Monday, February 2, 2009

Samuel Fuller's WHITE DOG (1981)

One Saturday afternoon some years ago, late in the '80s I think, I was channel surfing through the current cable roster when I struck an arresting image. It was a huge cage in the outdoors, with a man and a dog inside, the man apparently training the dog. If I remember right, the channel was Lifetime, and I immediately realized that this wasn't typical Lifetime fare. That was before the dog got loose and killed a man in a church. Everything about the movie said this was no mere chick flick, even if Kristy McNichol was the star. The expansive direction came through even on TV, and the music was on another level altogether. What was this?

A few years later, I was reading a copy of the Village Voice that previewed a rare theatrical showing of Samuel Fuller's final American film, and there I learned of the appalling history of White Dog. When I saw it on TV I didn't know Fuller had made it, but I had heard of him from the big advertising campaign for The Big Red One back in 1980. It amazed me to learn that his next film had been suppressed from American theaters. The film made its American DVD debut late last year in canonized form thanks to the Criterion Collection, and the Albany Public Library has just acquired a copy.

I still haven't seen many Fuller films, but I know his rep. I remember seeing Big Red One on TV, and the expanded version is on my to-do list. I picked up the Criterion Eclipse edition of his first three films, which I'll watch soon. I have seen Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo, and Shock Corridor and can recommend them all. I can recommend White Dog even more.

Ennio Morricone's music sets the ominous, tragic tone immediately over the black-&-white opening credits before aspiring actress Julie Sawyer (McNichol) finds a stray dog. She basically adopts it after no one shows up to claim it, despite her boyfriend's reservations about the animal. It proves its worth after it helps her fend off a home invader, crashing through a window to continue the counterattack. A cop tells her she's lucky to have a dog like that, but the nameless canine runs away in pursuit of a rabbit. Julie's search of the dog pound proves fruitless, as the dog is still in the streets. It attacks the driver of a street-sweeper, sending the vehicle crashing through a store display window. The bloodstained dog returns to Julie, who assumes that it had been fighting animals in the woods. "You scared the shit out of me, you little shit!" she scolds.

She takes the dog to a movie soundstage where she's filming a bit part on a gondola in front of a rear-projected Venice. She and her friend Molly are playing stewardesses, admiring the fake view, when the dog pounces on Molly and rips her up pretty badly as Julie gapes in terror. Molly recovers and won't press any complaint, but Julie's boyfriend warns her that there'll be a next time, because her new pet is obviously an attack dog. "You've got to have him killed," he advises, "You've got a four-legged time bomb!"

But if the dog has been trained to attack people, can't it be deprogrammed? Julie's hunch takes her to the Noah's Ark animal park, which provides beasts to the entertainment industry. She asks for help from Carruthers (Burl Ives), a partner in the venture, who complains that Star Wars is ruining his business and boasts that he was John Wayne's stunt hand for a snake scene in True Grit. He doesn't think that un-training an attack dog is possible. "If you don't help him, they're going to kill him," Julie pleads. "They should," Carruthers replies.

Carruthers is more convinced of this when the dog gets loose and attacks one of his employees. The dog is muzzled, so the man is mostly scared and shaken, but Carruthers has seen enough to tell Julie that "That aint no attack dog you got. That's a white dog! He's trained to attack black people!" The employee, Molly, and the street sweeper were all black. But despite Carruthers's outrage, his partner, Keys (Paul Winfield), black himself, wants to take up the challenge of reconditioning the dog. "If I don't break him," he promises, "I'll shoot him."

Keys (Paul Winfield)tries to bond with Samuel Fuller's WHITE DOG

Where do white dogs come from? The film explains that a white racist will hire a desperate black man, a wino or junkie, to beat a puppy regularly until the grown dog fears and hates black skin and develops the instinct to attack it. Keys, whose parents are anthropologists, thinks he can deprogram a white dog by making it completely dependent on a black man for food. Then it will learn to trust black skin. But Keys has tried and failed with white dogs before, yet remains determined to keep trying if success means actually eliminating some racism from the world.

With no theatrical release, there's no theatrical trailer for White Dog. Criterion has posted a trailer that's actually just one of the reconditioning scenes from the movie, but one that shows off the impressive big cage ("arena") set and Morricone's music. Take a look before we go on.

Keys appears to make progress in the arena with Julie's dog, but the all-too-intelligent animal gnaws its way through the wire-mesh roof of a cage, climbs to the top of a truck to jump over an electrified fence, makes its way into town and goes after the first black man it encounters. The man runs toward a church but finds no sanctuary there. In a spiritually horrific scene without gore, Fuller pans up from the man struggling with the dog to a series of stained glass windows toward an altar as the screams and the sounds of biting and tearing grow louder. Fuller and Morricone are a match made in hell, and I mean that as a compliment -- and this scene establishes beyond doubt that White Dog is a horror film.

