Directed by Samuel Fuller (1982)
by Evan Popplestone
What’s it about?
Aspiring Los Angeles actress Julie (Kristy McNichol) accidentally runs over a dog with white fur during a nighttime drive in the Hollywood Hills. She takes it to the vet, and after they patch it up she is faced with two choices: adopt it herself until the original owner is found, or take it to the dog pound where it will be put to sleep if it isn’t adopted in three days. Unable to bear the prospect of it being put down, she decides to take it in.
After she brings the dog home it initially seems to be an ideal companion, especially when it saves her from a would-be rapist who breaks into the house and attacks her. However, soon afterwards it runs away, only to return a day later covered in blood. Julie is glad to see the dog back, and shrugs off its bloody appearance as she assumes it got into a fight with another animal.
Unknown to her though, while it was away it had attacked a black road sweeper driver. Later, when she brings it along to the studio for a movie shoot, it pounces on her black co-star, putting her in hospital. Her boyfriend Roland (Jameson Parker) tells her that it’s an attack dog and should be put down before it hurts someone else. The stubborn Julie, however, is desperate to look for alternatives and takes it to movie animal trainers Carruthers (Burl Ives) and Keys (Paul Winfield) to see if they can do anything to change its ways. The pair find out that this particular canine is what is known as a “white dog,” in more than just the fur colour sense of the word; it has been specifically trained to attack people with black skin. Keys, having tried and failed to break the racist sickness in two of these white dogs in the past, is determined to try once more. Will he succeed this time?
Why is it significant?
White Dog is loosely based around part of a 1970 memoir-turned-novel from writer Romain Gary, who was living in Hollywood at the time with his then-wife Jean Seberg. It was inspired by a situation where the couple adopted a seemingly-friendly German Shepherd, only to see it attack their own black gardener. After some investigation, they found out that it was a police dog from Alabama which had been trained to attack people with black skin.
Paramount purchased the story in 1975, after the record-breaking box office success of Jaws resulted in movie studios large and small clamouring for their own “wildlife-run-amok” hit. Roman Polanski was originally earmarked to direct, but before filming was due to start in 1977 he fled the country after being charged with statutory rape, resulting in the project being put in limbo. When Romain Gary committed suicide via gunshot in 1980 there was a renewed period of media attention around the author, so Paramount made another (this time successful) stab at filming his work.
Samuel Fuller, who had pulled off a creative comeback with The Big Red One (1980), was put in the director’s chair. However, the film attracted controversy even before shooting had begun as both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition (BADC) expressed concern that it would have racist overtones. While just about anyone who has seen the final result would have to conclude that it’s stridently anti-racist in its message, the NAACP nonetheless threatened to boycott the release, so Paramount - nervous about any potential damage to their reputation - only slipped it out quietly in a few cinemas in the U.S. before shelving it entirely. However, it garnered some positive critical notices and has gradually amassed a cult following from overseas screenings, film festivals, cable showings, DVD, and Blu Ray releases.
This was too late for Fuller, who was personally devastated by the film’s treatment. He relocated to France (where he was long held in high regard) for a number of years and directed his last three films there.
How does it hold up?
Tense. Operatic. Emotional. Heart-wrenching. Uncomfortable. Thought-provoking. Challenging. Intermittently clunky. All adjectives that can accurately be used to describe White Dog.
Under the guise of a “dangerous dog on the loose” thriller, it’s an intelligent and potent treatise on both racism and the nature of hate brought on by abuse. Samuel Fuller effectively renders his onscreen dog (actually played by five different white-furred German Shepherds) alternately as a snarling, teeth-baring figure of terror, and as an object of genuine audience empathy. Some low tracking shots follow the dog around, while others take its POV, imbuing the sense that the viewer is playing the part of the animal, thus causing them to more directly invest in any prospect its cure. On the other hand, the more brutal side of the beast is viscerally depicted with many shocking close-ups of incisors, blood stains on both human victims and its own fur coat, and much accompanying growling and screaming. We feel revulsion and a jolt of shock at its behaviour.
While the dog is an undisputed star, Paul Winfield’s performance as Keys gives it a run for its money. It’s a shame he was frequently relegated to secondary roles during his career; his performance here is filled with a genuinely single-minded fire and passion, directed towards undoing a genuine wrong. When his character admonishes Julie for feeding the dog a hamburger during its reconditioning: “Only this colour black feeds this dog. He’s gotta know he’s stuck with me,” you know this is a man rooted in a determination to make the world a better, less racist place. While there are no scenes portraying Keys as a victim of racism himself (he’s evidently respected by all of the white characters he’s in scenes with), there’s a palpable unspoken hint of such pain from the past in Winfield’s performance.
Although Kristy McNichol is the top-billed performer here and the main human protagonist during the first half of the film, once Winfield’s character comes into focus she’s largely relegated to the sidelines. That’s not a bad thing since, while an OK actress, she sometimes comes across as being overly pouty and mawkish. However, she does manage one powerful moment near the end when the dog’s original owner shows up, in a bona-fide “off-guard” revelation. Burl Ives also turns in a grand veteran performance as Keys’ kindhearted business partner, with his standout scene being a tearful recollection about an old friend who had his throat torn out by an attack dog he adopted. Ennio Morricone’s orchestral score hits the emotional crescendoes extremely well and heightens the impact of the film’s more suspenseful moments.
Despite the largely well-handled central message, there are occasional moments of clumsiness in terms of writing and on-screen execution. Some of the action sequences feel overdone in terms of editing, stunt work and slow motion. There’s also a rather contrived and unlikely dog escape scene later on in the film, which seems to have been inserted as a way of testing the convictions of the characters as well as playing up the “canine terror” aspect, rather than something we would expect to occur in real life.
Nonetheless, White Dog is commendable for its approach to the thorny subject matter of racism, and its uncomfortable realisation that treating it is not something simple or cut-and-dried - even when the best will in the world is put behind it.