White Dog (1982) dir. Sam Fuller

7/24 @HFA


Dog, the unlearnt returns in every atavism’s cage. Sam Fuller’s rapt imagination dishes up yet another coup de punch of the silvy screen in this parable about a white white dog (thanks, Hollywood*) and the three devotees of his permanent reconditioning.

Julie (fab Kristy McNichol) is white actress living alone in Hills looking for a part that she can do something with. It was a dark and dark night… Julie runs dog over, carries blood-sodden to car before peeling out and into vet’s office. Here she decides to give dog shelter at home, rather than send dog to dog’s pending destruction at pound. Julie cares for dog, sets out to find owners. Enter fondness. One night she’s reading in bed to din of war flick fusillade from next room. In lunges predator. Dog chases white assailant through plate glass window  (slow-motion). Fondness plus. Time-pass. Dog’s hers, she’s dog’s. Dog escapes, kills first victim: sweeper driver. Sweeper driver was black. Dog returns; killing goes unsolved and Julie goes unknowing. Julie brings dog to work. Dog mauls actress colleague Molly on set. Molly’s black. Molly’s hospitalized, declines to press charges. Man-pal convinces Julie she’s fostering attack dog. Julie seeks assistance in dog’s unlearning by Keys (Paul Winfield) and Carruthers (Burl Ives), two seasoned trainers of wild animals. Keys and Carruthers recognize white dog, programmed by whites to attack blacks. Keys is black, Carruthers is white. Animal-rearing Grandmaster Keys, to Carruthers’ consternation, takes up challenge; deems it five-week project.

Known troubadour of truth Sam Fuller doesn’t cede the effectiveness of fabulation to plausibility for its own sake. Instead — and perhaps this is more evident in White Dog than elsewhere in his oeuvre — truth emerges from Fuller’s cinematic knack for magic realism, particularly in those moments when narrative integrity is relaxed, and the medium’s real unreality takes hold, in sync with Ennio Morricone’s intermittent melancholic turbo-naut theme.

Molly’s upturning face, gilded by light in her hospital bed, shot from a low, almost horizontal angle; Julie’s cheeky look from behind her shoulder at the dogseye lens below as she tries to trick dog into medication; Keys facing dog’s countenance; Caruthers foaming at the mouth: White Dog’s cinematography is so much about the intimacies of the face; the performativity of ornament, in composition and sequence, underlies the film’s profusion of detail.

Like everything Fuller’s touched throughout his career, the making of White Dog is a fantastic yarn in and of itself. Despite Fuller’s agreeing to have representatives of both the NAACP and the Humane Society overseeing the production on set at all times, the film was shelved indefinitely by its producers shortly after completion. Paramount Pictures curtailed the theatrical release for fear of bad press, after rumors about the film’s allegedly racist message incited a pre-release firestorm. While it has played in France and the UK since 1982, White Dog’s official US release did not come until The Criterion Collection’s original uncut film to DVD came out in 2008.

*One of the better accounts of the making of the film was penned by Karl Lewis Miller, trainer of the film’s cast of five white German shepherds (he also has a cameo as the night predator) — a canine casting decision he credited to Paramount, against Fuller’s wish to avoid the literal dopiness of having white dogs.

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