White Dog: Criterion Collection
January 6, 2009
White Dog (1982) was Samuel Fuller’s last Hollywood film and arguably his most controversial. No easy feat from the man who tackled racism with Shock Corridor (1963), patriotism with Pickup on South Street (1953), and made deeply profound anti-war films like The Steel Helmet (1951) and Merrill’s Marauders (1962). White Dog tells the story of a German shepherd dog trained to attack African Americans.
The film’s origins lie in a 1970 non-fiction novel of the same name by Romain Gary. Head of Production Robert Evans bought the rights for Paramount Pictures in the mid-1970s. After he left the studio, the project went through several screenplays and was attached to a few directors before languishing in development hell. Producer Jon Davison brought Curtis Hanson on board to work on the script (he had written an early version). Hanson recommended Fuller to direct, fresh from his comeback, The Big Red One (1980). White Dog was completed in late 1981 and then the studio promptly buried it after lackluster test screenings. It was not given a proper theatrical release until 1991 in New York City. Fuller’s film is finally enjoying a long, overdue DVD release thanks to the folks at the Criterion Collection.
One night, Julie Sawyer (McNichol) accidentally hits a dog with her car. She takes him to a veterinarian who patches the pooch up. Julie is a young actress living alone in the Hollywood Hills and she takes in the dog, nursing him back to health. She and the dog bond when he saves her from a rapist who breaks into her home. Fuller cleverly creates empathy for Julie and the dog early one, especially when he runs away and she frequents animal shelters looking for him.
Over time, it becomes apparent that the dog has been trained to attack African Americans. Julie’s boyfriend (Parker) argues that the dog should be killed, telling her that “it’s a four-legged time bomb,” but she believes that the canine can be re-trained. She takes the dog to a professional animal trainer (Ives) who tells her a spooky story about a friend of his who was killed by his dog, which was also trained to attack. However, the trainer’s partner, a man named Keys (Winfield) tells her that he will spend five weeks trying to re-train the dog. He’ll certainly have his work cut out for him and the rest of the film plays out as a battle of wills between Keys and the dog.
Fuller initially has the audience identify with the dog by utilizing low angle shots of the canine and employing the occasional point-of-view shots so that we see things at its level. Ever the pulp film sensationalist, the director makes some not-so subtle points about the nature of racism with some quite provocative images, like the dog attacking a man inside of a church. Fuller’s take on White Dog contains elements of horror, melodrama and the western, complete with Sergio Leone-esque close-ups and a rousing score by Ennio Morricone. This film is ultimately a powerful statement on the nature of racism and asks the question: can years of conditioning be undone? More importantly, it illustrates the belief that racist attitudes are not genetic, something we are born with, but taught over time. The solution? That is a trickier question and one that the film offers no easy answers to.
“Four-Legged Time Bomb” features interviews with co-writer Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davison, and Fuller’s widow Christa. Hanson talks about the first Fuller film he ever saw and how he eventually got to meet the man. Davison describes Fuller’s larger-than-life personality, while Krista talks about her husband’s approach to film. All three recount the origins and production of White Dog through fascinating and engaging anecdotes.
“Recollections from Karl Lewis Miller” reprints excerpts of an interview with the film’s dog trainer. He talks about working with Fuller and his approach to getting natural performances out of the dogs used on the film.
Finally, there is a “Photo Gallery” of on-the-set stills.