HCF REWIND NO. 205: WHITE DOG [USA 1982]
ON DUAL FORMAT [BLU-RAY AND DVD]: 31st March
RUNNING TIME: 90 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Young actress Julie Sawyer accidentally runs over a stray White German Shepherd dog one night. After the dog is treated by a vet, Julie takes him home while trying to find his owners. The animal seems friedly, loyal and even protective when it saves her from a rapist who breaks into her house and tries to attack her, so she decides to adopt him, despite this being against the wishes of her boyfriend Roland Grale. However, the dog reveals a nasty side to itself when, for seemingly no reason at all, it pounces on a coloured binman. It was trained from birth to attack and kill black people….
Hollywood likes to present an image of being a ‘right-on’, ‘liberal’ town and loves to pat itself on the back when it produces or is faced with anti-racist movies, the nadir of this probably being when the infuriating preachy and simplistic Crash won Best Picture in 2004. Ellen Degeneres said it right at this year’s Academy Awards where she jokingly but also pointedly said:
“Possibility No. 1: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility No. 2: You’re all racists”.
However, sometimes Hollywood contradicts itself. Just read the next line. According to a character in White Dog, a ‘white dog’ is a canine trained to attack black people, usually by placing a puppy in the ‘care’ of a black person who they know would abominably treat it and in the process make it hate negroes [Romain Gray, who wrote the book the film was based on, was inspired by real incidents when she adopted a dog and it attacked two black people]. What a powerful concept for a film this is, and I would like to think that any person with even one brain cell would immediately realise what a searing examination of racism it could be even before it got into the hands of a maverick film-maker like Samuel Fuller who had made a partially anti-racist film decades before in The Crimson Kimono. However, under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], who clearly had the best intentions and were rightfully battling against the marginalisation and stereotypical portrayal of black people in Hollywood, but who had a problem with White Dog before they’d even seen any footage, Columbia got scared and didn’t release the film in the US. It did come out in many other parts of the world including the UK, though it’s hardly been an easy film to find or see even here in Blighty. Fuller, a film-maker whose work was often only appreciated years after its initial release, was so dejected by what happened that he moved to France and never made another picture.
A sad story then, and a sad story even if White Dog isn’t actually that good. All films [well, maybe not quite all] deserve a chance. Fortunately, White Dog, a film that I’m immensely glad I’ve finally caught up with thanks to the good people at Eureka Entertainment, is very good indeed. It could be called both a drama and a horror movie [though it’s less Cujo and more Dr Jekyll and Mr Hound], but it makes no bones about being more than anything else a parable about racial prejudice. I tend to dislike films which preach – though they definitely have their place in cinema and a great many fine film-makers have tried to educate and enlighten as well as entertain – that kind of film-making generally doesn’t sit well with me though of course there are exceptions. White Dog, though, doesn’t preach. It simply presents us with one of the worst of all the problems that have blighted mankind since its beginnings and asks if it can be stopped. Is racism a disease that can be cured? Or is it something within us that can never be totally stamped out? Or is hatred the real problem? I don’t think it’s saying too much that White Dog doesn’t really give you the answer. Instead, it just offers suggestions and lets the viewer make up his or her mind.
Many Of Fuller’s films, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss being perhaps his two best known, have become cult favourites. As well as making movies from strong premises feeling like they had been ripped from newspaper headlines, ex-journalist Fuller also gave his films a very punchy film-making style that actually makes them feel very modern, yet still more ‘controlled’ than some films today where it often seems to me like the director, the cinematographer and the editor don’t seem to have much idea of what they’re doing. White Dog, though dating from 1982, is one of the best shot [by Bruce Surtees, responsible for lensing some of Clint Eastwood’s best films] and cut pictures I’ve seen in a while. The edits are often done for maximum effect yet always seem appropriate, while the camera can go from swooping down on something from high up like a bird to assuming the level of the dog in the film. The scenes where the dog attacks people, and there are many of those though the level of gruesomeness isn’t as high as you may have expected, are handled in the frenzied, fast-cutting manner beloved of today, though the shots cut together very well. It also helps disguise any obvious fakery though I couldn’t spot any shots of a dummy animal, the dog [or rather five, five mutts playing the ‘white dog’ in the film] always seeming real.
