This is a revelation that divides us in every platform of engagement, and not just in the movies. Back in the early 1970s (when the source material was written), the subject of race in American society was still such a bitter wound for many that few on either side was able to broach the subject from a place of docility. Consider our world 40 years beyond that notion, and not nearly as much has changed as we might have hoped; an African American is president, yes, but he serves his time as Commander-in-Chief amidst ongoing hate-mongering against minorities and questionable decisions within judicial systems that seem to highlight perpetual doubts in progress. That white police officers are getting grand jury acquittals after gunning down young Black men, for instance, inspires a collective cause to pause and wonder what motivates key-holding decision makers. When “White Dog” – a movie about an animal who has been trained to attack and kill African Americans – was made in 1982, the acknowledgment of that reality was so glaringly out of step with mainstream consideration that few wanted to deal with it (or, for that matter, wanted to be on the receiving end of a fiery reception). For nearly a decade following very low-key appearances at film festivals and test screenings, the movie sat unreleased as a consequence of its subject matter; a decade after the fact, it played limited engagements at art-house theaters and then vanished again without a trace, this time for another 15 years until Criterion picked up the rights to distribute it as part of their ongoing collection. 30 years have come and gone since Fuller’s visual essay came to fruition and few can deny it has reached its full potential in the exact right moment; these issues are still very insistent in society but the dissenters have spoken louder, and young minds are now much more susceptible to the penetrating nature of a persuasive argument, however metaphorical.
The central motive of the movie plays like a tragic melody, stirring in the background of a facile narrative that observes events, treats them with resigned awareness and then embodies the trauma (and dogged hopes) of the characters when the thump of reality crashes into the line of sight of unknowing observers. It begins almost without any preliminary anticipation of an agenda; the early scenes are so casual with their implications that one doesn’t expect it to careen into the jagged edges of danger. Kristy McNichols – young and relatively unsophisticated – stars as Julie Sawyer, a new face in the Hollywood thespian machine whose humdrum routine is interrupted by an emerging presence that carries a lot of dangerous secrets. It does not go unnoticed, however, that his arrival is also the most significant event going for her in the moment, and in early scenes there is scarcely a sense of the immediacy of her profession; often she merely looks through script pages planning for auditions that may never come. That certainly gives her time to make astute observations about her newest visitor, though: large, docile and with a very minimal attention span (he sneaks off of her property often to chase rodents), his mystique nonetheless gives him almost irresistible charm, and they bond rapidly after circumstances involving an intruder.
Friends and colleagues pass through the house in fascination of their friendship. Others, like her handsome boyfriend Roland (Jameson Parker), only tolerate the dog’s presence as momentary. Because he routinely sneaks away from Julie’s house into the dead of night, however, that adds doubt to the tranquil momentum of the early story implications. Then the tone-defining reveal arrives audaciously in our line of sight: at night, while an African American man is at the controls of a street sweeper, he is brutally attacked by that gorgeous white dog while no one is around to hear his bloodcurdling screams. Others, alas, follow in rapid succession, and none of the warning signs (no, not even a fur coat saturated in blood) cause any sense of suspicion in his new owner. Only when the canine viciously mauls a woman on the set of Julie’s new movie is there a realization – an epiphany that strikes her as so deadly and yet so within tangible grasp that it inspires to seek out professional help from animal trainers rather than legal authorities, who would no doubt have the animal destroyed on sight.
The screenplay, a treatment helmed by Samuel Fuller and Curtis Hanson, is not sweetened by proclivities or false modesty; they know there is no way to approach this subject other than head-on, and avoid glossing over details with the kind of spit and polish that was traditional of films about dangerous animals in those days (which were abundant after the release of “Jaws”). To them, it is also important to cover the facets of possible gray areas rather than arrive entirely at a conclusion based on events, essentially because that would be dismissing the redemptive possibilities of moral conditioning. The villain in “White Dog” is not the dog but racism itself, and that begs the question in all associated with it: when someone is trained to hate (be it man or animal), is there any hope of undoing the teachings? Animals cloud the issue further based on their simplified instincts. The counterbalance to that underlying ambiguity is an animal trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield), who observes an attack on the grounds of his facility and becomes possessed by his need to correct the animal’s psychological damage. His partner, the blunt Carruthers (Burl Ives), is less optimistic, but Keys isn’t following through with the task just to save a dog here; in his eyes, the endeavors are like undoing the very concept of bigotry. That makes it especially difficult as the story progresses with continued incidents, however, and when the dog winds up killing one of his victims in the halls of a church, his determination does not diminish – it merely moves into urgent escalation.
