Three years ago, the Hollywood establishment got a taste of producer David Puttnam, puckered as if it had bitten into a lemon and spit him out. After just a year as chairman of Columbia Pictures, Puttnam was unceremoniously ejected.

The thing about David Puttnam, as any number of irate movie types would tell you, was the way he railed against Hollywood for making too many violent, overpriced, amoral movies. The way he droned on about social responsibility. The way he snubbed Hollywood stars and moguls.

As if David Puttnam productions ever made real money. Yes, "Chariots of Fire," "The Killing Fields," and "The Mission" won acclaim, but you can't run a studio on Oscars.

When Puttnam took over Columbia, half the town was drunk on the hope that he would bring some sense of elegance to the movie business. The other half was already gagging on Puttnam's style and rhetoric. Upon Puttnam's sudden departure, his enemies joyfully pointed out that the studio was in a multimillion-dollar quagmire. So much for David Puttnam.

Now, Puttnam is back with "Memphis Belle," his first post-debacle picture. In Washington for the premiere, he takes his usual moral tone, denying that he thirsts for vindication. But he wouldn't mind shedding his image as "a semi-art film producer" by proving that he can make a hit movie. "No one sensible wants to be placed in a box and forced to live in it," he says. "It's diminishing."

And it would have been sweet if that hit could have been "Memphis Belle," a film developed during his tenure at Columbia and made for Warner Bros. after the fall. Warners did its part. The studio strafed the airwaves with ads for the film, and last week splashed congratulatory ads across the pages of Hollywood's trade publications after the movie mustered a very respectable gross of $5 million in its first weekend.

In the final analysis, "Memphis Belle" won't light up the skies. But Puttnam isn't daunted; he's still flailing away in his role as Conscience of Hollywood. And he thinks his warnings about the cinematic pollution of the American mind are beginning to look prophetic.

He discerns the toxic effect in the Persian Gulf, where -- he argues -- war may break out because the public has been imbibing too much Rambo. "You could have, for the very first time, a serious policy problem created ... by very poor and ill-thought-through movies," he says.

Puttnam heard some U.S. military type -- was it Admiral Crowe? -- complain on television that Americans have been watching too many movies. That was a moment to savor. "I felt I had some actual ammunition instead of being this person who wails and moans about cinema," Puttnam says.

"Cinema." Puttnam can use that word, since he's British. And he's still on the very short list of film producers who make charming dinner companions. He's soft-spoken, slightly round-shouldered -- professorial, by Hollywood standards. He reads. His conversation goes far beyond the how's-my-movie-doing and how's-your-movie-doing patter so common at the Hollywood table. Not that he isn't interested in movies; he says he sat up all night trying to figure out what bothered him about "Avalon." (And finally decided it was the shifting point of view, a criticism that could be leveled at "Memphis Belle.")

He talks about German reunification, the debate over freedom of expression and, of course, the Persian Gulf. He uses an occasional expletive, but in a crude world he projects an unaccustomed fastidiousness.

The one scene that bothers him in "Memphis Belle" shows one of the young heroes standing at the urinal and then shuffling off without washing his hands. Puttnam blames director Michael Caton-Jones for allowing it. "It really irritates me, because he's standing by the wash basin," Puttnam says. "... I thought, 'Oh, Michael, it just shows where you were brought up.' "

His next movie, starring Glenn Close, is "a love story set in the world of opera." A far cry from "Pretty Woman." But Puttnam finds "Pretty Woman" much preferable to a violent action film. "God knows, it's a far more benign movie, a lot less damaging," he says.

At 50, Puttnam purports to have mellowed. His fences in Hollywood, he says, are almost rebuilt. "It actually is about four or five people who seriously don't like me," he says. "They certainly don't like me at all."

The films that Puttnam sent into production when he ran Columbia are mostly forgotten: "The Beast," set in Afghanistan (and partly subtitled); "The Big Picture," an apt insider's spoof of Hollywood, seen only by insiders; "Someone to Watch Over Me," a thriller that failed to thrill audiences; and the notorious "Leonard Part 6," a film that Puttnam didn't much fancy and that earned him a powerful enemy in Bill Cosby. Impolitic, considering that Cosby was cozy with Coca-Cola Co., which then owned Columbia Pictures.

Puttnam's chairmanship was marked by a series of disputes that seem to suggest an impulse toward self-destruction. With his talent, his taste, his sense of social responsibility and his occasional excesses, he became a sort of Gary Hart of the movie world.

The most notable Columbia film during Puttnam's tenure was the one that did not get made, the then-much-anticipated "Ghostbusters II." The film had so much commercial potential that its making seemed not just desirable but inevitable to all concerned. The story holds that Puttnam destroyed all hope of making the movie when he denounced Bill Murray for greed at a Hollywood luncheon. The star then refused to work for him. (Puttnam persistently denied the alleged attack and a debate raged for months over whether he had made it -- despite the fact that the luncheon in question was attended by a roomful of people.)

Puttnam tangled with another Ghostbuster, Dan Aykroyd, over a project called "Vibes." Aykroyd dropped out, or was pushed, and was replaced by Jeff Goldblum. The film was a resounding disaster. But by the time it opened, Puttnam was history and his successor was well along with "Ghostbusters II." (Which, incidentally, didn't turn out to be quite the hit the studio owners had in mind.)

Now, Puttnam finds it "a little bit alarming" that his time at Columbia was like writing on a blackboard, quickly and permanently erased. He says he's thought a lot about the experience, which provided fodder for two books (which he says he hasn't read). "When you think about the people that really hurt us, there's not one of them that lives the life that you would want for 10 minutes," he says. He doesn't envy two of his most powerful enemies: producer Ray Stark and agent Michael Ovitz. "Do I want to be Ray?" he asks. "Do I want Mike's anxieties? ... Why should you get neurotic? They have to live out their lives."

In the spirit of forgetting old animosities, "Memphis Belle" is dedicated to airmen regardless of nationality. Does this include Nazis? "There's no point in using the potency of cinema to resurrect old enmities," Puttnam says.

Social responsibility is his mantra; every topic becomes that topic. He knows he may sound "like a prat," especially in a print interview where "things that you think and agonize over end up {sounding} very simplistic."

But Puttnam can accept the idea that he borders on self-parody. "It's not my fault," he says. "That will be true until the things I've been saying either do or do not get validated. That's why I'm so keen on this gulf thing."

For a man who was punished severely in Hollywood for expressing himself too freely, Puttnam's tolerance for freedom of expression has surprising limits. (It ends when someone wants to make "Rambo IV.") But he advocates self-restraint, without help from the state.

"There is only one valid form of censorship and that is the sense of responsibility that filmmakers bring to their craft," he says. "... If filmmakers don't exercise a sense of responsibility, sooner or later, they are going to feed the Jesse Helmses of the world with ammunition."

Puttnam says his message should be heeded beyond the film world. The arts community as a whole "needs to sit and think very hard about what is important ... and not get into a knee-jerk reaction" of exercising its prerogatives, he says. "At what point do we who care about freedom of expression go too far?" he asks. "... It's a very delicate point and it needs wisdom. ... And I say this as someone who fought all those battles in the '60s and now sees that everything we won could be lost."

The world needs a decade "not of censorship, God forbid, but of retrenchment, regrouping," . says the mellower and perhaps more cautious David Puttnam. "... Maybe in 10 years we'll be able to afford another rush at creative freedoms."