1982 was a pretty good year for American cinema, with Blade Runner, The Thing, E.T. , The King of Comedy and First Blood being just a handful of the movies to be released theatrically. One film that home-grown audiences didn’t get to see though was Sam Fuller’s White Dog. Although it screened around Europe, receiving much praise in the process, Fuller’s tale of the attempts to recondition a dog trained to attack black people was shelved by the studio that financed it. This spineless, economically driven, act was precipitated by a well-meaning but utterly wrong-headed protest from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a representative of which raised concerns about the film – specifically that it could inspire racists to train their dogs in such a way and may even be racist itself – without having seen a single frame of it. Fearing that the entirely unjust ‘controversy’ would adversely affect the film’s box office potential, Paramount decided it wasn’t financially viable to release it.
This sorry story, recounted in the enlightening 50-page booklet that accompanies the new dual format Masters of Cinema release, highlights a number of contextual issues that add extra layers of interest to a film that has lost none of its power or relevance in the 30-odd years since it was made. Chief among these is the fact that artistic representations of issues pertaining to race/racism/racial equality have always, unsurprisingly, been a highly emotive area. Hollywood has often been uncomfortable, misguided or plain backward in its dealings with race, reflecting American society’s own turbulent relationship to both its slavery-stained history and its culturally diverse population drawn from all corners of the world.
At the time, Fuller’s film fell foul of either unfortunate or wilful ignorance. Considering White Dog’s subject matter – the attempts to counter the sometimes fatal effects of ignorance – it’s impossible to miss the irony of the treatment of what is, in actuality, an intelligent, passionate and pointed rejection of racism. The bone-headed disservice done to White Dog also says a lot about the, then, standing of its director, at least in terms of mainstream attention and the Hollywood elite. This was a filmmaker, remember, who was a decorated veteran of World War II, and one who, as a matter of course, included strong minority characters and tackled issues of equality and racism in his films throughout his career. Equal parts philosopher, hustler, humanist and maverick, Fuller was, and to a degree still is, regarded as something of an outsider within Hollywood, despite influencing the likes of Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino. This is more of a damning testament to Tinsel Town not quite knowing how to handle either the man and his no BS attitude, or the head-on, provocative nature of his films rather than pointing to any detrimental aspect of Fuller or his movies. This welcome Masters of Cinema entry does point to the fact that in some circles Fuller is rightly regarded as worthy of serious critical attention and respect, as well as foregrounding just how important it is to have companies such as Eureka, Criterion, Second Run and Arrow Videos, to name but a handful, releasing special editions of films that enrich our understanding of their directors and the eras and genres in which they worked.
White Dog itself is a simple story, dealing with a literal black and white issue. Inspired by a Life Magazine article and subsequent book written by Romain Gary, and co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson, the film works on many levels: it is a psychological thriller, an action flick, a human drama and a crime movie. If the premise of the film sounds sensational (in the wrong way), its realisation is resolutely not so. Ennio Morricone’s plaintive score complements a narrative that, while containing several violent set-pieces, is more concerned with philosophical inquiry than it is with explosive entertainment. The film’s two main locations – the Noah’s Ark centre where animals are trained to appear in TV shows and movies, and the Hollywood Hills where it is situated – sees the Dream Factory become an ideological battleground. The locations are also pointed reminders of the dangers of blindly consuming entertainment, and of mass conditioning to accept the status quo, both subjects which Fuller was always keenly aware of.
With the dog a canvas upon which the worst of humanity has been forced, the post-attack shots of its blood-stained white coat providing stark visual symbolism, a hearts-and-minds battle is played out between man and beast. Having taken on the seemingly impossible task of un-training the dog, animal wrangler Keys, played by African-American actor Paul Winfield, becomes locked in an emotionally and physically draining stand-off with the ‘four-legged time bomb‘. Kristy McNichol’s bit part actress Julie, who, after running over the dog, takes it in as her own, and Burl Ives’s Carruthers, the owner of Noah’s Ark, are also put through the wringer as Keys and the dog play out their very private but universally relevant duel. Fear, hate, aggression and violence – their existence within the individual and society – are confrontationally challenged, as are the notions of how to combat these destructive forces. The later revelation as to the identity of the owner of the white dog, the person responsible for its racial conditioning, is provocatively chilling, raising an unsettling mirror to certain sections of American society.
Featuring numerous, expertly shot suspense and action set-pieces, including an attack on a black actress by the dog that De Palma would have been proud of, White Dog also suggests the idea that reconditioning, even from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, is itself a form of psychological violence, as the film’s downbeat conclusion attests to. Comparisons to the aftermath of the use of the Ludovico technique in A Clockwork Orange are readily apparent, as the Pavlov-like conditioning implemented in both films has dire consequences.
On a wider plane than the specific story White Dog tells, the role the state, church and family plays in the upbringing of each new generation is of clear concern to Fuller, his method of addressing these issues being characteristically forthright and presented with knife-sharp clarity. The frequent use of low camera angles and POV shots, giving the audience a ‘dog’s eye’ view of proceedings, cannily places the viewer as both victim and perpetrator, making us intimate with subject matter from which some may still wish to turn their eyes and ears away.
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