The feeling of dread and moral horror increases as Keys refuses to kill the dog, insisting that he can still turn it even though he's now put himself, Carruthers and Julie at risk of prison for harboring the monster. Yet he reclaims all his earlier gains, until he's "99%" certain of success. The dog passes the penultimate test, responding peacefully to another black man, and Keys is ready to call Julie to mark his triumph. He'd warned us earlier, however, that a white dog's psyche is very fragile. If the reconditioning goes wrong in any way, the dog could turn from a racist animal into a "homicidal maniac" that will attack anyone....

Let me repeat myself: White Dog is a horror movie. The immediate context is the horror of racism that turns an innocent animal into a monster, but the subtext is the irrepressible nature of evil, whether it's innate or inculcated. Fuller and co-writer Curtis Hanson, adapting a novel by Romain Gary, ultimately argue that the white dog is beyond redemption despite Keys's best efforts, and the horror of the movie derives from Keys and Julie's refusal to admit that fact. The attack scenes are pure horror while going easy on gore due to a low-budget, short-schedule shoot. But Fuller's direction and Bruce Surtees's cinematography (flattered by the Criterion edition) get the maximum effect from limited resources. McNichol doesn't really need to be a good actor to play someone in over her head, and some of her line-readings and her superfluous late confrontation with the dog's true owner are pretty bad, but she's at least adequate overall, and Winfield and Ives are outstanding. I was shocked when I saw a fragment of this film on TV years ago. Now I've seen the whole thing, knowing what to expect, and I was still shocked. This is an extraordinary film. Seeing it isn't just recommended for film buffs; it's imperative.


Rev. Fred Phantom said...

I saw this on TV as a kid and never knew what the hell it was called. I've described it to many people over the years in hopes that they would know what movie I was talking about---finally, my question is answered. Thank you!

Rev. Fred Phantom said...

The kicker is that I would always say "It's a film about a white dog..." and the damn film was called White Dog! lol

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Rev. Since I wrote the review, I found that someone on YouTube has posted the original "Lifetime Movie Break" bumper for White Dog, which the station began showing in 1987. That confirms part of my own first experience with this mystery movie.

Stacia said...

I saw part of this movie ages ago, probably as part of a small movie package our brand new ABC affiliate purchased (we didn't get ABC out here until the late 1980s. No joke.)

Last year I mentioned the movie, which I didn't know the name of, on a comics blog. To say all heck broke loose would be an understatement. The few who knew I was talking about "White Dog" were livid that I would dare bring up such a horrible memory.

Of course, their reaction only proves that I HAVE to see the movie.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Stacia. I only just looked at the Criterion supplementary material last night, and I'm still amazed by the amount of misplaced righteous indignation directed at White Dog. Blacks were angry because Romain Gary's original story had a reverse-racism angle, but activists never seemed to acknowledge that Fuller had eliminated that detail. Some may have considered the film unacceptable simply because it tells someone how to train a "white dog." I can imagine animal lovers objecting as well, since the movie ultimately endorses the destruction of the dog.

It was funny to see Curtis Hanson object to Paramount's attempt to promote White Dog as a horror film. He and Fuller clearly thought they'd done something on a higher plane. They did, but that doesn't stop it from being a quite effective horror film.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Count me as another who saw this film on TV back in the day (likely around the same time Stacia did, I should think--it was definitely in the pre-cable Big 3 days)--and the idea of it always stuck with me. (I also had a bit of a crush on Kristy McNichol at the time, but hey, what heterosexual adolescent of the late 70s didn't?) The fact that my younger brother had a serious phobia of dogs already only solidified the scariness of White Dog.

I didn't know about the history of suppression here, though--and had no idea Criterion was giving it the treatment. Which seems odd to me. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they did, but I wonder sometimes how the Criterion Criteria work--I mean, you get My Life as a Dog and The Seventh Seal, but you also get Equinox and White Dog. And then you get Chasing Amy and the Life Aquatic. It seems rather random.

But hey, my taste is pretty random too. I may have to netflix this one to bring back the memories.

Excellent write-up!

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar: Thanks for writing. Criterion has done Fuller in the past. They carry Pickup on South Street (licensed from Fox), Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss (which can also be found in public domain collections), and have released Fuller's first three features in the Eclipse set I mentioned. That's probably as much Fuller as they can lay their hands on, though I suppose there are some items out there that Jeremy Richey could mention this month in his survey of Region 1 absentees. Some of Criterion's choices are odd, however (Robinson Crusoe on Mars?)