I recall that, when I first heard rumors more than a year ago that Samuel Fuller's White Dog was finally going to be released on home video in the United States--as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, no less--I was immediately caught up in a wave of contradictory emotions. On the one hand I was absolutely elated: Finally, this unique, moving, and powerful film by a notable American auteur that had been shelved by its distributor for more than two decades was finally going to be available stateside, most likely in a beautiful high-definition transfer. On the other hand, its sudden availability on store shelves--a shift, in essence, from being a rarity to a convenience--would undeniably and forever alter the experience of watching it.
After all, this was a film that I knew only through dubbed videocassettes and DVD-Rs I had procured from collectors who had European video copies or had recorded it off television, oftentimes with Dutch subtitles. Having seen it at least a dozen times, its images are indelibly familiar, but in a slightly fuzzy, low-resolution format that, while detracting from the film's visual power, nonetheless mark it as something unique and atypical. You couldn't just see White Dog; you had to seek it out. Yet, whatever loss of essence that may have resulted from White Dog's movement from an infamous, rarely seen film to a widely available DVD, I can't deny that it's worth that loss to be able to see it in a pristine, restored transfer and, more importantly, know that others who may otherwise have never heard of it will now have an opportunity to see it.
White Dog was the last film made by Fuller in the U.S., and the bitter experience he had when Paramount decided to shelve it was partially responsible for his spending the next six years of his career in Europe, where he had always been appreciated as an artist, rather than simply as a B-movie practitioner. Originally commissioned by Paramount in the mid-1970s as a project for Roman Polanski, White Dog was ultimately the victim of both misunderstanding and the ideological shift in Hollywood from the more experimental and liberal 1970s to the more entrenched and conservative 1980s.
Based on the 1970 semi-autobiographical novel by French author Romain Gary, it tells the story of a young, somewhat nave actress named Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) who takes in a stray German shepherd only to discover that it has been trained as an attack dog. However, it is not just any attack dog, but rather a "white dog," trained by racists to attack black skin. The idea is inherently troubling, and the executives at Paramount came to fear that it would be misconstrued as racist, a concern that was ultimately validated by the NAACP, which, fed by misbegotten rumors that the film would be sensationalist and exploitative, voiced concern during the film's production that it might inspire racists to train white dogs of their own. Jittery and worried about public protests and bad public relations, Paramount ultimately shelved the film after two small test runs in Seattle and Detroit. It played successfully in European theaters, and it was eventually given a small revival run in 1991, where is was hailed by critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman, which was apparently not enough to justify a video release at the time.
Although it is based in truth (white dogs, unfortunately, do exist), the film was always intended to be a kind of metaphor, a nightmare-allegory that illustrates with brute force the indoctrinated nature of racism. Although he is a "monster" in the sense that he viciously kills black people, the dog is really the victim, an innocent creature that was programmed to hate, which is the essence of racism as it is forcibly passed down from one generation to the next. It is particularly sad to note that anyone would fear that the film could be construed as racist since Fuller, a committed liberal filmmaker, had exposed American hypocrisy and racism in numerous films throughout his career and clearly intended White Dog to be profoundly antiracist. As Fuller said in a 1983 interview, "I still don't understand why Paramount thinks it's touchy; it is strictly an antiracist movie. There is nothing touchy about exposing racists. Nothing at all--except to racists."
The dramatic crux of the story develops when Julie, horrified by the truth about the dog she has adopted and grown to love, takes him to a Hollywood animal training facility to have him deprogrammed. The facility's owner, an cantankerous old coot named Carruthers (Burl Ives), declares that the dog can't be untrained and therefore must be destroyed. However, the chief trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), who is black, thinks otherwise. In fact, Keys sees the retraining of Julie's dog as an essential mission to combating racism, a means of eradicating at least one instance of social sickness and therefore giving hope that it can be destroyed entirely. The second half of the film details Keys's retraining process and the intensity with which he pursues it, which eventually leads him down a morally dubious path after the dog escapes and kills again, which essentially puts blood on his hands and throws the validity of his efforts into question: Even if the dog is successfully retrained, was it worth that loss of life?
As both a metaphor for the nature of racism and an interpersonal drama, White Dog is a devastating film. Although clearly made on a low budget (at times it has the feel of a made-for-television project), Fuller makes the most of his resources, giving us elegant tracking shots, penetrating close-ups, and moments of grinding suspense while avoiding distracting clichs. The film is aided greatly by Ennio Morricone's beautiful and complex score, which flows from the timid to the ominous and is held together by a crescendo of piano triplets. The haunting music layers otherwise banal scenes with a sense of both mystery and menace, which underscores Fuller's desire to unmask that which we all too often take for granted. As is typical of Fuller's films, White Dog is not without its bombast, and Fuller shifts gears radically from scene to scene, with teary poignancy radically juxtaposed with vicious moments of violence that are no less disconcerting because its most graphic moments take place off-screen. Fuller sometimes overreaches, such as when he self-consciously stages one of the dog's attacks in a church underneath a stained glass window depicting St. Francis of Assisi with a beautiful white dog, but these overwrought touches seems almost organic to the tabloid-sensational nature of the material.
In the film's most undeniably powerful scene, Julie unexpectedly comes face to face with the dog's original owner, who turns out not to be a benign-looking grandfather type with two small granddaughters and a box of chocolates. Julie asks him if he trained the dog to be a white dog, and, after a moment of internal debate, he joyfully proclaims him to be "the best of the lot." In all of cinema, there is no more striking depiction of evil unmasking itself, yet, given the fact that film's underlying theme is the indoctrinated nature of racism, we are forced to view this horrible man as a victim, too, and his grandchildren as the next generation just waiting to be victimized (if the process hasn't begun already). It's the kind of scene that tears at our hearts and minds, challenging all of our preconceived notions of good and evil, which is what makes White Dog such a powerful experience and one of the most thoughtful and meaningful examinations of racism committed to celluloid.
Copyright 2008 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Paramount Pictures and The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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