Movies that portray the frightening phenomenon of ?crowd psychology?
are not uncommon, so you?re in luck.
What is meant by "crowd pschology"? I think we can agree that whenever
individuals subordinate their own independence, judgment and thought
to the prevailing emotion/consensus of the crowd in which they find
themselves, crowd psychology comes into play. The crowd becomes one:
in its opinions, behavior and, most terribly sometimes, in its
violence. In effect, the crowd becomes a kind of closed, mutually
reinforcing loop, with explosive potential.
Perhaps one of the most famous instances in world literature of a
crowd reacting as one is found in the Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar.
The crowd gathers after Caesar?s assassination by Brutus, Cassius and
others. They listen to the assassins? denunciation of Caesar
approvingly. But then Marc Anthony rises and delivers his famous
oration over the body. Gradually, as one, the crowd?s emotion shifts
from approval of the assassins to vengeful anger against them.
A film clip of this famous scene is available in the 1953 film of the
play, in which a very young Marlon Brando played Marc Anthony.
Two other films in which a crowd is, in effect, a powerful character
are ?The Hunchback of Notre Dame? (the classic 1939 version) and
Here?s how one web site describes the crowd scenes in ?Hunchback?:
?The one thing one notices about Dieterle is his handling of crowds -
no directors other than Sergei Eisenstein and Fritz Lang ever really
used crowds to such a group mime effect. Dieterle whips the crowds
from one side of the screen to the other - they?re all naked forces of
expression and the effect as giant masses collide on screen is
stunningly spectacular. In one sensationally beautiful shot the camera
hangs near the very apex of the cathedral looking down on the crowd as
Charles Laughton holds Maureen O?Hara?s unconscious body up before
them - the image is so stark and vivid it hangs there like a primal
The 1931 version of ?Frankenstein? was especially brilliant at
portraying a mob that was at once enraged and frightened. At a website
devoted to ?greatest films?, www.filmsite.org, you will find this
description (click on ?F? in the index, then on Frankenstein):
?In a climactic pursuit scene, Frankenstein joins a large search party
of peasants commissioned by the burgomaster to take up glowing
torches, pitchforks, and bloodhounds and set off after the murderous
monster, chasing it through the dark night.?
It?s interesting that both these films (and the narratives they are
based upon) portray a crowd united in anger against an individual who
is a loner/pariah/monster, suggesting another element of ?crowd
psychology?: the community united to reject, banish or even destroy
that which is ?other.?
This thought leads to another fertile area for researching cinematic
portrayals of crowd behavior and psychology. My search query ?lynch
mobs in movies? yielded a very interesting result, an article by a
professor at the UCLA Law School entitled ?Lynch Mobs in Trial
Prof.Asimow writes: ?One of the most terrifying lynch mob films of all
time is Fury (1936), directed by the great Fritz Lang and starring
Spencer Tracy. Another classic lynch mob scene appears in Young Mr.
Lincoln (1939), directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. Both
films are available on video. If your local store doesn't have them,
you can rent or buy them from reel.com.?
Mr. Lang had fled Nazi Germany for America not long before he made
this film about an attempted lynching of an innocent man who escapes,
and then ?stands up to the crowd? later as a plaintiff in a trial of
The other film is ?Young Mr. Lincoln? and the man who stands up to the
mob in this film is none other than Abraham Lincoln himself. Four
other films are mentioned by Mr. Asimow , all worth your attention, I
Finally no response to your question would be complete without mention
of the films of Frank Capra, in one of which, ?Meet John Doe?, the
crowd becomes a mass movement, dangerous and volatile.
Here is how one writer describes Mr. Capra's interest in crowds and
portrayal of them:
?Capra often made a crowd a protagonist of his films. In addition to
the circus finale of Rain or Shine (1930), there are the panicked bank
customers of American Madness (1932), the horse race crowds of
Broadway Bill (1934), the people assisting the Senator in Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington (1939), and the residents of Bedford Falls in It's
a Wonderful Life (1946). These crowds undergo mob psychology. They are
whipped into emotions, and are a raging torrent, filled with out of
control behavior. The hero usually tries to direct them, control them,
and turn them from evil, catastrophic or self defeating ends. These
scenes are often very long, such as the whole last half hour of Rain
The crowd scenes are carefully organized, with a steady escalating
excitement in the crowd. There is a progression through many different
stages and emotional levels in the mob of people. It is like a piece
of classical music, with each bit playing a progressive role in the
overall plan. However, these scenes are drenched in anxiety. The
lightest hearted of them is in Broadway Bill. Here there is a
sentimental, sympathetic portrait of an excited crowd at a horse race.
This crowd is entirely benevolent and up beat. Yet even here, there is
an undercurrent of menace. The race fans form a genuine dynamo of
energy. They are a powerful force that is turned on, and one cannot
help but wonder what would happen if they turned nasty. One sees what
would happen in Rain or Shine, which is the most negative of the crowd
scenes. Usually the hero manages to control what happens. Here
however, he unexpectedly fails. We get the Apocalypse. These are the
most terrifying scenes in all of Capra. The final Potterville sequence
of It's a Wonderful Life might be more despairing, but it is not more
frightening or more out of control than Rain or Shine.?
To conclude my answer to your question, crowds/mobs are scary,
especially as portrayed by gifted film directors. But they are also
weak. A gifted orator like Marc Anthony or Mr. Lincoln can easily
change their collective mind. A dangerous demagogue like Adolf Hitler
can mold the crowd/masses to his purposes. One last recommendation:
the film All the King?s Men (1949) brilliantly dramatizes the power of
a demagogue over the ?crowd.?
www.filmsite.org (click on A in index and then on the film title for a
All the best,