Criterion // 1982 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 2nd, 2008
When man's best friend becomes his fiercest enemy...
"Did you train him?"
While out driving at night, an aspiring young actress named Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol, Two Moon Junction) has an accident. She hit a white German Shepherd, but fortunately Julie is a very caring young woman. She puts the dog in her car and takes him to the vet. After the dog has been treated, Julie agrees to take him home until she can find the owner. Things seem to be going smoothly at first, and Julie is slowly but surely growing attached to the dog. Then something tragic happens. Julie's close friend is savagely attacked by the dog, which causes severe injuries. Julie initially contemplates having the dog put to sleep, but she just can't bear the thought of killing him. Maybe he can be deprogrammed.
Julie takes the dog to an agency that specializes in training dangerous animals. The owner (Burl Ives, So Dear to My Heart) is hesitant about taking on the case. He knows that it can be incredibly difficult to cure an attack dog. Quite quickly, another discovery is made. This dog is not just any attack dog. He is a "White Dog," a canine that has been programmed by a racist master to attack and kill any and every black person within sight. The owner immediately demands that the dog be shot, but an African-American trainer (Paul Winfield, Sounder) protests. He wants an opportunity to try and cure this dog. He has tried and failed before...can he attain different results this time?
When Samuel Fuller's White Dog was created, it made a lot of people very nervous. Particularly the studio heads at Paramount. They were hesitant about the idea of releasing the film theatrically, particularly in light of a statement from the NAACP condemning the film. The film was shown as a television movie, and then more or less forgotten about. It was briefly resurrected in 1991 for an art house theatrical run, and then was forgotten about once again. The film was not released on VHS or DVD in America, and many thought that Fuller's film would just fade away. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection has come to the rescue, restoring and preserving this unique and compelling film.
It's a little hard to believe that so few people understood the movie, but apparently that was the case. Those who saw the film viewed it on a very literal level. To them, it was nothing more than an exploitive horror film about a racist dog. Icky. Surely the film will be viewed with greater perception in 2008, as White Dog is quite obviously working on a metaphoric level. White Dogs really did exist (and for all I know they still do), and were trained to hate anyone with dark skin. Once this hatred was built into the dog, it was almost impossible to remove. It wasn't the fault of the dog, it was the fault of hateful individuals who were attempting to brainwash impressionable young animals with their own bigotry. Many children have become racists because that is what their parents raised them to be.
White Dog attacks common thinking when it comes to racism, suggesting that simply putting out fires when they arise will never do anything to help solve the problem. The film not-so-subtly argues that racism must be confronted and dealt with before it has the opportunity to turn into violence. It also acknowledges the such a "de-programming process" can be extraordinarily difficult...maybe even impossible. On this symbolic level, the film is quite effective and thought-provoking, and remains surprisingly relevant today (most films about racism tend to date rather quickly).
Despite the stern and foreboding nature of the sermon being offered in White Dog, Fuller determines to have his cake and eat it, too. He also intends to serve up a piece of mainstream entertainment that works well as a basic thriller, and he more or less succeeds. The camera work here is striking, as Fuller seems to be channeling Sergio Leone at times. He also borrows Leone's favorite composer, Ennio Morricone, whose score is one of the most effective elements in the films. It is a frightening thriller score, but rooted a sense of sad melancholy that perfect captures the blend of metaphoric sermonizing and standard-issue terror. Each time the dog sees a potential victim and begins to charge, Morricone's aching main theme strikes up, simultaneously hitting a thrill button for moviegoers and mourning the racial struggles in America. It's a great effort.
I am not being rude to the cast when I saw that the best performance comes from the dog. Rarely have I seen such an expressive and frightening performance from an animal. I'm hesitant to question what they had to do to get the dog to behave the way he does. I am comforted to know that the film was made with the supervision of the American Humane Society. When that dog gets a murderous look in his eyes and bares his teeth, I guarantee you that it will scare you. Still, the humans deserve some real credit. Paul Winfield is excellent as the trainer, bringing a great deal of passion to the proceedings. It's always wonderful to see Burl Ives, too, who is as charismatic and appealing as ever.
Criterion's transfer is pretty solid, with a very minimal amount of damage present. It looks better than I expected a somewhat low-budget effort made over 25 years ago to look. Colors are quite vibrant, and flesh tones are accurate. The mono audio is pretty good, even if Ennio Morricone's score does seem to suffer from very minor damage at times. This is one of Criterion's lower-priced titles, and as such contains fewer supplements than usual. Forty-five minutes of interviews with producer Jon Davison, co-writer Curtis Hanson (who would go on to direct such fine films as L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys), and Christa Lang-Fuller (Sam's widow) are onhand, and are both revealing and engaging. We also get a text interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller, and the theatrical trailer. The standard booklet is even better than usual. We get two thoughtful essays on the film from J. Hoberman and Armond White, which are very interesting reads. One very minor complaint: White attributes one of the film's key lines of dialogue to the wrong actor. Best of all, there's a lengthy "interview" conducted by Sam Fuller with the dog playing the title character in the film. It's a strange and fascinating read.
Is the film too subtle? I don't think so, but evidently many of those who saw the film during the early 1980s did. I suppose it might come across the wrong way if viewed as a mere exploitation film. I do think that most viewers who see the film today will easily get what White Dog is attempting to accomplish, but who knows? One can never overestimate the movie-going public that permitted Meet the Spartans to become a hit at the box office.
Though not really one of the great films of Sam Fuller's career, White Dog is still a film worth seeing and preserving. Features are pretty light, but this one is still well worth a look. Oh, and a fair warning: this movie contains the scariest dog ever committed to film. I'm serious. That is one evil canine.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Video Interviews
* Text Interview