A studio with violence in its bones
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 cinema and in real life. That debate has been revived after the deadly shootings in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre at an opening night showing of The Dark Knight Rises, from Warner.
While the box office success of Dark Knight seems assured, Warner executives have decided to delay the planned September 7 release of another film, Gangster Squad, according to a person who was briefed on the studio’s plans 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 theatre, were pulled after the shooting last month. Executives have further debated whether to go so far as to reshoot portions of Gangster Squad, according to published reports.
To go forward with Gangster Squad as is might trigger revulsion at scenes that seem to recall the movie-theatre slaughter in Colorado. But to change it substantially or delay it for long might seem to acknowledge an otherwise debatable link between movie violence and real events.
Warner has been more daring, and often more masterly, in its handling of screen violence, that can be traced back to a tradition rooted in the 1930s, when the Warner brothers — 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 behaviour it dramatised.
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, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 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 tagline that promised “rape, ultraviolence and Beethoven.” 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 and four 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 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 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.
Steven Seagal brought martial arts to the mix in a string of films that began with Above the Law in 1988. Quentin Tarantino made his debut as a studio writer with True Romance, a drug-and-crime caper released by Warner in 1993. Natural Born Killers, a film based on a story by Tarantino but directed by Oliver Stone, set up what may have been Warner’s most threatening encounter with real events, at least until the recent Aurora shooting.
The Matrix, again a Warner film, had already created a new kind of screen violence, by welding an elaborate fiction about hidden manipulators of the world as we know it. With their intricacies and black-coated hero, played by Keanu Reeves, The Matrix and its two successors were, in a sense, antecedents to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Rated R, however, the three Matrix movies were deadlier than the Dark Knight series. And they were blamed, of course, for copycat crimes, sometimes by defendants who entered pleas of insanity, claiming that they had been trying to escape from the ‘Matrix’ portrayed in the film.
Three decades earlier, however, a Newsweek writer, in a review that derided the “lethal ugliness” of Dirty Harry, also registered the futility of worrying about the bad effects of a movie. Good-hearted pictures, the magazine reasoned, rarely seemed to do much good. “There is little chance that this right-wing fantasy will change things where decades of humanist films have failed,” the review said.