To say Samuel Fuller was never the most subtle filmmaker would be an understatement; the man spent most of his years flat-out confrontational, emphasizing the most sordid and shameful aspects of American society for both entertainment and enlightenment. And he would know; after all, he was a newspaperman first. In an interview on Masters of Cinema’s release of Wake in Fright, director Ted Kotcheff mentions that if you want to really get to know a place, take the editor of the local newspaper out for a few drinks – they know where the bodies are buried. Well, Fuller seemed to know where America’s bodies were buried, and why, and brought those stories and images to the screen with the same urgency as the front page of a scandal sheet. “[H]is pictures are frontal assaults of explosive conceptual energy that can rarely be rationalized on a naturalistic level,” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote.
White Dog wasn’t the first film in which Fuller faced down race relations amongst Americans. The Steel Helmet, the first film to tackle the Korean War, featured a multiracial cast grappling with all the issues such an assembling might produce in the 1950s, while The Crimson Kimono looks at how racial tensions pervade even friendships in which race is never thought to be a factor by either party. Shock Corridor has one of the most upsetting and ideologically violent images in all of cinema, in which a black man, believing himself a member of the Ku Klux Klan, mounts a demonstration propagating white nationalism. White Dog is operating on the same continuum, each film more bewildered than the last, as though Fuller can no longer find sensible explanations for the problems that, impossibly, seem still to plague us.
Like those other three, White Dog doesn’t try to come up with any revolutionary theory that gets to the heart of racism. It takes for granted that you’ll know right from wrong, then examines how one deals with the existence of wrong. It simply presents something tremendously upsetting, and sadly all too real, complicates it, and allows the audience to do with that what we will. Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) is a struggling actress, living in the Hollywood Hills (oh, how this modern resident longs for the cheap rent of 1970s Los Angeles), who accidentally hits a dog while driving one night. She takes it in, and, when no one claims it, takes it as her own pet. The dog is endlessly loyal to her, but has rather different notions of what that might entail than Julie is comfortable with, so she takes it to an animal shelter called Noah’s Ark, hoping someone there can retrain it. “Can’t nobody unlearn a dog,” Carruthers (Burl Ives), the shelter’s director. Keys (Paul Winfield), a black anthropologist and trainer at the facility, has a different philosophy, and, once it becomes clear the dog’s training and conditioning was racially motivated, decides to take in the animal as a personal project.
Keys’s method is simple – allow the dog to attack him while he’s protected, wear him out, and gradually get the dog accustomed to the idea that a black man can be kind and civil. The tension that results once Keys stops wearing padded gear comes naturally, and, for a consideration of race relations in early 1980s America, the film is hardly lacking in more traditional entertainment value as a result. Fuller plays with our anticipations, discomfort, and natural sympathies with a certain level of perverse glee. In one shot, a black child plays juuuust out of sight of the dog. The attack scenes are appropriately horrific, short bursts of blood, skin, fur, teeth, and eyes wide with terror.
The film’s standout scene, though, comes early on. Julie has brought the dog to work, where she is reciting two lines with a black woman as they pretend to row a gondola on a soundstage while images of Venice are projected behind them. The dog, placid at first, soon begins to bark madly, and is on top of Julie’s scene partner before anyone could even notice he’s broken free of his restraint. As Julie stares in horror at what’s happening, Fuller ramps up the frame rate of his camera, giving the sensation, yes, of a few seconds that feel like an hour. But that projector is still flashing images of Venice at the more common 24-frames-per-second, and each one blips by, like an extended flipbook or a slide projector gone mad, accentuating Julie’s terrified realization that the dog she thought merely protective could be actively deadly. Her world is almost literally being fractured, flickering between total enlightenment and a total void.
As with their recent release of Serpico, also a Paramount film, White Dog looks great on this (Region-B locked) Blu-ray release. It doesn’t have the most dynamic color palette, but the colors are well-represented, nicely delineated and bold. Every shot demonstrates great clarity and depth (when there’s depth to be found), there’s a pleasing amount of grain without being overwhelming, and I don’t recall any standout instances of damage or debris. All in all, a very professional, clean, simple job. The screencaps here have been resized and compressed, but give a pretty good indication of what you get.
There aren’t any supplements on the disc, but the booklet includes a fantastic essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum from 1991, on the occasion of the film finally being shown in the United States (a full ten years after it was completed, due to pressure from the NAACP to keep the film on the shelf). We also get a very amusing Q&A session that Fuller imagined in 1982 between himself and “the dog” that played the title role (in truth, five dogs played the role, but, you know, comedy!) that eventually turns into a forum for the filmmaker to directly state everything implicit in the film. But it’s still pretty amusing. And lastly, we get a collection of two excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography – one on the development of the film, another on how it got suppressed – and an excerpt from an article Erik Luers wrote for Indiewire, connecting the film’s themes to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
Given that final suggestion, it’s not exactly revelatory to note that the film’s themes of entrenched racism, the impossibility of “curing” societal ills, and the sometimes friendly face evil can pose as (the dog’s owner, who only shows up for a single scene, has a kindliness that may remind some of the Castevets in Rosemary’s Baby) are hardly less relevant over thirty years since the film’s production. White Dog offers no easy “lessons,” but it does what so many great films do – forces you to think without telling you how.
Now, for a more comedic excerpt…