There's a debatable link between movie violence and real events, but that doesn't prevent critics from pointing to copycat crimes as proof.
Family films are in the DNA at Walt Disney. Universal Pictures has a weakness for monsters. And Warner Bros.? Its movies have often displayed a violent streak.
For decades Warner's films have put the studio in the middle of a perpetual debate over violence in the cinema, which has been revived after the deadly shootings last month in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater at an opening night showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," from Warner.
Warner executives have decided to delay the planned Sept. 7 release of another film, "Gangster Squad," to Jan. 11. 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. 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-theater slaughter. But to change it substantially or delay it for long might seem to acknowledge a link between movie violence and real events, breathing life into a discussion that is perhaps more familiar at Warner than at any other major Hollywood studio.
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. As musicals began to fade, Warner produced violent gangster films ("Little Caesar," "Public Enemy," "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang") that claimed to be ripped from the headlines of newspapers that sometimes, in turn, blamed Warner for inciting the behavior it dramatized.
A real-life chain-gang member was portrayed in "I Am a Fugitive." A chain-gang warden sued Warner for defaming him in the film. And the studio had thus entered the fray.
Two Warner films, "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch," 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 U.S. premiere in December 1971, that drew Warner deep into the controversy over violent movies.
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 reported to have been raped by a gang who sang "Singin' in the Rain," imitating a character played by Malcolm McDowell. A fairgrounds worker said to have been obsessed with the movie beat two women to death in incidents 13 years apart, and accounts said he had impersonated McDowell by wearing a bowler hat and playing the "William Tell" Overture on his rampages.
Warner created a second set of shock waves in late 1971 with the release of "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.
By 1974 a writer for Variety had speculated on the movie's 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 Eastwood and four more in its "Lethal Weapon" series, which cast Mel Gibson as a damaged Los Angeles cop portrayed as a danger to himself and others.
Some backed away
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 Schwarzenegger, was conceived as a morality tale about a gun-crazed character who is persuaded to ease up when he perceives the corrosive effect on a real youth.
But that message was largely lost in script development. And Warner, a powerful competitor, by then had successfully doubled down on violent genre films that, one after another, appeared to cross new thresholds.
Steven Seagal brought martial arts to the mix in a string of films that began with "Above the Law," in 1988. Quentin Tarantino, the master of a new, more whimsical sort of violence, made his debut as a studio writer with "True Romance," a drug-and-crime caper released by Warner in 1993.
"Natural Born Killers," a 1994 film about a pair of murderous lovers based on a story by Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone, set up what may have been Warner's most threatening encounter with real events, at least until the Aurora shooting. Amid a flurry of purported copycat crimes, Patsy Byers, a Louisiana store clerk, was shot and paralyzed by a couple who said they had been influenced y the film.
Byers filed suit against Stone and Warner's parent company, Time Warner. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a step that briefly shook the film industry, let stand a decision that allowed the lawsuit to proceed, on the theory that any movie designed to incite violence could indeed create liability. Eventually the case was dismissed on First Amendment grounds, but not before Warner and Stone spent years in the legal system.
Leading up to 'Batman'
In 2002, "The Matrix," another 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 to what had been a reliable formula since the arrival of Steven Seagal -- the combination of big guns with frenetic martial arts.
"The Matrix" and its two successors were, in a sense, antecedents to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which began in 2005 with "Batman Begins" and ends with "The Dark Knight Rises." The three R-rated "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.
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.