Hateful Hound: Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982) – DVD review
Fuller’s clarity of style and story makes a compelling thriller but also a profound allegory about racism… and possibly also about Hollywood.
(Sam Fuller, 1982)
The making of White Dog is one of the most instructive stories on the difficulties of tackling serious themes in a movie. The project had bounced around Hollywood for a decade but was deemed too difficult for anybody to actually film. It only got made when Paramount needed to get something out of the gate; enter veteran Sam Fuller, a director fabled for his rapid turnarounds. But the controversy of the material – about the reconditioning of a dog trained to kill black people – still made it a target for pressure groups, and Paramount bowed to pressure by shelving the film.
In theory, fair enough. White Dog sounds lurid, tacky and exploitative, and if you read the synopsis of Romain Gary’s original novel it’s on some pretty shaky ground. And don’t forget that, from The Birth Of A Nation onwards, Hollywood hasn’t exactly been the most progressive medium for race relations. Yet here’s a classic case of actually watching the damn thing before rushing to judgement. As reconditioned by Fuller, this is a very different beast: chilling, wise and a model of economy, which proves cinema’s power to visualise bold, abstract themes to gut-punching effect.
I first saw White Dog in the mid-1990s, when Channel 4 screened a season of Fuller’s films. Even against brilliant films like Park Row and The Naked Kiss, it was the immediate stand-out and nearly 20 years on the key sequences of the gladiatorial combat between the dog and black trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) are so indelibly imprinted on my mind that, rewatching it now, it’s exactly as I remembered it. Bear in mind that I can forget 90% of a film I watched last week, and Fuller’s achievement is remarkable.
The obvious point is that Fuller’s forthright, head-on style is the only way to treat this material. In his younger days, Fuller could certainly be lurid, but he was driven by a fierce determination to unmask corruption and hypocrisy in American society. The result was a tabloid style that pushed harder at subjects that more acclaimed contemporaries like Stanley Kramer, bound by the banality of good taste, ever could. In White Dog, the style has matured: still punchy and direct but in the service of subtle insight, a broadsheet column with bite.
So this is a film about racism in which only one racist human appears, and even then (on-screen, at least) he says or does nothing racist. Instead, the hate is displaced and concentrated into the dog, a snarling, prowling metaphor of uncommonly visceral impact. For once, the idea that racism is senseless and irrational is rendered quite literally… but what’s truly scary is that the dog is also beautiful, gentle and cuddlesome. The racism is a state of mind, impossible to observe until it strikes – and therein lies the film’s greatness.
The opening act of the film is benign to the point of blandness, as Kristy McNicol’s wannabe actress Julie finds the injured dog and looks after it. It could be Marley And Me but, like Audition years later, Fuller is letting us drop our guard before going for the jugular. White Dog isn’t sweetness and light but a horror movie; heck, Julie isn’t even the heroine. That honour goes to Keys, played by Winfield with the relish of an actor seizing a role of rare versatility. Keys is a one-man army: implacable, burning with righteous anger and yet determined to save the dog through kindness (it has to be noted: Winfield’s big role a few years before was as Martin Luther King, and Keys is very much an all-action, B-movie variant).
The film snaps into focus in the battle between the two – and Fuller’s sense of cinema (a battlefield, as he famously called it in Pierrot Le Fou) is amazing. The conflict is dramatised through movement and editing, especially in the use of close-ups to observe the changing behaviour of the dog. Technically, the film is a marvel, a flawless example of how to create a compelling animal character without descending into Disney-style anthropomorphism. Yet there’s something quite clever about the way Fuller foregrounds Keys as a Hollywood animal trainer. The credits reveal that five separate dogs played the title character, all the better to capture the mercurial swings into homicidal, animalistic rage.
The dog is very consciously crafted as a performance, something mirrored in the story by Julie being an actress. Because that’s how the racist works – all good manners and family values on the surface, but what lurks underneath? Everybody is shaped by their experience and environment, and the dog is racist through training… yet Fuller’s most searching question is whether a change in environment can effect a wholesale change or just a temporary new role? White Dog is justly lauded for its dissection of racist mentality, but it also has plenty to say about how Hollywood constructs, or distorts reality, with its menagerie of caged, tamed beasts waiting for someone to call action so they pretend to do what their ancestors did for real. Perhaps that’s why Hollywood had no stomach to release the film; amongst its many other qualities, Fuller is biting the hand that feeds.