White Dog Review
The opening credits of White Dog have not even finished when actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) accidentally hits a dog with her car. She takes the animal, a white German Shepherd, to the vet, and when no-one comes forward to claim the dog she adopts him herself. His worth is proven one night when he tackles an intruder in her house. But there is a sinister side to the dog which soon comes to light: he is a “white dog”, trained to attack and kill black peope…
White Dog is based on a story by Romain Gary, to whom the film is dedicated. (You can sense a homage when two of the main characters share their initials with Gary and his wife Jean Seberg.) Curtis Hanson, then just starting as a director himself, suggested Samuel Fuller for the project and the two men co-wrote the script.
Fuller’s stock in Hollywood was high following The Big Red One. He had been a war veteran and a journalist, and his films are notable for their directness of style. Racism is a theme he has returned to many times in his work (see The Crimson Kimono and Shock Corridor amongst others). As anti-racist parables go, it’s not a consoling one: it suggests that racism is a cancer that is deeply embedded in the American psyche and can only be eradicated with considerable effort, if indeed it can be done so. That wasn’t a message that went down well at the time, with Reagan in the White House and his message of “morning in America”, and the film’s distribution suffered as a result – more of this in a moment.
Fuller tells his story in a tight ninety minutes. He uses a lot of low angles to convey the dog’s eye view. (The idea was to have the canine POV shots in black and white, as dogs only have monochrome vision, but that was abandoned.) The attack scenes are intense and may well be upsetting – they certainly push at the limits of an (American) PG rating. (It would almost certainly get a PG-13 now, and likely a 12 in the UK – the BBFC gave the film a 15 at the time – so parents take note.) After the first half hour, the emphasis shifts to animal trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) and his attempts to tame the white dog – but not before it escapes and there is another black corpse in the morgue.
Kristy McNichol was eighteen at the time the film was made, and a teenage actress many had predicted big things for in adulthood. It didn’t really happen, and you can possibly see why here. Her performance is not unappealing, but compared to the assurance of Paul Winfield and an enjoyably OTT turn from Burl Ives, she seems gauche and artless. Jameson Parker is simply bland in a nothing role as Julie's boyfriend. On the other hand, Bruce Surtees’s camerawork and Ennio Morricone’s music score are definite pluses. Five dogs were used for the title role: two interacting with the human cast, the others for stunt shots, but it’s a tribute to Fuller and his editor that the result is seamless. Fuller turns up briefly as Julie’s agent, and his wife Chrisla as a nurse.
White Dog was completed at the end of 1981, but after a few test showings Paramount declined to release the film. One issue was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s concern that the film might encourage the making of more “white dogs”. To have such a clearly anti-racist film accused of being racist upset Fuller deeply, and he moved to France. Meanwhile, the film opened in Europe to general critical raves and, in some countries, solid if not spectacular box office. (It had a limited UK cinema release in 1984, and I saw it at Southampton University’s Film Society the following year.) Meanwhile, back in its native country, White Dog remained shelved until 1991, though it did have showings on television.
Twenty-seven years after it was made, with a black man now in the White House, you’d expect White Dog to be something of a period piece. However, it has not dated except in the most superficial aspects (the usual ones – no mobile phones or Internet) and is, regrettably, just as relevant as it ever was. White Dog was to be Fuller’s last American film. He died in 1997.
White Dog is number 455 in the Criterion Collection, and comprises one dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 1 only.
The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced, in the ratio of 1.78:1 (which is not the original ratio as Criterion claim – that would be 1.85:1). Transferred in high-definition from a 35mm interpositive (approved by producer Jon Davison), this certainly looks very good. The film isn't as darkly-lit as many photographed by Bruce Surtees are (in particular his work for Clint Eastwood) but shadow detail is fine when it's required, blacks are solid and colours vibrant.
The soundtrack is the original mono, which is not unexpected for a lowish-budget major studio release from 1981. However, as it is a major-studio film, you can expect a professional job of work, and that’s indeed what you get, with dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced. It doesn’t say so on the packaging or even the disc menu, but there are English subtitles available for the hard of hearing: I could only activate them via the remote.
White Dog is one of the more extras-light Criterion DVDs. There isn’t a commentary, but instead we have a featurette, “Four-Legged Time Bomb” (44:37), with the interviewees being Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davison and the director’s widow Chrisla Lang-Fuller. This is a standard run-through of the making of the film from its inception to the controversy over its non-release, beginning with Hanson’s first encounter with his future friend’s films when he saw The Naked Kiss on its first release in LA. There isn’t much in this featurette that you wouldn’t expect to be there, but it’s well enough done. All three interviewees show considerable fondness for Fuller.
Also on the DVD is a text and stills piece, navigated via your remote, featuring the recollections of dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller. He describes how the dogs were trained, and in particular how a sequence involving himself (as the intruder in Julie's house) and three separate dogs was pulled off in a single shot. Also on this disc is a gallery of production stills, with text captions where appropriate.
As usual, Criterion have provided a booklet, which contains essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum (“Sam Fuller, Unmuzzled”), Armond White (“Fuller vs. Racism”) and a strange piece where Fuller himself interviews the dog.