Why Jaws is One of the Great Classics – A Lesson in Suspense

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

I’ve seen and studied the film Jaws so many times, I should have an honorary Masters Degree in Jaws by now. Two of my greatest story influences are Stephen Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock (luckily, my co-author,  Ed, has similar influences, among others, so that’s quite convenient).

Hitchcock famously said:

“A bomb is under a table, and it explodes: That is surprise. The bomb is under the table, but it does not explode: That is suspense.”

Surprise is great in small doses (just think of the head that pops out from the sunken ship’s hole in Jaws).  But it’s suspense that carries a story over the long haul.

What makes Jaws (and all the Hitchcock classics) so effective is the suspense that builds ever so gradually. In fact, Spielberg said up front that he’d only do the film if the shark isn’t seen for the first hour.  And indeed it isn’t. There are hints at the shark, books showing photos of sharks, floating objects that look like sharks, and deaths. But by later in the movie, you get, as Quint put it, “the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

And by the time the exciting scenes on Quint’s fishing vessel, the Orca, come along, you’re emotionally invested in the characters.

Spielberg even paid homage to Hitchcock in the famous Vertigo dolly zoom camera technique, when Roy Scheider first spots the Kintner boy being eaten by the shark. The camera zooms in on his face at the same time the dolly is pulling backward. The result is an “out of body” experience for the viewer.

There are countless other elements that go into a great film, of course: clever script, exhilarating cinematography, visual cues, memorable dialogue, good pacing, and fine acting.  This film has it all. Many of the other Spielberg classics, from Jurassic Park to, yes, even Schindler’s List, borrowed from techniques he mastered during Jaws.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are three fun links with some fascinating Jaws tidbits that will greatly enhance your experience the next time you watch the classic film:

Roger Ebert’s review and analysis of Jaws

20 Fascinating Facts about Jaws, from the documentary about the film

A lighthearted look at 50 reasons why Jaws may just be the greatest film of all time

And just for good measure, here’s a fourth link: IMDB’s List of Memorable Jaws Quotes

Enjoy! For now, “Farewell and adieu . . . “