Hollywood will re-cut, delay, or undersell its films if it suspects they’ll pose economic or political risks, but it rarely shelves productions entirely. But unfortunately, this is exactly what it did with Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982), a movie about a canine trained to attack black people. Paramount has never domestically released the film outside of festivals, but the American Cinematheque screened it last night as part of its “Movies Not Available On Video” series. And Fuller’s film is a powerful, inspired critique of racism, tapping into the relationship between humans and animals in a way that places it within the ranks of cinematic masterpieces like Au hasard Balthazar (1966).
Why was the movie suppressed? According to the filmmaker’s widow, Christa Lang (who acted in the film and attended the Cinematheque’s screening), a representative of the NAACP visited the set of the film and decided it was racist, threatening Paramount with repercussions. But representative organizations have challenged Hollywood films for years, and few movies are ever shelved; such an explanation seems pretty weak, particularly when Fuller’s film is so clearly anti-racist. It not only presents the dog’s behavior as gruesomely savage and tragic, but the result of conditioning that has corrupted its true nature. Further, the only character who remains committed to de-conditioning the dog despite its behavior is Keys, a black animal trainer played by Paul Winfield.
Although they sound like allegory, “white dogs” are gruesome historical realities, having been systematically abused in order to instill fear and aggression towards people of color. They have been utilized for many years, from slave control to police actions in South Africa. White Dog is adapted from French writer Romain Gary’s novel, who based his story on a dog he owned with his wife, actress Jean Seberg, when they lived in Los Angeles. Paramount offered the story to several directors (including Arthur Penn and Roman Polanski) before enticing Fuller and Curtis Hanson to write their own adaptation.
As a young man, Fuller wrote crime reports and pulp fiction, and although he later became a cult B-movie filmmaker of the ’50s and ’60s, he channeled his interests in lurid films brimming with violence and sentiment that can sometimes bewilder the uninitiated. (As Michael Dare put it in his essay for the Criterion DVD of 1964′s The Naked Kiss: “To an American, Fullerís films might seem like routine pulp melodramas, straight off the pages of dime-store crime magazines. But to a foreigner, those very qualities make his films consummate portraits of America.”)
White Dog foregrounds such elements with its unusual premise, violence, and surprisingly sentimental narrative about a young actress named Julie (a spunky Kristy McNichol) and her love for the dog, which she adopts before discovering its condition. The beginning of the film establishes her attachment through scenes at a vet clinic, a dog pound, playing with the animal at her home, and having the dog defend her from a would-be rapist.
Eventually, however, the dog’s sporadic rage is identified as racially-motivated, and Julie enlists the aid of a Hollywood animal trainer (the grandfatherly Burl Ives) and his partner, Keys, to rehabilitate it. The latter half of the film depicts Keys’ de-conditioning routines as he goes tÍte-‡-chien with the animal in an iron cage, gladiator-style, in an attempt to break the dog’s fear. But such de-conditioning could only confuse the animal more and precipitate its complete psychological breakdown.
That Fuller manages to mine such a thematically rich and effective film from this basic plot is a testament to his considerable talents. His moving camera and staccato editing create an energized film that maintains tension throughout, bolstered by Ennio Morricone’s sensitive, ruminating score. The dog is never anthropomorphized, its raw animal instincts and paradoxical behaviors foreground its mystery yet encourage the audience’s empathy. Conversations about the how the animal was conditioned simply but eloquently convey ideas about racism without offering trite solutions. And the film even works in commentary about animal use in the film industry: when Julie first meets the trainer, his R2-D2 dart board represents his anger at Hollywood’s transition from animal stars to droid feverdom. It’s a unique, provocative, and passionate mixture of elements that develops into a poetic film of genuine philosophical force.