White Dog opens with actress Julie Sawyer hitting the dog with her car, only you don’t actually see the incident because all the viewer sees for a short while is a black screen. It’s a brave device. Then, for a short while, it really does seem that we are watching an archetypal family-friendly dog movie as human and canine bond. There’s a really sweet scene where the dog opens his eyes at the vet’s as people are talking about him. I admit to having a weakness for dogs and this one has such cute eyes, in fact the White German Shepherd’s whole face will be totally lovable to any dog-lover, some of whom may fall in love with it, especially when it saves Julie from a rapist who breaks into her house, even if it then feels a need to smash through a window to chase after the man after it has already attacked him. All this is obviously part of the point Fuller [would you believe it Roman Polanski was originally going to direct this movie until a certain criminal act committed by himself made him flee America] and his co-writer Curtis Hanson are making; that evil may lurk in the most unsuspecting places. The music by the great Ennio Morricone [which sometimes makes use of a repeated musical pattern for piano that he later re-used in, interestingly, Wolf] is really intelligent here. It’s darkly beautiful, lyrical and emotive, but with a sinister undercurrent.
Of course it soon becomes apparent that the seemingly friendly dog has been trained to attack anyone who has a dark skin. There’s some really uneasy suspense in some scenes like when it wonders into an area of a town largely populated by blacks and you see a young boy playing with a balloon who may be the dog’s next victim. Much of the film though is set in a place called Noah’s Ark, a place specialising in training animals for films and TV, where top trainer Keys, who is black, believes he can ‘break’ the dog and takes on the task as a personal challenge. Some of these scenes are quite uncomfortable, not just because the dog could possibly bite the man’s hand off but because the dog is actually being mistreated by him, even if it’s supposedly for the greater good. The way the story goes means that perhaps we don’t get all the thrills a film with a killer dog may be expected to have, but it’s very compulsive viewing nonetheless. There’s the occasional lighter moment, especially from the facility operator Mr. Carruthers, well played by Burl Ives, who, unhappy with the way robots are taking over from animals in movie popularity, likes to throw darts at a picture of C3PO [Fuller obviously commenting on the way films seemed to him to be going at the time], but generally this is a very intense, uncompromising movie. I felt immensely uneasy at times, but was reassured that this was exactly how I was meant to feel, and the ending certainly left food for thought.
Kristy McNichol does really well in the role of a person who has to deal with the fact the mutt she has fallen in love with is a mentally damaged, psychopathic killer. The script intelligently has her character actually want the dog to be shot at one point. Paul Winfield though gives the stand-out performance as Keys [a scene in a church displays really superb acting], really showing the character’s internal conflict yet also his determination. You’ll be rooting for him to ‘cure’ the dog while at the same time wondering if it’s all for naught. White Dog has a few script flaws, like one seemingly major character just disappearing from the story, and perhaps isn’t quite as exciting as it could have been considering its premise, but it’s nonetheless one of the most thought-provoking anti-racist films ever made. In no way did I feel I was being preached to, yet I still felt angry and depressed at the fact that racism exists and that, while we may not all be racists, we all certainly possess the ‘ability’ to hate. I like to think that, if it was made now, this film would get the favourable reception it deserves.
White Dog is released in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition as part of Eureka Entertainment’s award-winning The Masters of Cinema Series on 31st March 2014. Though this is the first time I’ve seen this film, I doubt it’s ever looked better than here.
* New high-definition 1080p uncut presentation, supervised by producer Jon Davison
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired
* More to be announced!
* A booklet featuring the words of Samuel Fuller, rare imagery and more!