Crime, lives and videotape

October 26, 1995

David Puttnam tells Kam Patel that movie violence must influence the way people behave while Michael Winner rubbishes the idea. A team of academics is researching possible links.

In Brian De Palma's 1987 film, The Untouchables, the honest hero-cop Eliot Ness corners his friend's brutal killer. Taunted by the killer's boast that even if arrested, he will later walk free, Ness pushes his quarry off a rooftop to certain death. That Ness has broken the law to satisfy an emotional urge hardly enters our minds. We identify totally with Ness's feelings: the killer, a particularly unsavoury character working for the prohibition era Mafia boss Al Capone, had it coming.

In the rooftop scene, Robert Reiner, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics, identifies one of the most important developments in cinema's portrayal of crime: the tarnishing of the "hero-figure". He believes that examination of this phenomenon is central to any consideration of whether TV and film have played a role in encouraging crime, violence and deviance in society. Reiner says: "Whereas at one time films depicted a predominantly positive image of institutional heroes in the police and the courts, this image has now become much more attenuated. Nowadays, even if most films take the side of the law, the law enforcers play dirty too. Consider the Dirty Harry series and the Sweeney, for example."

The Untouchables is one of several crime/violence films, dating back to 1945, that Reiner and his team at the LSE are analysing. They are trying to discover whether changes in the representation of crime on film can be linked to a rise in crime in the community. Films being examined include Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991), Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1972), Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) and Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) as well as more lighthearted productions such as The Great St Trinians Train Robbery (1966), and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). The LSE project is backed by the Economic and Social Research Council and will eventually cover crime representation in newspapers and TV as well.

In the same department, Sonia Livingstone is carrying out a survey of studies on the effect of film and TV crime and violence on viewer psychology and behaviour. She has found that while it is hard to establish that negative images usually on TV have a harmful effect, a minor detrimental effect cannot be ruled out. The degree appears to be twice as strong for positive than for negative images. In other words children are twice as likely to imitate positive, pro-order, antiviolence images than they are to copy harmful images. "Arguably the media is more full of negative than positive images. Conflicts are more often resolved, in television action adventure fiction, for example, by aggression than by talking the problem through," says Livingstone. If the research eventually concludes that an increase in negative images of aggression and conflict has occured in conjunction with an increasing undermining of positive images, this would be very worrying, she says.

"If that turns out to be true then it is extremely important," says Reiner. "Because it then becomes plausible that the media has actually had a big impact on changes in crime, order and deviance. But it is not so much through the presentation of increasingly violent images, it is through a weakening of the 'hero-figure'."

Calls for greater censorship are frequent. But if the problem is not that there has been an increase in filmic violence but rather that there has been a steady erosion of positive images over the years, then censorship is not the solution. Reiner says: "It becomes not a question of censoring out but of putting in and that is a really difficult thing to deal with. If the problem is the absence of heroic figures, for example, then they are not easy to feed in because if insertion is done really deliberately then it becomes blatant propaganda."

In the past censors played a key role in regulating crime and violence on screen. Until the 1950s criminals hardly ever got away with their crimes. In John Huston's 1950 masterpiece The Asphalt Jungle - one of the first films to portray criminals sympathetically - not one of the gang is allowed to get away with the crime. Reiner says: "In the end the law had to triumph. Now this wasn't an accident, this wasn't necessarily what people believed or wanted, it was a result of censorship here and in the United States. Films could not show crime paying." This censorship regime began breaking down in the 1950s under pressure from a more liberal, permissive culture. Gradually censors allowed criminals to be seen to profit from their crimes.

Reiner believes that the situation is now complex. Conventional social and cultural pressures continue to exert a powerful influence on the kinds of films made. A ready and growing market does exist, especially among the young, for films that are strong on sex and violence. But Reiner argues that since the 1970s, a powerful new dimension has been added to the intricate framework that determines the films that are made - namely, the kind of people that are making them. Reiner has been taking a close look at Hollywood and concludes that the elite now making movies is very much a product of the 1960s, the era characterised by increasing questioning of the integrity of authority, justice and the legal system. He says: "Politically the current Hollywood elite believes in free enterprise and the rest of it. It is essentially made up of Clinton Democrats. But these people have a very liberal moral and social agenda. They are concerned about free sexual relationships, political correctness and anti-establishment institutions. They certainly see this as a message that they are trying to put in their films. And at the avant garde end, the film creators have an agenda that entails presenting images that are beyond good and evil - the whole issue of right and wrong is absent. But I don't think that these very permissive images are actually that popular. I don't think that all the changes are market-led."


Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those we would wish them to have when they are grown up? We cannot . . . anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should serve as models of virtuous thought".

For film maker Sir David Puttnam, Aristotle's words are as relevant today as they were when first recorded nearly 2,500 years ago. Sir David, producer of Oscar-winning films such as Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields and The Mission, says the argument that crime and violence on screen has no effect on the viewer is "convenient but untenable". It is the degree to which such images have an effect on the viewer that is the real issue.

Puttnam says that makers of fiction actively seek a tangible response from the audience. Indeed the skill of the film maker lies in optimising that response. "The entire thrust of the film-making process is anything but neutral. It is an attempt to engage an otherwise 'neutral' mind in some form of proactive emotion. You want people to laugh, gasp, be angry and so on. And it is naive to think that those responses are left in the foyer when you leave the cinema. It is disingenuous in the extreme for good film makers to think that their films are having no psychological or behavioural effect."

Despite his concerns, Puttnam is not in favour of greater censorship. He would, however, like many more film makers to exercise their consciences rather more rigorously. "If I had to describe a lot of cinema today I would have to do so by saying it is conscienceless, that those responsible for much of what is being made have frequently failed to exercise their conscience in accordance with the nature of the society they would wish to live in," he says.

He contrasts current attitudes in the film industry with those prevalent during the 1940s and 1950s when many film makers saw themselves operating an extension of enlightened public policy. Certainly there were movies made during that period which grossly distorted the reality of, for example, the relationship between Afro-Americans and whites in the community, and the role of black people in society.

"There was distortion there, I accept that, but that is pretty minor stuff when you stack it up against the extraordinary work that was done by people like Stanley Kramer and Fred Zinnemann. And the fact that their work had a very strong moral core was really very important to me. The morality and conscience of the film maker were evident in many of the films that influenced me as a young man. You do not see this being expressed today or if it is, it comes way behind commercial considerations."

Puttnam points out that these days films are sold principally on the basis of "who is in them", shifting primary responsibility for the exercising of conscience in the industry away from the film maker to the star. "It is the star now more than anybody else who dictates the tone of the film. Among the present generation of stars I think there are some who behave very responsibly. Tom Hanks is an example. He seems to choose his material very carefully and he could genuinely stand up and say that the work he is doing is helpful. I know there has been a lot of criticism of Forest Gump and Philadelphia but the truth is that at their heart, those films are honourable pieces of work. Robin Williams is another example of a major star who is able to carry something of his moral vision within his work."

Puttnam finds it "extremely difficult" to make the same defence of half a dozen other major stars who, he says, have the ability to generate "positive material" but do not. "What is not being asked of these stars is 'what kind of world do they want to live in? How do they want their next door neighbours to behave? How would they like the society they live in to treat their children?'

"And if I am hearing anything it is that such questions do not apply to them because they've got, in many cases, four bodyguards. Or because one of their bodyguards takes the kids to school. Once you start answering questions in those terms, once you have managed to isolate yourself from society to that extent, then the exercising of conscience becomes a very abstract notion. You are not having to make social choices. Engaging in anti social behaviour should not be seen as the sole remit of those who find themselves at the bottom of the pile. It is also exhibited by people at the top."

Sir David believes strongly that the job of cinema is to help heal the damage and the occasional bleakness that everyday life sometimes heaps upon us. Cinema allows us to go on weaving ambition and magic into our lives, whatever the knocks we have had to take. Children especially need positive images that they can emulate throughout their lives. "The question should be 'what kind of storytellers do we want telling stories to our children?'" For Puttnam, the great tension in life is between spiritual development and regression. And it seems obvious to him that in order to navigate through, for example, the complexities of sexuality and violence, one needs to be armed with a spiritual sensitivity. "You are not going to reach any meaningful appreciation of life by stumbling through a miasma of sex, violence and greed. It is only by developing your strengths that you can address all your weaknesses and vulnerabilities, not the other way round. And it seems to me that the great challenge of cinema is to help people develop those strengths because at the very least they will then have something to steer by when they inevitably come into conflict with all the other **** that life throws at them."


The argument that violence in the cinema leads to crime in the community is complete "piffle", says film director Michael Winner.

