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WHITE DOG

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker
Director: Samuel Fuller
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 90 Minutes
Release Date: December 2, 2008

“Does he attack any other color?”

“No, dogs live in a black-and-white world. Unlike ours, they live it visually and not racially.”

Film ***1/2

As long as I’ve been reviewing movies for this site, White Dog has got to be a first. I had no idea that this release from 1982 was making its official debut in the home entertainment market 26 years after the fact. Ah, the wonders of DVD…Criterion DVD to be more specific.

Though it’s said to have had several airings on a cable movie channel back in the day, White Dog has never gotten a proper release to the general public. Due to the controversial subject matter, Paramount Pictures withheld it from both a theatrical run and videocassette release in the US (it did garner a release overseas). It wasn’t until 1991 that critics were able to finally get the word out about legendary director Samuel Fuller’s American swansong, thanks to a screening of a restored print in New York City.

What was the cause of controversy surrounding the film? Why did the studio deny it a theatrical release? There’s so much to explore about this film from the behind the scenes angle.

The movie began as a project that had gone through multiple rewrites and a number of directors, including Roman Polanski and Tony Scott. When one of the screenwriters, a then unknown Curtis Hanson, was brought back on board to pen the movie, he suggested the perfect director for the film. It was none other than Samuel Fuller, who was just coming off The Big Red One, his biggest production yet.

The screenplay became a collaborative project between Fuller and Hanson, who were adapting the novel of the same name by the late Romain Gary. The story centered on a white German shepherd that had been trained to attack black people. Fuller, who was no stranger to making films with anti-discrimination themes, seemed like the absolute best director to translate this hauntingly metaphoric commentary of racism from page to screen.

The production was completed and the film was awaiting a release. But between nasty rumors that Fuller had made a racist film, a preview screening that generated no buzz whatsoever and a final decision from the studio that absolutely nothing about the film was marketable to a commercial audience, it became apparent that White Dog would never see the light of day. The film ended up being Fuller’s swansong in Hollywood, as the backlash against the film took a toll for him on a more personal level than a professional.

So as we can see, White Dog represents another case where the story behind the making of the movie is almost as fascinating as the movie itself. However, in this case we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves because the fact is this is quite a remarkable and deeply effecting piece of cinema from a filmmaker with a personality and passion so rare these days in the moviemaking world. Now that it is finally getting a proper release in the DVD market, film lovers everywhere owe it to themselves to check out this unique piece, which was unquestionably ahead of its time.

The story opens with the sound of screeching tires and a dog whimper. Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol), an aspiring actress, discovers that she has accidentally hit a white German shepherd with her car. She quickly takes the dog to the nearby vet, where he soon recovers. She then decides to keep the dog at her place until the rightful owner shows up.

However, Julie grows closer to the dog and feels incredibly protected. This comes as a result of the dog saving Julie from a rape attack in her own apartment. There is hardly a moment when she is not away from her most loyal new guard dog.

But an unimaginable side of the protective dog emerges while on the set of her new movie. While filming a scene with a fellow actress, who’s black, Julie is stunned to discover that the dog runs up to her acting partner and attacks her as if she were his next meal. She begins to believe that she may have taken in an attack dog.

Several scenes follow where we, the viewer, discover the true nature of the dog’s attack mode before the lead character does, a plot gimmick that rarely works in films but is brilliantly applied here. After running off from Julie and wandering throughout the city, we witness the dog target and attack several black men. And though the attack scenes aren’t really graphic in terms of blood and gore, it leaves a lot to your imagination and becomes even more disturbing.

Hoping to have him cured of his rage, Julie takes the dog to an animal facility run by a dog trainer named Carruthers (Burl Ives). He warns her that having an attack dog by your side is like having a four legged time bomb that’s waiting to explode. But it’s not until the dog attacks a fellow trainer, who’s black, that both Julie and Carruthers realize what really sets him off.

It is here where we learn the term “white dog” and its history, which is believed to go all the way back to the slavery period. A white dog, as Carruthers explains, is a dog trained by a white person to attack and kill black people. Being a devoted dog lover myself, I couldn’t help but be completely unsettled by both the notion of an innocent dog being trained to carry out such horrific acts and, especially, a human being that would actually consider administering such training just as a means of satisfying their view of the world.

We are then introduced to Keys (Paul Winfield), Carruthers’ business partner and animal trainer extraordinaire. From the moment he witnesses first hand what the true nature of the dog’s attacks, Keys makes it his personal mission to de-program the dog and hopefully cure him of the hate that dwells within. But can such a thing be accomplished?

I don’t want to spoil any more details about the story. While I feel this film is a strong and challenging piece, and should be seen by many just for the sole purpose of it being available to the public for the first time, I should stress that if you’re a devoted dog lover, as I am, some scenes are going to be tough to endure. I’m somewhat surprised I actually made it through the film.

At the same time, those unsettling moments do serve an important purpose in the form of the underlying message Fuller was driving home with this film. White Dog is simply a profoundly provocative work of art from one our most gifted cinematic storytellers. Film lovers everywhere owe it to themselves to discover this gem that, thankfully, is no longer a hidden one.

Video ****

Criterion never ceases to amaze me! Year after year they continue to illustrate their superior manner in restoring films with all sorts of age. And I had no idea what I was in for with this film, having never seen a single frame. Though it was shot 26 years ago, you’d have a hard time believing it thanks to the solid anamorphic picture quality. A good portion of the film is shot in outdoor settings during daylight, which helps in producing some crisp images with sparkling detail. As far as restorations go for any 1980s release, nothing tops this for the year!

Audio ***

Don’t let the word Mono fool you. Criterion always knows how to make the most of any sound mix, no matter what kind. That fact is reflected beautifully in this Mono mix, which gets its power from the truly haunting music score by Ennio Morricone. Dialogue delivery is as dead on in performance as it gets. The overall sound is nothing but crisp and clean in quality and dynamic in balancing every sound element in the presentation.

Features ***1/2

Criterion also demonstrates that even with a small amount of extras, they can still deliver a home run. Such is the case with this release. The standout extra is a terrific documentary titled “Four-Legged Time Bomb, which features video interviews with Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davison, and Sam Fuller's widow, Christa Lang-Fuller, which is immense in filmmaking details, clocking in at a perfect 40 minutes. Also included is a revealing text interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis-Miller, as well as a Photo Gallery featuring rare photos from the film's production. And it wouldn’t be a Criterion release without a marvelous insert booklet. This one features new essays by critics J. Hoberman and Armond White, as well as a rare 1982 interview where Fuller himself actually interviews the canine star of the film.

Summary:

If anything, White Dog is both an effective and fascinating movie experience, for both its riveting story content and the opportunity to seeing the film some 26 years after it was shot and unfairly kept from the public. It’s a powerful work of art as only a filmmaker like Samuel Fuller and a company like Criterion could bring to vivid life.

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