Samuel Fuller’s Long-Suppressed Masterpiece,”White Dog”

The gruff, cigar-chomping Sam Fuller (1912-1997) has long been a favorite of auteur theorists, particularly French ones, as a maverick writing and directing movies in his own, distinctive way. I think that he was sometimes a bad writer of dialogue and usually a very good director of actors and actresses. He recurrently examined the pathologies of American racism, and not just the black-and-white binary, but also including Asians, most notably in “The Steel Helmet” (1951) and “The Crimson Kimono” (1959), and Native Americans in “Run of the Arrow” (1957). The most searing of all was Trent, a black man (Hari Rhodes) in an insane asylum who had internalized the hatred spewed by the Ku Klu Klan and conceived of himself as a klansman in “Shock Corridor” (1963)

At least Trent was the most searing portrayal of racist pathology before the title character in Fuller’s last American movie, “White Dog,” which was made in 1982, but did not have a US release until 1991 and a 2009 Criterion Edition DVD with very interesting recollections by Fuller’s widow Christa Lang (who has a small but memorable part in the movie as a veterinarian’s nurse), Curtis Hanson (who adapted Romain Gary’s novella and then worked with Fuller in revising the script… before going on to direct movies such as “LA Confidential” and “Wonder Boys”), and producer Jon Davison (who had more commercial success with “Robocop”). In addition to intercutting interviews with those three, the DVD disc also includes a text interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller (who took the part of a would-be rapist in the movie and went on to the animal-training work in the “Babe” movies). The booklet includes essays on Fuller and “The White Dog” by J. Hoberman and Armond White and an interview of the dog imagined by Fuller himself.

The movie

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Criterion has also managed to release a very good-looking (albeit very 1970s-looking) print, shot by Bruce Surtees (Lenny, High Plains Drifter), with a very fine score by Ennio Morricone heightening suspense and pathology.

Setting up the main story takes a while and is somewhat klunky (as I already said, Fuller sometimes was an inept writer, though some of the blame for this probably should be assigned to Hanson).

An actress whose house in the San Fernando Valley seems rather opulent for her less-than-stellar career, Julie Sawyer (Kristy MacNichol, who is skimpily dressed through most of the movie), hits an all-white German shepherd on a dark road. Ascertaining that the dog is alive (and blocking both lanes of a blind curve…), she takes it to a veterinarian. The nurse (Lang) tells Julie that only puppies are adopted, but that if she advertises the lost dog its owner might come forward.

With her vacuous screenwriter boyfriend (Jameson Parker) she posts signs on utility poles (that would certainly blow off, since they are only stapled at the top and bottom…).

The dog attacks a rapist, endearing itself to Julie. Her boyfriend recognizes that she has an attack dog that is dangerous and urges that it be put down. Then it wanders off and attacks a black man driving a street-sweeping vehicle and returns to Julie, who washes off the blood without any apparent curiosity on how her dog came to have all that blood on him.

After having visited the dog pound and watched one dog being put down, Julie takes the dog to an animal-training facility run by Carruthers (the ever crusty and herein charming Burl Ives). The dog attacks a black employee. Carruthers’s main trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), the son of two anthropologists, has a mission in life to find a way to recondition dogs trained to attack black people.

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In two earlier instances, he managed to decondition “white dogs” attacking blacks, but they instead attacked white people (this is what the trainer in Gary’s story that originally appeared in LIFE magazine aimed to do). Keys believes that if he can succeed in salvaging one of these “white dogs,” that will discourage training others (a liberal hope, though running into conservative results).

The dog (actually, there were five white dogs playing the part) is ferocious. He certainly scared me — and often! Fuller included juxtapositions of the dog’s point of view (low) with that of Keys and Julie, as well as showing more objective shots of the deprogramming (and a very good one of Julie, Keys, and Carruthers having dinner when a policeman appears). Apparently, Paramount executives hated the dog POV shots and shelved the finished product, judging the focus on racism (the whole point of Gary’s story and novella and Fuller’s movie!) too incendiary. They wanted a horror movie, a sort of “Jaws on Paws.”

As I said, the attacking dog is plenty scary, and Ennio Morricone exacerbated this as well as John Williams did the shark in “Jaws” IMO.

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It is astounding that anyone could have thought the movie was racist rather than anti-racist, but, despite Fuller’s track record, the movie was denounced before anyone had seen it by the NAACP., which also threated telecast.  It was released (and made money) in Europe, but did not play at all in the US until 1991 (when it was acclaimed by critics, but still not given any general release). Criterion has done right by the movie and made many earlier Fuller movies available.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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2 thoughts on “Samuel Fuller’s Long-Suppressed Masterpiece,”White Dog””

  1. Incredible that this one was repressed and ignored in the U.S. for so long. Good write-up. First saw it in a semi-private screening around the time it was finished.. Never sparked a ‘Brazil’ or ‘Last Testament’ furor among critics probably because the NAACP made it too hot a potato to battle over. Watching it a dozen or so years ago there were comments along the lines of – what was so controversial about this one?

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