In his review of the 1946 French film Panique, critic Bilge Ebiri observes that mob behavior is often not an expression of panic, but of a “monstrous ecstasy.” Mobs are driven by a religious fervor that provides a high. Mob rage is a blissful drug.
This is evident in the new Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell. The movie tells the story of Richard Jewell, who was working security in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996 when he discovered a backpack containing a bomb and alerted law enforcement. The bomb exploded, and soon after the FBI and the media decided that Jewell was the main suspect. Jewell was completely exonerated later, when Eric Rudolph was found to have been the bomber. In 2006, Governor Sonny Perdue publicly thanked Jewell on behalf of the state of Georgia for saving those at the Olympics. Jewell died of heart failure on August 29, 2007, at age 44.
In a remarkable recent Washington Post piece, CNN producer Henry Schuster, who helped hype the Jewell story in 1996, offers an apology to Jewell. “Writing an apology is not something journalists are used to doing,” Schuster notes.
It took me years just to open a document and type those few words. But with the release of “Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s new movie about the aftermath of the 1996 bombing in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, those of us who reported the story are doing a fresh round of soul-searching. No one emerged from the coverage with glory, although Jewell certainly deserved to.
Schuster recalls how after the FBI declared Jewell a suspect, the media was off and running: “The Atlanta paper reported it, we ran it over and over as breaking news, and those thousands of reporters covering the Olympics had their lead. By the next day, Jewell was notorious worldwide. (Now, with social media, a reputation can be destroyed in nanoseconds.)”
Even before the Internet age, fallen and imperfect human beings were prone to outbursts of dangerous hysteria. Years before Eastwood’s Richard Jewell we had the great film Panique, recently rereleased in a beautiful new Criterion Collection edition. Mobs are fueled, notes Ebiri, by a “gleeful hysteria”—the “cruel madness of rumor, fear and spite. . . . It’s almost like these people want to wallow in their hatred, that the collective hatred and malevolence revealed in the final act is welcome. Their eyes glow with giddy delight at being able to torment and hound the other.” Joker has been called a mirror of our times, but Panique provides a more accurate reflection.
Directed by Julien Duvivier and adapted from Georges Simenon’s 1933 novel Mr. Hire’s Engagement, the black and white Panique is a sublime expression of French poetic realism, as well as an early taste of what would become film noir. Simenon’s novel was inspired by one of the Belgian author’s memories: While a young journalist in Liege, he had seen a group of drunks savagely turn on a German man they accused of being a spy, and chase the man onto a rooftop.
Duvivier was inspired by his own experiences. He had gone to work in Hollywood during World War II. When he returned to France, he found that he was resented as one of those who had “abandoned” the country during the Occupation. The French were also bitter toward many who had stayed; distrust and paranoia were common as the country attempted to come to terms with who had submitted to the Nazis, who had fought, and who had fled.
Panique takes place in the placid suburban Paris neighborhood of Villejuif. The elderly Mademoiselle Noblet is found murdered. A handsome, well-dressed man named Alfred (Paul Bernard) takes charge of the scene while waiting for police. Later, Alfred is joined by his girlfriend Alice (the resplendent Viviane Romance). Alice recently spent several months in prison taking the rap for a crime Alfred committed. While Alfred is blankly criminal, Alice is more sinister—duplicitous, conniving, and malicious.
Alice discovers that Monsieur Hire, a tall, bearded, and eccentric man who lives in an apartment across the alley from hers, knows that Alfred is responsible for the murder. Alice and Alfred then set out to frame Hire. The task turns out to be easy, as the good people of Villejuif devour rumor, innuendo, and falsehood. In the eyes of the increasingly feverish town gaggle, Hire’s oddities become indictments. Hire lives alone and isn’t married. He asks the butcher for his meat to be extra bloody. He moonlights as “Doctor Varga,” an astrologer and spiritual adviser who gives advice gleaned from occult texts. Hire has a supercilious way about him, is somewhat antisocial, is educated and physically intimidating. These traits become enough to convict him.
Once the specious story gets out, Panique drives toward its ghastly conclusion. The town carnival, usually an atmosphere of fun, becomes a maelstrom of anger and accusation, with the suspicious townspeople coalescing into a flowing river of rage. The fuse has been lit, the police are three steps behind, and a collective madness has obliterated any hope of a fair hearing.
In “Panic Attack,” an essay printed in the booklet of the Criterion Collection edition, film historian James Quandt explores how Duvivier’s style works so brilliantly with the material: “The many crane shots in Panique, which was filmed on the sound stages of the Victorine studios in Nice, emphasize the setting’s enclosure, immuring its inhabitants in an isolated world of intolerance and innuendo.” In a vertiginous and terrifying climax, Hire is hunted through the town square and then to the rooftops.
Those who know human nature or who have spent any time on social media won’t be surprised to learn that it doesn’t end well. Crazed mobs are out for blood and usually aren’t satisfied until they get it. Duvivier once explained that Panique depicted a world in which “we are far from people who love each other.” The deeper question, raised by Quandt, is whether “any other kind ever existed.”
While both Panique and Richard Jewell are commentaries on particular cultures and particular times, they share a message that is archetypal and timeless: Without due process, without law, without the presumption of innocence, people submerged in an environment of hysteria quickly devolve into wolves. Members of the press are usually the worst offenders, taking sides and fueling the carnival atmosphere rather than searching for the truth—which usually comes out long after it’s too late.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n' Roll.
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