The story behind Samuel Fuller’s brilliant White Dog is nearly as unbelievable and shocking as the plot line of the movie itself. And this explosive exploration of racism not only remains highly controversial but has been rarely seen as it was withheld from general release by the distributors who thought it too distressing and provocative for U.S audiences to see.
Adapted partially from a 1970 French fictional autobiographical novel by Romain Gary about a dog trained to attack black people on site, the script by L.A Confidential scribe and 8 Mile director Curtis Hanson was initially marked for Roman Polanski to direct however when he fled America after being charged with statutory rape the movie languished in development limbo.
Touted out to various producers and directors Paramount, who owned the rights where determined to under play the racial elements in the book seeing White Dog as a straight creature feature cashing in on other successful horrors of the time. By 1981 Paramount had fast tracked the project placing noted director Samuel Fuller at the helm hoping for a quick shoot to make them a much needed quick buck.
Unfortunately for Paramount and luckily for cinema Fuller set about reimagining and rewriting the script shifting the focus fully onto race issues, challenging audiences with a deeply disturbing and immensely evocative film that gained misguided criticism from civil rights groups in test screenings leading to it being shelved through sheer panic and Fuller moving to France in outrage never making another American picture.
White Dog opens on a dark road in the dead of night where young actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) accidentally hits a white Alsatian. Feeling guilty Julie takes the animal to the vets and ends up taking him home after hearing he will be exterminated if he is left alone in the dog pound.
Living alone Julie is dubious about owning a dog at first but his affection and warm nature slowly win her over and when she is viciously attacked by a rapist who breaks into her home in the dead of night the dog leaps to her rescue defending her and subduing the criminal.
However there is something Julie doesn’t know about her white dog, it has been conditioned its entire life to attack and kill anyone with black skin, a fact that remains hidden from her until he goes crazy and horrifically mauls her unsuspecting co-star on set one day.
Having learned the disturbing truth about her beloved pet and hearing calls for its destruction from all sides she seeks help at a center for animal training where a black trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield) offers to attempt to break the dog’s malicious mentality in a desperate attempt to prove to the racist bigots who brought him up that he can be reprogrammed.
Can the white dog unlearn its hatred of black skin or is it too late to be saved from extermination before it kills again? This is one of many questions the film asks its audience along with speculating if the dog itself is evil or simply a victim of the people who reared it and is racism a mental illness or learned behavior and can either of these be cured?
White Dog is extremely well directed, perfectly blending a B-movie thriller melodrama that employs all the clichés of killer animal horror movies with much more powerful psychological and social symbolism that almost slips under the radar when viewing it.
From the kennels which are almost like a concentration camp to the multiple images of caged animals and humans to the gladiatorial barred arena Keys and the dog duel in daily in a physical fight for the canines mental sanity, Fuller fills the film with suggestive imagery making sure that every violent scene is as shocking and visceral as possible and keeping an air of taught tension through the whole story.
Kristy McNichol’s Julie is full of compassion for the dog, who she tellingly at one point calls Mr. Hyde, and the murderous mutt’s scenes of killing are counter poised perfectly with moments of them playing and embracing most poignant of all after he rips the rapist apart and then in the next scene toys with Julie over possession of a pair of her underwear the underlying notion that his violent nature is never far away.
Most definitely one of the greatest animal performances the dog is utterly convincing at every moment and Fuller’s constant close up shots encourage us like Julie to anthropomorphise the animal. At times we intensely sympathizing with him especially when we discover how he was transformed into a monster and this keeps us constantly questioning if he is responsible at all for his actions.
The dog is portrayed at first almost like a traditional serial killer leading a double life compelled to slay all African Americans he comes in contact with behind his owners back. It is only when Julie witnesses the white dog’s aggression she faces his true nature but even then like a battered wife she still believes he can be saved from himself.
The other equally important human character is Paul Winfield’s trainer Keys who thinks he holds the secret to unlocking the beasts behavior. Like Captain Ahab he is obsessively devoted to proving a white dog can be broken free of the racist doctrine it has learnt no matter the cost to himself or the animal.
Working wonderfully on every level from the expert direction to the sensational script and powerful performances White Dog is an epic, entertaining and emotionally exhausting tale that will leave you questioning the very nature of racism in all its disgusting forms.
That’s some achievement for a movie the studio dubbed “Jaws with paws.”