Directed By: Samuel Fuller.
Written By: Samuel Fuller & Curtis Hanson based on the story by Romain Gary.
Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) is an actress driving to her home one night, when a dog jumps out of nowhere and she hits it with her car. Terrified that she may have killed the dog, she takes it to the vet, who fixes the dog up and releases it to Julie. She doesn’t really want the dog, but doesn’t want it to be put down either. It is a beautiful, white German Shepherd, and so she puts up signs around the neighborhood and hopes someone will could and claim it. Then the dog saves her life when night when a rapist breaks into her house, and dog mauls him half to death. From then on, the dog and Julie love each other.
But the dog has a problem. The rapist is not the only person that it attacks. It also attacks an African American co-worker and friend of Julie’s. Everyone tells her she should put the dog down – it was obviously trained as an attack dog, and nothing can change that. It is only a matter of time before the dog kills someone. Unwilling to give up, Julie brings the dog to a crusty old animal trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who agrees with everyone else – the dog should be put down. But then a strange thing happens – the dog sees one of the other trainers – another black man – and goes nuts. To Julie this means nothing, but to Carruthers the truth is clear. She does not have an attack dog – she has a white dog – a dog trained to kill a black people that it sees. The African American trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), agrees to try and re-train the dog for Julie. He has tried to retrain White Dog’s in the past, and has always failed. His theory is that if they can figure out a way to cure white dogs, than sick, racist breeders will stop turning the animals into them.
Director Samuel Fuller was always been drawn to controversial material that exposed the ugliness of American life. He angered J. Edgar Hoover with 1953’s Pickup on South Street by implying that some Americans didn’t care about the flag or American in general. In 1962’s Shock Corridor, he essentially said that America had become an insane asylum and in 1964 he somehow made a movie about misogyny and child sexual abuse in a mainstream film. White Dog was essentially buried by the studio when some people idiotically thought that the film was racist (all someone would have to do is look at Fuller’s filmography, which was always much more progressive than his contemporaries to know that it was a stupid charge).
White Dog is a daring film in the way that it examines racism in America. The film does not reveal that the dog is a “white dog” until about half hour into the movie, and by then we have fallen in love with the dog - who is probably the most well defined character in the movie. Working with the great composer Ennio Morricone, Fuller makes us feel sympathy for the dog throughout the movie, by underlining his scenes with the great score. Like Kong in King Kong, even if the dog is evil - and he is - he cannot be blamed for his actions. He was bred to be a racist by the people charged with the raising him. Racism is viewed in this movie as a disease. Now he is just following his instincts, and although we see the dog brutally kill more than one person, we still find ourselves rooting for him to become “cured”. The sin of the Keys characters of one of gross hubris. Even after the dog has murdered, and it becomes clear that it would do so again if given the chance, he still wants to cure it. Carruthers never wanted him to take the project on in the first place, and at some point even Julie, who loves the dog, wants to give up the project. But Keys cannot accept the fact that he cannot stamp out racism itself.
Fuller was a genius visual stylist, and his work behind the camera here makes up for some of the weakness in the script and the acting. McNichol has never been a great actress, and at times in this movie she is simply too blank. Winfield is at times a little too earnest. And Ives put on his crusty old man routine a little too thick. But the film really isn’t about the acting. Fuller’s visual genius in evident in the attack scenes, where he brilliantly uses POV shots from the perspective of the dog itself, driven into a frenzy about the sight of black skin. There is a brilliant sequence when the dog escapes and wanders the streets. Around the corner from the dog, we see a small black child playing, and the as the dog gets closer and closer to seeing the child, the tension in practically unbearable, until the child’s mother pulls him back inside just a split second before the dog was to see him. This is a brilliant reference to Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M, but is used to great effect. The staging of the final scene recalls an old fashioned Western, with the dog in between three characters, and we wonder when, and if, the dog is going to snap.
White Dog ultimately presents a rather bleak view of racism. By using a dog as the film’s racist character, he is able to represent a nation of racists. The dog could be cute and cuddly and wonderful, if it had not had had racism driven into its head as a puppy. He has been taught to hate to the point where it has become a part of his nature that he simply cannot fight. Much to the chagrin of the human characters in the film, it eventually becomes clear that you cannot treat racism like a disease. It cannot be cured. Sometimes the only cure for hatred is to kill it. White Dog is an undiscovered gem by one of cinema’s giants.