Everybody remembers the attack on Alex Kintner in Jaws for the iconic dolly zoom Spielberg uses to reflect Chief Brody’s shock at the incident. Rarely, however, is the brilliant build-up to that famous shot acknowledged. It’s a brilliant piece of direction from Spielberg as he uses subtle framing and red herrings to (i) keep the audience guessing about the identity of the victim, (ii) help us to relate to Brody’s predicament and (iii) play with our desire to see the action. Here’s a quick analysis of the sequence…
The sequence focuses on Brody’s paranoia as he watches the people of Amity swim in the shark-infested ocean. He knows there’s great danger in there, but political pressure has forced him to keep the beach open. Spielberg takes great delight in teasing the audience and making us as paranoid as Brody, hinting that someone will die but not letting us know who.
The first shot introduces three possibilities. There’s a boy and his dog, a fat lady, and Alex Kintner, a young boy who will become the victim. In the first of many fluid camera movements, Spielberg tracks the fat lady into the sea and then tracks Kintner as he moves out of it. This helps establish tension by suggesting that the sequence is happening in ‘real time’ (ie, there are limited cuts) and re-enforces the randomness of the shark’s attacks. Anyone could be the victim.
In a moment of bitter irony, Alex asks his mother if he can spend a little more time in the water. She’s hesitant at first, but eventually relents to her son’s wishes. It’s a decision she’ll come to regret…
Spielberg then tracks Kintner as he walks up the beach towards a concerned Brody. Brody’s wife, Ellen, can be seen and heard in the background discussing her sense of alienation in Amity. Spielberg’s positioning of Brody (to the far right of the screen, looking out into the sea) highlights his problems – he’s oblivious to his wife’s concerns and powerless to stop Amity’s citizens flooding into the ocean.
The sequence then cuts to a long shot of the fat lady lying in the sea. The boy with the dog runs across the frame, re-enforcing his potential victimhood. He throws a stick into the sea and we see two young lovers swimming – more potential victims.
A boy runs past Mrs Kintner, diving into the sea – yet another potential victim. Spielberg cuts to a shot of the dog retrieving the stick, then to one of the fat lady, then to one of the boy who opened this short sequence. All are medium shots, working to involve us in the drama but keep us at a distance. Like Brody, we are mere witnesses.
After another red herring shot of the dog, we cut back to Brody. One person passes his line of vision and the shot cuts, taking us a little closer to him. Another person passes and the same thing happens again. Spielberg repeats the shot/cut action three times all in all. Brody has to adjust his line of vision each time, moving his head slightly to keep an eye on what’s happening. This is true audience participation. Spielberg is putting us in the same position as the character, obscuring our vision and making us work to see what’s happening.
Another cut to another long shot of one of our potential victims (the fat lady) is interrupted when another person walks across the frame, obscuring the woman and bringing about another cut to Brody, again craning his neck to get a clearer view. A second person walks across frame and we cut again to the fat woman. In the background a fin-like object swims towards her. It’s revealed to be an old man in a swimming cap and his surfacing from the water dissolves some of the tension with humour, but we remain gripped, desperate to see what’s going to happen next.
What happens next though takes us away from the water. Instead we and Brody are distracted by an Amity resident who wants a chat with the Chief. Spielberg uses two shots – one looking at Brody peering over the man’s shoulder; another showing us his POV of the sea, half-blocked by the man – to establish Brody’s powerlessness. He is utterly subjugated by this man and now physically blocked from stopping the townspeople from entering the ocean. Masculinity is a key theme in all Spielberg’s films, and in Jaws it manifests itself through Brody’s battle with the shark and the authorities who refuse to heed warnings about the danger it represents.
In one of Spielberg’s truly brilliant shots, we now see Ellen move towards her husband to relax him. But there’s little to be relaxed about as in the background a group of kids, including Brody’s own children, get up and head for the water. The fact that this action is secondary within the shot (to the conversation between Brody and Ellen) only adds to the tension. Has he noticed? Will he stop them?
With the kids in the water and the stakes raised, Spielberg brings in yet another distraction – the old man we saw swimming towards the fat lady earlier in the sequence. As with so many earlier shots, Spielberg ensures that the ocean remains a dominant force within the frame. We, like Brody, are being distracted by the old man, but we can’t forget what is happening in the distance. Furthermore, Spielberg once again establishes Brody’s masculine weakness by allowing the old man to mock his fear of the water. He can only offer a pathetic response – “that’s some bad hat, Harry”.
Brody’s wife tries to relax him again but we are quickly taken back to the water. Not just to the water, in fact. Into it. While the other scenes of bathers were medium shots, these are close ups. We are in the water with the swimmers and Spielberg cuts quickly from one to the next as they swim, splash and make a lot of noise. The sequence has been largely silent until this point. There’s been no music and the only sound has been the muffled chattering of sun worshipers and the one-on-one dialogue scenes between Brody and the characters who have approached him. The shark will surely be roused now…
Sure enough, something seems to be happening. The young man calls for his dog from the shore. Devilishly, Spielberg cuts to the dog’s stick, which is now floating forlornly in the water.
The game’s up. The shark is on the hunt and Spielberg cuts to the famous under-water POV shot. We swim past a few flapping legs and finally land on the victim: Alex Kintner. Just as the attack happens though, Spielberg again plays with our desire to see by cutting to a long shot of Alex being throttled. Even now, Spielberg is refusing to let us see in detail what’s happening. Eventually, he cuts in on the attack, but only as Alex is being dragged to his death.
Bringing the sequence to a close, Spielberg cuts to THAT dolly zoom, viscerally portraying Brody’s sense of shock and helplessness, and delivering a perfect finale to the sequence. After all the build up, we’ve got a showpiece shot that not only has an element of spectacle, but also sets up Brody’s character arc for the rest of the film. From this moment on, Jaws will be about Brody’s attempts to prove his masculinity and atone for his inability to prevent Alex Kintner’s death.