News Analysis: Warner Brothers and Its Decades of Violent Films

July 26th, 2012

LOS ANGELES — Family films are in the DNA at Walt Disney.

Universal Pictures has a weakness for monsters.

And Warner Brothers? Its movies have often displayed a violent streak.

For decades Warner’s films have frequently put the studio in the middle of a perpetual and unresolved debate over violence in the cinema and in real life. That debate has been revived after the deadly shootings last Friday in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater at an opening night showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” from Warner.

While the box-office success of “Dark Knight” seems assured — the opening weekend produced $ 160 million in North American sales — Warner executives have decided to delay the planned Sept. 7 release of another film, “Gangster Squad,” according to a person who was briefed on the studio’s plans on Tuesday and spoke anonymously because the change has not been officially announced. The film is a hard-edged cinematic portrayal of the police war on mobsters in mid-20th-century Los Angeles.

Trailers for the movie, which showed gunmen firing into a movie theater, were pulled after the shooting last week. Executives have further debated whether to go so far as to reshoot portions of “Gangster Squad,” according to published reports. Warner executives declined through a spokeswoman to discuss their plan or the studio’s posture in general toward screen violence.

To go forward with “Gangster Squad” as is might trigger revulsion at scenes that seem to recall the movie-theater slaughter in Colorado. But to change it substantially or delay it for long (no new date has been set) might seem to acknowledge an otherwise debatable link between movie violence and real events, breathing life into a discussion that is perhaps more familiar at Warner than at any of Hollywood’s major studios.

If Warner has been more daring, and often more masterly, in its handling of screen violence, that owes much to a tradition rooted in the 1930s, when brothers named Warner — Harry, Albert and Jack — were still a force at the studio. As musicals began to fade, the Warners joined their production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, in producing a series of violent gangster films that claimed to be ripped from the headlines of newspapers that sometimes, in turn, blamed Warner for inciting the behavior it dramatized.

The best known of Warner’s early gangster titles were “Little Caesar,” “Public Enemy” and “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”

A real-life chain-gang member was portrayed in “I Am a Fugitive,” which was released amid a public outcry over brutality in the name of law. A chain-gang warden sued Warner for defaming him in the film. And the studio had thus entered the fray.

Two Warner films, Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch,” by Sam Peckinpah, were at the heart of a social and critical debate in the 1960s over what A. O. Scott, writing more recently in The New York Times, called “the connoisseurship of violence.”

But it was “A Clockwork Orange,” which was directed by Stanley Kubrick and had its United States premiere on Dec. 19, 1971, that drew Warner deep into the controversy over movies and their presumed consequences.

A fantasy about violent young sociopaths in a skewed future, the movie was sold with a tag line that promised “rape, ultraviolence and Beethoven.” In one English town a woman was later reported in news accounts to have been raped by a gang who sang “Singin’ in the Rain,” imitating a character played by Malcolm McDowell in the movie. A fairground worker said to have been obsessed with the movie beat two women to death in incidents 13 years apart, it was also reported, and accounts said he had impersonated Mr. McDowell by wearing a bowler hat and playing the “William Tell” Overture on his rampages.

The veracity of these tie-ins to the film is uncertain. But Mr. Kubrick, said to be shaken by the movie’s reception, insisted that Warner pull “A Clockwork Orange” from release in Britain. And it was not shown there again until after his death in 1999.

But even as “A Clockwork Orange” was first being shown in the United States, Warner created a second set of shock waves, in December 1971, with the release of Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry.” In it Clint Eastwood, as a San Francisco cop disgusted by the legal coddling of criminals, settled his scores with a .44 Magnum. “It has no pretensions to art; it is a simply told story of the Nietzschean superman and his sadomasochistic pleasures,” wrote an essayist for the Harvard Crimson, in an article that was reprinted in The Times on May 21, 1972.

By 1974 a writer for Variety had speculated on the movie’s supposed influence in a string of brutal incidents involving the San Francisco police. But Warner forged on, through five films in its “Dirty Harry” series with Mr. Eastwood and five more in its overlapping “Lethal Weapon” series, which cast Mel Gibson as a damaged Los Angeles cop who was portrayed as a danger to himself and others.

Early in the 1990s other studios and even stars as comfortable with screen violence as Arnold Schwarzenegger were backing away from an action genre that was believed by some to have gone too far. “The Last Action Hero,” released by Columbia Pictures in 1993 and starring Mr. Schwarzenegger, was actually conceived as a morality tale about a gun-crazed character who is persuaded to ease up when he perceives the corrosive effect of his craft on a real youth.

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