If there was ever a film I thought would never see the light of day on home video, it would have to be director Sam Fuller’s White Dog. Regarded by many as one of the most controversial films of all time—unwarranted hyperbolic exaggeration if there ever was any—White Dog languished, practically unreleased since its production in 1982. Since that time it had a relatively insignificant theatrical release overseas, while never enjoying a legitimate home video release in the United States until 2008, when it was released as part of the Criterion Collection. For more than two decades it had become something of an urban myth, creating around it a sense of cinematic taboo usually reserved for films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Snuff.
Kristy McNichol co-stars as Julie Sawyer, a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. Rather than leaving the dog to die on the side of the road, Julie takes him to a veterinarian, who gives the dog a clean bill of health and sends him home with the actress. Julie posts signs all over, hoping it will help her locate the dog’s owner, but the more time she spends with the dog, the more attached she becomes. By the time a rapist breaks into her apartment and the dog saves her life, it’s pretty much a given that he is there to stay. But when the dog viciously attacks Julie’s actress friend (Lynne Moody), who happens to be black, she suspects that there may be something wrong with the animal. Unbeknownst to her is that the dog has already attacked (and killed) a black person. Roland (Jameson Parker), Julie’s boyfriend, convinces her that the dog must be some sort of attack animal, and therefore dangerous. But rather than send the dog to the pound, Julie decides to try and have him retrained, so he won’t have the killer instinct.
Julie believes that there’s nothing wrong with the dog that can’t be fixed, and takes him to trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who warns her that an attack dog is a four-legged time bomb waiting to explode. But when the dog viciously attacks fellow trainer Joe (Bob Minor), who happens to be black, Caruthers realizes there is more to this dog than meets the eyes. This dog is a white dog—a dog trained by a white person to attack and kill black people. Enter Carruthers’ business partner, Keys (Paul Winfield), a super badass animal trainer who wrestles lions like it ain’t no thing. Keys becomes obsessed with the white dog, and is determined to break it of its racism, diligently training it to see past its deadly hatred for people with black skin. But when the dog manages to escape from its cage, and kills another black person, it is up in the air if he can be rehabilitated. With the guilt of the death hanging over him, Keys becomes even more determined to cure the dog.
At the time of its release, because of the nature of the film, White Dog was mistaken by some for being a pro-racism story, and as a result people reacted to the film as if it were preaching hate. The very notion that White Dog is a racist film is, however, completely ridiculous, especially given Fuller’s earlier films like Shock Corridor and Crimson Kimono, which aggressively attacked racist thinking. White Dog is as much of a condemnation of racism as anything else Fuller has done, but it suffered from being misunderstood during its initial release, and as a result languished in obscurity.
An accomplished journalist and outspoken director whose films often sparked controversy and debate, Fuller was never afraid to push the envelope with his movies. Already an established writer, Fuller’s directorial debut with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James established him as a talented force to reckoned with, a reputation that continued through to 1964’s The Naked Kiss. Fuller’s direction became more sporadic and less frequent between the mid 1960s through the 1970s, with 1980’s The Big Red One marking an artistic return to form. Fuller followed up with White Dog, based on a nonfiction book by Romain Gary.
As originally envisioned by Paramount, White Dog was to be little more than an exploitation horror film—a sort of canine version of Jaws. Fuller was brought on to the film after several other directors had already been attached, most notably, Roman Polanski. Under the direction of Fuller, however, with a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, White Dog evolved into something more than a cheap exploitation film. True to the style of his past work, Fuller used the film as a vehicle to explore subject matter other filmmakers were often afraid to approach, in a way that was as hard hitting as it was unflinching. In doing so, Fuller created a film that was a bold examination of racism, and the brutality that it manifests.
White Dog is not Fuller’s best work, and it is uneven at times. Jameson Parker as Julie’s boyfriend disappears at one point in the movie, never to return, and even Julie goes from being a central character to a throwaway supporting personality that has little to offer the second and third acts of the film. The central flaw of the film’s shifting main characters is not as problematic as it could be in any other movie, simply because Paul Winfield’s animal trainer is far more compelling than McNichol’s struggling actress. Winfield is cast as a strange mix of mad scientist and Captain Ahab, out to destroy a terrible monster. But what makes the character interesting, is that Keys views the dog as more of a victim, with the racist training that turned it into a killer as the monster. Although handled at times with ham-fisted dialog and direction, this train of thought is what makes White Dog brilliant. Under the subversive guidance of Fuller, the movie becomes less about a dog trained to kill black people, and instead becomes an exploration of the societal ill of racism; which is a disease that infects everything, even something as innocent as a dog.
There are other problems that surface throughout White Dog, including a script that at times is just plain silly and overwrought. And Fuller’s direction at times makes it difficult to tell exactly what he’s going for. There are sequences that have the feel of the sort of horror thriller Paramount originally wanted, and these scenes throw a bit of a wrench into the rest of Fuller’s artistic vision. And while all of the problems to be found in White Dog are enough to diminish any other film, they can’t hold back Fuller or keep the film from being a great bit of cinema. With the exception of maybe Larry Cohen, there is probably no other director other than Sam Fuller with the balls, talent or ability to infuse profound social commentary where you least expect it, making this film work in the way that it works. Had the movie been made six or seven years earlier, during the blaxploitation era, it would have fit in perfectly with the seemingly radical race politics that was found in many films. But coming in the 1980s, when Hollywood had retreated back into a more conservative approach to dealing with race, it was pretty much doomed.
Despite its noticeable flaws, White Dog is a solid film that serves as a great showcase for a director who was not afraid to take chances. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and could hardly be considered in his prime. Yet he still made a film better and more provocative than most filmmakers before or since could have gotten away with. And for that reason alone, White Dog is worth watching and studying.