Samuel Fuller, 1982
“That’s the danger in picking up a stranger,” an injured Molly says. Molly (Lynne Moody) is a friend of Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol). Julie is a struggling Hollywood actress who nurses an injured German Shepherd back to health and eventually adopts it, only to realize that it is a “white dog” (literally and mentally).
The dog is trained to rabidly attack Black people. Being a dog lover that she is, Julie doesn’t want the dog killed, despite the advice of her screenwriter boyfriend (Jameson Parker). Instead she goes to Mr. Carruthers (Burl Ives), a successful animal trainer who then refers her to Keys (a nice entrance by Paul Winfield), an African-American trainer who is determined to “un-teach” the brainwashed dog.
In White Dog
, Samuel Fuller effortlessly turns the drama into the dramatic, not the robotic. Yes, not the robotic.
Mr. Carruthers [pointing at a cardboard cut-out of Star Wars‘ R2-D2]: That! That is the enemy. [throws a dart at R2-D2]
Although the unnamed white dog is practically a killing machine, Fuller — who makes a cameo in the film — doesn’t portray it as some sort of a robot. Instead, he gives the dog a “human attitude” by incorporating antagonistic qualities — fear, hate, and prejudice — usually seen in two-legged creatures often called “human beings.”
The unnamed “white dog” facing its “enemy.”
The screenplay is written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson, based on Romain Gary’s novel. I haven’t read Gary’s novel yet, but the Internet says the narrative was reversed in the film adaptation. Most of the film’s narrative is seen and experienced through the white dog, which I think works very well because the audiences can get into the dog’s perspective. If the narrative is based on the dog’s victims, I don’t think the film would have such pathos.
Kristy McNichol sheds her child star image to portray a mature and introverted character that is Julie. Although quite theatrical at times, Paul Winfield is generally decent as Keys. But, obviously, the canine actors are the real stars of the film. The white dog is played by five white German Shepherds: Hans, Son, Buster, Duke, and Folsom. Performance-wise, those canine dudes are way up there with Lassie and Benji.
I saw the Criterion version of White Dog; although Criterion does a great job in turning them films into a better/clearer picture, White Dog is sometimes quite grainy and dark — most of Fuller’s films were made out of a small budget, hence the grainy effect — but it’s still very watchable. The cinematography is by Bruce Surtees. Most of Surtees’ shots complement the scene, as well as the significance of the characters. Cases in point:
Julie’s conversation with the nurse (Christa Lang, Fuller’s wife) about the pound. Surtees makes it clear that the nurse is not a major character, hence the shot.
The moment when the dog is threatening to attack Roland the boyfriend. This shot almost resembles the scene at the animal clinic, the one wherein the white dog sees Julie for the first time. We experience most of the events through the eponymous character, hence the low-angle shot. Another fave shot of mine is the second to the last frame; that aerial shot is simple perfection.
White Dog has the usual Fuller elements in it: tight close-ups, close-up of the eyes, and poignant slow motions (Fuller remarkably utilizes this particular technique).
During the title sequence, “White Dog” — as well as the cast and crew’s names — transforms from white to black, which is what happens to the… okay I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a clever title sequence.
The editing is smart; it gives the film a sense of personality. My favorite bit is the “Francis of Assisi scene” at the church; it is a perfectly transitioned scene. Another fave of mine is the film’s last frame, which transforms from colored to monochrome and eventually becomes a monochrome negative. The monochrome negative effect is a visual metaphor of the world the white dog is living in: black and white, good and bad, love and hate — nothing in between.
Celebrated composer Ennio Morricone does a splendid job in highlighting the emotion of a scene. His music is in sync with the events, as well as the dog’s scary “transformation.”
Upon the end of its filming, White Dog was virtually harassed by the big shots at Paramount, to the point of the film not being available to the public. They reportedly found the film “racist” and threatening. White Dog is not a racist film but is actually anti-racist.
White Dog is a daring and excellent analysis of whether or not racism is curable. It also gives an insight to the concept of instilled hate; once the seed of hatred is planted — may it be in dogs or humans — can we still remove its root?
Trailer for White Dog: