Combustible Celluloid
 

White Dog (1982)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Canine Controversy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy White Dog: The Criterion Collection on DVD

Obviously, I wrote this review early in 1998, and ten years later, The Criterion Collection has come through with the first official video release of this great film.

Like Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Samuel Fuller's White Dog presents a story of racism of the kind unexplored by American cinema. But, unlike Amistad, the producers of White Dog decided that the movie was too controversial, and it remains unreleased to this day.

But the movie couldn't be more current. Racism is as much an issue today as it was 15 years ago. Facing up to ideas like this one can only be helpful. Writer and director Samuel Fuller, one of the greatest of American directors, died last year. White Dog screenwriter Curtis Hanson has recently come into the spotlight with his excellent L.A. Confidential. Now is the time to release White Dog, at least on home video.

White Dog tells the story of an actress (Kristy McNichol) who hits a beautiful white German Shepherd with her car. She takes it to the vet and eventually adopts it, without realizing that it's an attack dog, trained to attack African-Americans. Instead of killing it, she takes it to a pair of professional animal trainers, Burl Ives and Paul Winfield. Winfield takes it upon himself to decondition the dog.

It's an intriguing premise, and, of course, Fuller brings it to life with his usual electricity. The story moves fast, and is constantly frightening. The dog turns Jekyll-to-Hyde with amazing ease. (McNichol eventually begins to call the dog Jekyll-Hyde.) We're always on the edge, fearful of what he'll do next. When he attacks black folks, it's sickening and horrifying. There is no excitement to these scenes -- which is as it should be. The filming is sparse, with no clutter. There is actually very little dialogue, although you don't realize it while watching. Another review I read wisely compared the movie to Fuller's war movies in which men do what they can, no matter how questionable, in order to survive the horror of their surroundings.

Surprisingly, White Dog originated in the Roger Corman B-movie camp. It was produced by Jon Davison, who got his start with Corman, and it features Corman bit players Dick Miller and Paul Bartel. But it's a brave film equal to Corman's own The Intruder (1961), about racism and integration of a school in a small town. Perhaps, as a result of its lineage, White Dog was considered a B-movie and therefore unworthy of release. (Reportedly, Roman Polanski was once slated to direct -- would it have been released then?)

I saw White Dog on a bootleg tape, but I wish it was available to more adventurous moviegoers. It's ludicrous that this movie should be considered racist. It's completely and totally anti-racism, but in an unblinking manner that most people may not prepared to accept. The concept must be sugar-coated like Amistad in order to get a wide release.

DVD Details: Criterion's 2008 DVD is most welcome, bringing one more so-called "lost" film to the forefront. The disc features the uncut, 90-minute version of the film, rather than the 84-minute version I saw. It looks great, capturing the warm and sunny Los Angeles light, and highlighting Ennio Morricone's effective score. There are optional English subtitles, a 44-minute featurette with co-writer Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davidson and Fuller's widow Christa. We also get an interview with the film's dog trainer. Some of the best extras come in the liner notes: essays by J. Hoberman and Armond White, and Fuller's legendary 1982 "interview" with the dog, which appeared in Framework magazine.

Starring: Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Martine Dawson, Bob Minor, Sam Laws, Parley Baer, Samantha Fuller, Jamie L. Crowe, Samuel Fuller, Christa Lang-Fuller, Jameson Parker,
Written by: Samuel Fuller, Curtis Hanson, based on a story by Romain Gary
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Date: March 13, 1998

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