Because the film is so deadpan in its conviction, that also means many of the scenes are staged with blaring honesty. Notice how technically careful a shot is when the dog is loose in a neighborhood scrounging for trash behind a store, and a little black boy is standing around the corner with no awareness of the looming danger. The cinematography by Bruce Surtees stages this moment without losing focus of either subject in a camera view that has them at opposing sides of the frame so that we can follow both of their movements simultaneously, adding an alarming moment of tension to a scene with no spoken dialogue. The material between Keys and the beast that hopes to kill him, meanwhile, is alarmingly cogent; he does not back down from his dogged desires nor flinch in the face of the animal, and when his attempts to soothe the dog’s demeanor by becoming his feeder are thwarted by Julie sneaking him food, he does not dismiss the action with calm words as most screenplays would have him do. And because many of the dog’s isolated moments are filmed so strategically low to the ground, that implicates the movie’s subject with some level empathetic alarm. It is our nature to hope for the best when it comes to the durability of animals, but can something so primitive and simple really be cured of such a decisive concept as attacking other people, specifically because of their color?
The concept of the white dog was more widespread than the material suggests. Romaine Gary, who wrote the Life Magazine article that ultimately inspired a novel (and this cinematic adaptation), was notable in the sense that he could speak directly on the events out of personal experience. When he and his wife actress Jean Seberg adopted a white canine they found wandering the streets of downtown Los Angeles in the late ‘60s, they were surprised to discover that it was bred for the purpose of attacking African Americans; their gardener and mailman reportedly suffered debilitating injuries from some brutal encounters, no less. The unspoken irony of “White Dog” is that Gary’s own final twist differs greatly from the film’s version; in the novel, the dog is reprogrammed by a black man to attack whites as some sort of vengeful impulse, while in the film Keys merely seeks to rid the animal of all its violent tendencies. Gary’s final thought could have been inspired by a plethora of conditions that we will never hope to understand (was this a genuine observation he made, or was he distraught over his wife’s involvement with the Black Panthers?), but what works in books is not always what resonates in film.
For Samuel Fuller, perhaps the most candid of Hollywood’s wounded souls, it was more important to get to the basis of the issue without clouding it in unnecessary claptrap. Shot quickly in a span of 44 days – movies with concise filming schedules are arguably more truthful – the screenplay underwent a vast number of rewrites with different people before coming to the attention of the director, who was suggested as a man who could finalize a screen treatment and then shoot the material without wasting time. Fuller had his own reputation; often investigated by the FBI over suggestive implications in many of his early movies (including the brilliant “Pickup on South Street,” which won the attention of J. Edgar Hoover), a lifetime’s worth of controversy came attached with the association that undermined Paramount’s initial vision. Attempting to capitalize on the creature feature fad, their desire was to have a film made that could be referenced as a “Jaws with paws”-style entertainment; what they got instead was something much murkier, and with more challenging subtexts that, initially, would have been a very hard sell for major theater chains.
But there remain fundamental disagreements over exactly what inspired the film’s lengthy shelving. Some argue that the studio was simply angry for getting a result that was as damaging to studio reputation as some of Fuller’s other late-career movies (some of which put him out of work for years); a few more are more inclined to suggest that the distributors were visibly shaken by looming threats from the NAACP, who were reportedly plotting an outright boycott of the studio for releasing a movie that “glorified” racism – or worse yet, could inspire the creation of more white dogs – on such a blunt level (this despite claims that a representative from the coalition was, reportedly, on set the whole time). Others still argue simpler stances: could a white director really tell a story like this at all without some sense of shortsighted bias? The fallout of the decision was certainly more concrete: Fuller never made a movie in Hollywood again, and fled to France to live out his remaining years (where he eventually made three more pictures). Before his death in 1997 – 11 years before “White Dog” would finally emerge in wide circulation --, he spoke candidly of the experience: “It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a god-damned maximum-security prison forever.”
To imagine what such an unfaltering mind would say now in regards to the endurance of his powerful opus brings about other facets of wonder. How would he feel knowing that his endeavors would, indeed, go on to penetrate the minds of a generation that is now functional enough to confront the issue head-on? Would he have seen Paramount’s impulse as a means of atoning for their stifling of his artistic expression? Would he still hold the picture in high regard, all despite the painful acknowledgment that it effectively ended his tenure with the studio system? There is a moment in Jean Luc Goddard’s “Pierrot le Fou” where Fuller, making one of his famous cameos, puffs on a cigarette before announcing to the camera that “film is like a battleground.” If one can imagine that philosophy mirroring the belief system of its author, the perseverance of “White Dog” might have simply been regarded in the same way a solder regards his own defeat on the front lines before a broader victory: with a quiet nod of thankful pride.
Written by DAVID KEYES
"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which is to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at Criterion.com.
"White Dog" is the twelfth article in this series.
"White Dog" is the twelfth article in this series.