the shark attack of the little boy Alex.
The scene begins with a shot moving left following an overweight woman going into the water.. This shot is a red herring, for she is what the audience would assume the most appealing victim to the shark. Next to her is a young man playing fetch with his dog.
A young boy enters the frame wearing red shorts (not so subtle color choice there, once we realize the outcome) and the camera follows him to the right. We learn his name is Alex Kintner. We have a set up for the scene where he asks his mother if he can go out into the water for a little while longer. The camera follows the little boy until we see and focus on Chief Brody, who is watching the beach intensely. From his POV, we see the next few shots of our established three main potential victims – a dog, an overweight woman, and a little boy. We see shots of Alex diving into the water on his yellow raft, the young man playing fetch with the dog, and the overweight woman floating on her back.
This leaves the audience questioning just who is our potential victim? Would Spielberg really go as far to kill the child? One of the reasons this scene ends up being so terrifying is for the fact that the shark takes a young and innocent life.
The camera zooms increasingly closer and closer to Chief Brody following wipes of extras walking past the camera. These shots give you a sense of just how crowded it is on the beach. The more crowded it is, the more potential danger there could be. The shots heighten the suspense and give you a sense of Brody’s heightened anxiety and fear of impending doom.
There are several little scares from Brody’s POV- a shape moving closer to the overweight woman, a girl screaming. All little things that prove to be nothing but beachgoers having fun. However, the audience continues to get a sense of Brody’s anxiety which is at an all time high. He can see the potential danger in everyone and everywhere, and the audience does as well. Is it going to be that girl? Or will it be the overweight woman after all? Chief Brody and the audience are simultaneously guessing and on the edge of their seat.
Brody deals with several distractions. We have an effective and wonderfully used over the shoulder and split screen shot as beachgoers try to break Brody’s concentration by making small talk with him. Brody’s focus is always on the beach.
The next shot we’ve seen several times before in this scene- with various beachgoers changing in the background. Brody’s wife talks to him as we see children getting up in the background ready to go into the water. Brody is unable to control his environment.
Shots follow of kids splashing and playing– the audience can sense that the scene is now building to a head. The frantic cuts and excitement is gives a sense of bubbling up and overflowing to the final moments. The next shot is a sure sign of trouble- the young man established from the beginning calls after his dog. There’s a shot of the fetch stick floating in the water. Trouble is here.
One of the most infamous shark POV shots follow, the shark moves closer and closer to the boy’s kicking legs as the infamous theme song builds and builds.
The famous dolly/zoom combination shot follows, and is indeed an effective one. All of Chief Brody’s anxiousness has not been for naught. He was fearful that something would happen. The zoom shot represents Cheif Brody being thrusted into reality- all that he feared did come true. He sees clear as day what he has been waiting for, what he has imagined happening in every situation he saw that day. At that moment, Brody knows he should have listened to his gut instinct in order to close the beaches.
This is why this is one of the most terrifying and emotionally effective sequences in film history. Every shot engages the viewer, we experience the same emotions as Chief Brody. We are as helpless as he his- everything happens before our eyes and there ends up being nothing we can do about it. It was too late.
The tactics used in each shot not only illustrates the suspense that Chief Brody is feeling, but heightens the suspense for the audience as well. We fearfully wonder who the victim (or victims) will be? We wait in terror as we know this tranquil summer day will be destroyed by one of the most fearsome animals in nature. One of the many taglines of Jaws was “You’ll never go in the water again!” After seeing this scene, it’s easy to see why many audiences felt that way the summer of 1975.
Watch the scene at the link below!