He says that every major study that has been carried out into the supposed link has found that the public is "extremely robust and does not give a damn about it". In fact he believes such studies are a waste of time because they prove nothing.

Winner, whose films include Death Wish (1974), The Mechanic (1972) and the comedy Dirty Weekend (1993), says that "some very clear facts" are being overlooked. It is often not appreciated, he says, that Victorian society was far more dangerous to live in than late 20th-century Britain: "You could not walk through St James's Park at night without seriously risking being garrotted. The police couldn't enter certain areas to make arrests. People always say that our time is the most dangerous ever but it is not at all. In the early part of this century, there were gangs with razors in their caps who went around scratching peoples' faces open. If that happened today people would blame cinema and television and it would not be true. Society was far more dangerous before the advent of cinema and TV than afterwards."

Consider countries with lax censorship laws. Japan, for instance, is very relaxed about what is allowed on screen and yet it has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. "Presented with this fact, Mary Whitehouse points to cultural differences, and argues that the Japanese are trained differently to us. Well anyone who knows of the bestiality and torture they inflicted on prisoners during the war knows that isn't true. They are quite capable of these things but they do not do them".

Winner says that Britain is the most censored country in the western world and that not only are some films that play in the United States banned here, but films that are given one type of rating over there are given a more restrictive rating here. In England, audiences cannot see films which are permitted in France, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium and yet this has not led to a reduction in crime. "Do these people seriously believe that if you reduce crime on the screen by say 50 per cent then the crime rate will drop? If they do then they are utterly moronic. Do they seriously believe that if an Arnold Schwarzenegger film had 50 per cent less crime in it, a mugger would wake up in Brixton and say to himself 'Oh I'm not going to do any mugging today. I'll go and help old ladies cross the road instead?' It's preposterous".

He criticises heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley for urging television companies to exercise good taste. Winner argues that if television had bowed to such calls it would never have broadcast jazz music.

I put to Winner the tentative finding by LSE researchers that positive images may have a strong impact on audiences. "I'd like to think it was true that if you saw somebody arranging flowers, saying the world was beautiful, then you would go away and become a wonderful human being. But I think that what makes people good or evil is an unknown quantity. It is obviously something that enters the human psyche at an early age which is why you get a great deal of dreadful child crime. But it is an easy cop-out for politicians to blame cinema and television and thus give the impression that they are cleaning up society. It is a distraction from what should be serious research into the real reasons people become good or bad," he replied.

In considering the changing representation of crime and violence, Winner recalls the gangster films he saw during the 1940s and 1950s and which were at the time regarded as corrupting. "These films now play at national film theatres. People might say that what I saw when I was young was not as explicit as it is today. Well we thought it was. Within the range of social images available then, we thought it extremely frightening and bloodthirsty. Indeed some of the things that happened in those films would not pass the censor today".

Winner believes strongly that censorship in Britain should be reduced by 15-20 per cent to bring it into line with the US and the rest of Europe. But this is not to say that he does not want censorship. "If anybody says they don't believe in censorship then I would ask them whether they would like to see a 90 minute film showing the rape and torture of a six-year-old child shown in the cinema and on TV. Of course they wouldn't, so therefore they believe in censorship. The only question is where the line should be drawn." Winner has made no secret of his strong views on law and order: he backs capital punishment. Stalinist Russia, he argues, imposed very severe sentences for offences and as a result enjoyed a low crime rate. " I am not a great libertarian. But I don't believe that taking 50 per cent of the violence out of films will have the slightest effect on crime in the community."

He is critical of the way crime and violence on screen have been misrepresented, citing the tragic, disturbing murder of the the Merseyside toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993 by two 11 year olds and the shooting of 16 people in the 1987 by Michael Ryan in Hungerford. Films were implicated, wrongly says Winner, in both incidents: Child's Play in the case of the Bulger murder and Sylvester Stallone's Rambo films in the carnage unleashed by Michael Ryan. There has even been a case of a rapist citing one of Winner's films, Death Wish, as an influence. Winner says: "They eventually discovered he had seven previous convictions for rape. It is totally ludicrous to argue that films had an effect in any of these cases because no one knows if they saw the film concerned, no one knows if it had any effect and nobody knows whether they would have done the act with or without having the seen the film. I do not think there has ever been a case in which such a linkage has been proved."

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