Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Sam Fuller's WHITE DOG

James Marsh, Asian Editor
One of Hollywood's true maverick filmmakers, Sam Fuller was never a man to shy away from tackling important social and political issues in his films. Famously, he was the first American filmmaker to tackle the Korean War, in The Steel Helmet, mental illness (among other issues) in Shock Corridor, and child abuse in The Naked Kiss. So when Paramount executives Jon Davison and Don Simpson were scrambling to get a bunch of projects through production ahead of an upcoming writers' strike in 1981, who better to take on the long-gestating White Dog than Fuller, hot again after the recent success of The Big Red One.

White Dog is adapted from an autobiographical novel written by Romain Gray, which told the story of how he and his wife, actress Jean Seberg, found and took in a stray dog, which they later discovered had been trained to attack black people. The book goes on to denounce both racism and activism in general, especially the work of groups such as The Black Panthers, of whom Seberg was a vocal supporter. Bought by Robert Evans and adapted by Curtis Hanson, White Dog was originally to be directed by Roman Polanski, until he was forced to flee the country after being charged with statutory rape in 1977. 

In what began a long and difficult journey from page to screen, White Dog was attached to a number of different filmmakers, including Arthur Penn and Tony Scott, before Paramount eventually settled on Fuller. White Dog was viewed as a cheap and simple production that would be one of a batch of titles hastily put into production to ensure the studio was covered ahead of a planned strike by the unions. Fuller had a good reputation for revising scripts and readying productions quickly, so it seemed like a safe bet. Fuller abandoned his plans to shoot a thriller in Japan, brought Hanson back into the fold and completely redeveloped the script, dispensing with everything from Gray's book except for its central premise.

In Fuller's White Dog, a struggling young actress, Julie Sawyer (played by former child star Kristy McNichol), hits a white German Shepherd with her car and takes him into her home in the Hollywood hills. When faced with the harsh reality that the seemingly affectionate mutt will likely be put down if handed into the pound, Julie chooses to adopt the dog herself. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the nameless pooch is a trained attack dog, or more specifically a "white dog", bred for the specific purpose of attacking black people. Julie takes the dog to see Carruthers (Burt Ives), a movie animal trainer surrounded by caged lions, gorillas and other tamed beasts, where his business partner, the African American Keys (Paul Winfield), commits himself to breaking and curing the hound.

A blunt yet effective metaphor, White Dog raises the question about whether hatred and bigotry is in our nature or is something we are taught, and more importantly explores whether or not it can be turned around. While Fuller justly felt that his decision to use a dog rather than a human as his central antagonist was a safe and powerful cinematic tool, others outside of the production were less inclined to grasp his concept. 

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A local representative of the NAACP visited the set of White Dog, with the studio's blessing but much to Fuller's chagrin, and came away deeply concerned. Paramount had been looking for reassurance that the film would not be perceived as racist, but the NAACP - without seeing so much as a frame of actual footage - condemned the film as dangerously prejudiced, with the potential to encourage racists and Klan members to breed their own white dogs.

By the time White Dog had been completed - in just 45 days for a modest US$7 million - Paramount had lost its nerve completely, and refused to release the film in the United States. It did play theatrically in France and the UK in 1982, where it received positive reviews, but debuted quietly, and without any kind of impact, on cable television in its home territory, where it languished for almost a decade. White Dog was first screened commercially in the US in 1991, and even then only as an art house curio. The first time the film was made widely available was when the Criterion Collection released it on DVD in 2008, to a general public all but completely unaware of its prior existence.

Admittedly there is something of a TV movie-of-the-week feel to White Dog, as much to do with its early 80s setting and on the nose dialogue as anything else, but there is no denying the ferocity with which Fuller approaches the material. McNichol's well-meaning heroine is naive innocence personified - the harmless, borderline ignorant end of the caucasian spectrum - who struggles throughout to comprehend why somebody would have conditioned the dog to be so cold-bloodily hateful. Her character is very much sidelined in the film's second half, however, by Paul Winfield's determined, bullheaded trainer, Keys, who is committed to reforming the animal, even if it kills him. And is fully prepared to shoot the animal himself if he fails to do so.

Winfield gives a fantastic performance here, falling somewhere between black panther-esque activist and flesh-bearing toreodor as he flaunts his ethnicity fearlessly in the face of his aggressor, resilient in his mission. His determination comes not from hatred, but from a sense of justice, and makes the film's heart-wrenching, pessimistic denouement all the more tragic as a result. Julie may have lost her pet, but Keys has succeeded only in creating a new kind of monster. 

Elsewhere, White Dog features a host of amusing blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos from the likes of Dick Miller, Paul Bartel and Fuller himself, while the film features a rich, almost heroic score from Ennio Morricone, which brings an air of spaghetti western grandstanding to the numerous standoffs between man and beast in Keys' caged arena. Eagle-eyed viewers will also notice the name Stan Winston mentioned as one of the film's prosthetics artists.

As usual, Eureka Entertainment has done an incredible job bringing a new 1080p high-definition restoration of the film to UK audiences for the first time, overseen by producer Jon Davison. It is difficult to imagine the film has ever looked or sounded as good as it does on this new disc. Tragically, however, this new dual format Blu-ray/DVD release on the Masters of Cinema label is completely barebones, with no special features whatsoever. This is particularly disappointing as Criterion's earlier release included a number of interviews with the film's cast & crew. However, this release does come with a 48-page booklet that includes some excellent writing about the film, its fate and legacy. In particular, there's a delightfully eccentric interview written by Fuller himself, in which he has a conversation with his canine performer about its experiences working on White Dog. That alone makes this is a fruitful purchase.

White Dog is available on dual format Blu-ray/DVD release in the UK from The Masters of Cinema now.
Around the Internet:
  • Dave Baxter

    "Julie may have lost her pet, but Keys has succeeded only in creating a new kind of monster."

    What is the "new kind of monster" that Keys created? I'm not sure that's an accurate summation of the climax. Keys couldn't confidently erase the conditioning (i.e. the engrained/taught racism) of the dog. Even when progress was made, the conditioning (taught racism) could jump back at any time and prove just as fatally dangerous. Which is tragic, but that was still the same old monster, not a new one. The point was that it couldn't be destroyed, only eternally combated.

  • marshy00

    My meaning is that Keys was able to stop it from attacking black people (at least for the time being), but it went after Carruthers instead, which is what forces him to shoot it. So he has managed merely to change the dog's prejudices rather than cure them.

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