Samuel Fuller’s long-repressed film White Dog was totally crazy, for lack of a more articulate description. Part Cujo, part symbol-laden dissection of racism in America, part B-movie exploitation thriller, this odd hybrid’s legend has become more interesting than the actual film.
Fuller, the genius director of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, goes back to his sparse, low-budget days with White Dog, offering up a muscular, masculine morality tale. The legend of the “white dog”, as told by the vaguely sinister, completely hysterical animal trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), indicates that what we are dealing with is more than just a euphemism for racism: it is a living, breathing beast. In real life, this kind of trained attack animal had been employed (by various racist groups such as owners of plantations or the KKK) to track down and kill first runaway slaves, then, simply, all people of color.
Fuller, who fought in Europe during World War II (taking home a Purple Heart for his heroic efforts, among other medals), uses his field experience dealing with the Nazi’s trained attack dogs to imbue his own film with a believable, primal dose of menace and horror. That man would bastardize his best friend with such aggressive hatred seems unnatural.
The tense script was written by Fuller and L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson together (the two shared a mentor-pupil relationship according to Hanson on the extras), jointly. Culled from a novella by renowned French author Romain Gary (aka Mr. Jean Seberg – a vocal Civil Rights activist and actress of note), the material was pulpy and raw, as was Fuller’s customary milieu. It is also blood-splattered and violent. The choice of Fuller to direct, even though he was not the first choice, in retrospect makes a lot of sense given his economical oeuvre and status as a true, if underappreciated auteur.
White Dog is, at turns, about racism’s ugly genesis in America since the slaves were emancipated, and a white dog trained to kill black people and then, conversely, reprogrammed to go after Caucasians. The film is also about a spoiled, stupid actress named Julie (Kristy McNichol) who takes the animal in from the streets, to be reconditioned by, natch, a black man. Apparently the author didn’t like his wife’s involvement with the Black Panthers in real life and used his novella to lash out and belittle her involvement with the movement and the industry itself, as the “actress” character is completely vapid.
Overall well-shot and good-looking, with a lot of good ideas brewing throughout the efficient 90-minute running time, White Dog is not top-tier Fuller, by any stretch of the imagination, yet its simplicity and provocative nature make it compelling. The film was only released in six theaters in 81, and then, only given a proper theatrical run in France. It took ten years to get a release in New York, and that happened only at festivals for select crowds. It is just now making it to DVD, 17 years later.
After all of the rumors and stories, was White Dog actually worth the wait? The answer is a bit more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”: rediscovering the lost work of any respected director is absolutely cause for excitement, but rediscovering work that is filled with flaws is quite another. The politics that chained this film for so many years are lost on me, much more profane studies on all of White Dog’s themes have been consequently released (Fuller was so bothered by claims of racism against the film that he had an NAACP official on set at all times). Why Fuller’s film hit a nerve with studios, distributors and audiences remains a mystery, but someone, somewhere misguidedly felt this was too dangerous for public consumption.
The mythic struggle to find an audience is part of the film’s overall allure, and it begs the question, Had this film been made by anyone else other than the beloved Fuller, would it still be considered as important? White Dog is essentially an artistic b-movie – something Fuller himself was the master of but something lesser filmmakers without the technical expertise would likely bungle into oblivion. Here, character is really not as important as the message, though Winfield, as the trainer, and the amazing Ives (in full-on corpulent sleazebag mode) manage to rise above the schlocky, one-note script.
McNicol, whose film career is a true anomaly, had a chance to do something infinitely more interesting that the television work she was known for, but dropped the ball in the worst way. This was a prime chance to lampoon the stereotype of the dewy ingénue that instead plays like work of an incompetent player. Perhaps this is the vision of Fuller, who missed a golden opportunity to add another strong layer of nuance onto the film in choosing to dumb down his characters and render them simple archetypes, even though stylistically, the film is both entertaining and watchable.
Fuller, as he aged, showed more and more technical proficiency and more tongue-in-cheek bravado with each work. Here he points out that the actress is not important, nor is the dog, really, the gist of this story is that it’s a man’s world. When it is man versus nature or man versus woman, man is the one who holds the power and the one who will do anything to win, to conquer.
The film’s most chilling sequence, when Julie confronts the white dog’s original owner, is the most genuinely controversial, effective, and cynical statement the director makes: no matter what we may say or do to combat it, racism and, indeed sexism, are both insidiously alive despite our good intentions. Often they can be found lurking behind the smile of a fat old man and his cherubic, hateful granddaughter.