Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Parley Baer
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Expectations: Very high.
Racism is a learned behavior, but the interesting thing about the racism presented in White Dog is that dogs don’t see color lines. Late one night on a dark road, Julie (Kristy McNichol) hits a white dog with her car and takes it in. She falls in love with it, but soon she learns that the seemingly sweet dog is actually a “white dog,” trained specifically to attack black people. Fuller explored different aspects of racism throughout his career, and in White Dog, Fuller distills racism down to its core, vicious elements. There is no thought or human element involved in the dog’s decisions, he represents racism itself manifested as man’s best friend. But dogs are known for their capacity to learn, so the main drive of White Dog is whether or not this dog can be re-trained to accept black people as non-threatening.
If the core idea of White Dog seems somewhat outlandish and exaggerated, it is. Fuller uses melodrama and symbolism to skillfully tell his story, eliciting deep moments of thought and visceral response amidst what could also be described as a slasher film with a racist dog as the slasher. This bouillabaisse will definitely turn some people off, but for those willing to brave its depths, White Dog proves itself to be highly cinematic and deeply affecting. Fuller was always interested in pushing boundaries and confronting the audience with the harsh realities of the world that surrounded them, and the extreme moments of melodrama work perfectly to convey the stark themes of White Dog.
Americans didn’t have a legitimate chance to see White Dog until the Criterion Collection acquired the rights to the film and finally unleashed it in 2008. Paramount had shelved the film before its release in 1982, after some rumors spread that the film was racist and would ignite racial tensions throughout the country, even though no one had yet seen the finished film. The film was still released on-schedule in Europe — to great reviews — but even 26 years after it had been completed (surely enough time for the fires of rumor to die down), Paramount still didn’t have the balls to release the film. I’ve loved Criterion for a couple of decades now, but to me their release of White Dog stands tall as one of their greatest achievements in film preservation. White Dog is a stunning film of visceral, thought-provoking power, and I honestly never thought I’d ever see it.
White Dog‘s 2008 DVD release is actually what sparked my renewed interest in Sam Fuller’s work. I had seen a few of his films in my teens, but I hadn’t been won over enough to fall completely head over heels. But then I saw White Dog and my love of Sam Fuller was solidified. A couple of years later I started Silver Emulsion, and one of my first plans was to use the website as a push to work my way through the rest of Sam Fuller’s films. It’s taken a lot longer than I initially expected it to, but now I’m almost done! Re-watching White Dog this time around only deepened my love of the film, and of Fuller. I can’t imagine the heartbreak he must have felt when Paramount refused to release it. After the butchering of The Big Red One, it’s no surprise that the equally disrespectful experience with White Dog left Fuller distinctly disenfranchised. He left the country and never made another American movie.
White Dog‘s most cinematic moments are among the best that Fuller ever committed to celluloid. The most inspired comes when Julie, a struggling actress, is filming a commercial with a black actress. Fearful of losing her dog after he had run away the day before, Julie brings him to work with her. The dog is fine until he notices the black actress, and before anyone knows what’s going on, he’s knocking her over and viciously mauling her. As Julie finally witnesses the true nature of her dog for the first time, her world is shattered. Fuller captures this moment through an incredibly unique and unforgettable technique.
The commercial shoot is on a Hollywood sound stage, but a rear-projection screen makes it look as if they’re floating in a gondola on the canals of Venice. The rear-projection screen is out of sync, though, so when Fuller captures a close-up of Julie’s reaction in slow-motion, the background flashes in and out. This background also often moves seemingly at random, because Fuller’s camera only allows us to see the movement in the rear-projected film without any context. Fuller then cuts to a medium-distance shot, which is arguably more affecting, as the rear-projected, out-of-sync footage becomes strangely abstract when more of it is visible. There are an infinite number of ways to capture the feeling of the Earth unexpectedly moving beneath your feet, but this instance is and always will be one of my most treasured favorites. The film also features some excellent usage of Steadicam, years after Fuller jury-rigged a similar contraption by strapping the camera to the back of the cameraman while filming the incredible riot tracking shot from Park Row.
I could seriously go on and on about all the camera techniques and filmmaking flourishes that Fuller uses throughout White Dog. Fuller was nearly 70 years old when he made the film, but it feels as vibrant, quick and hard-hitting as anything he made 25–30 years prior. Many directors enter their twilight years and direct some of their worst films, but White Dog shows absolutely no signs of that kind of degradation of skill. I have yet to see any of the films he made after White Dog, though, so perhaps I will be eating my words as soon as next week. Let’s hope not.
Even if you don’t share my fondness for Sam Fuller’s filmmaking, any true cinema fiend should watch White Dog in support of the amazing feat that Criterion achieved by releasing the film. You might not like the movie in the same way that I do, but I guarantee you won’t forget it. White Dog gets under your skin and exposes the stupidity and futility of racism with a sharp-edged knife.