Sam Fuller was a genius of trash. Not in the same way John Waters is, but no one made trashy movies into art like Sam. Pickup on South Street– a mouthy woman in a junk shop defiantly talking trash to the mob even as she knows they’re gonna rub her out. The Naked Kiss– a hooker beating a john to death with her shoe. The Big Red One– Lee Marvin lamenting a testicle lost to a land mine with a grunt of “that’s why God gave you two.”
His last hurrah was 1982’s White Dog, a movie considered so racially offensive that it didn’t get a theatrical release in the States. Like the similarly shocking Over the Edge (full review), HBO gladly showed it, and it played overseas. But until Criterion released it, it was difficult to find. I decided to revisit this movie because it’s the first Black History month under a black President, and we’re still working out race relations in this country. If you think we’re past that, take a peek at this cartoon from the New York Post. But enough politics- is this a trashy movie or not?
Of course it is. Sam Fuller can’t help himself- he imbues every movie with a gritty noir sensibility that makes him the Weegee of celluloid. He looks at people and places no one else wants to. And White Dog is no exception. Based on a true story of Jean Seberg and her husband’s adoption of an abandoned German shepherd, it stars Kirsty McNichol (The Pirate Movie, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia) as a young actress named Julie, who hits a white dog with her Mustang one night in the Hollywood hills. She takes the dog home and nurses him back to health; he’s very protective of her, and one night saves her from an intruder. Okay, from a rapist. That does make it seem like an exploitation film now, but in the early ’80s we were still reeling from the crime waves of the ’70s. So she keeps the dog, who’s playful enough.
One day Julie takes him to the set, and he attacks a black actress she’s performing with. Everyone wonders what could have “set him off,” as he’s so friendly otherwise. Her boyfriend is afraid of him, and one night he comes home, after breaking through the fence, smeared in blood. Julie knows something is wrong, and after stopping by the pound- where she accidentally sees a dog getting gassed- she approaches an animal trainer named Carruthers (Burl Ives) to see if he can help. It’s there that she realizes the nature of the dog’s violence, for his partner Keys (Paul Winfield- Conrack, Mars Attacks!) is black and gets attacked immediately. He says the dog is a “white dog”- an attack dog trained to kill black people- but he wants to see if he can cure it.
The trainers tell a sad tale of an attack dog gone bad who turned on his owner after rehabilitation, and Keys takes the case because he wants to see if he can undo the damage. His performance is the centerpiece of the film, and its moral center. He tells Julie how a white dog gets made- maybe the owner paid a black guy who needed money to abuse it as a puppy. He’s no Dog Whisperer, but he takes the dog in and tries several experiments. He’s the only one allowed to feed him. And he wears a shark suit of sorts, so the dog will think attacking black skin is useless. Let’s just say that the movie is an allegory about deeply ingrained, generational racism, and not a dog training tract.
The dog escapes over the fence one night, and when Keys tracks it down, he finds a mauled black man in a local church. Fuller and Winfield’s talents are evident in the discovery scene, where everything is told through reaction shots, and Keys’ guilt, horror and sadness all play across his face. Another powerful scene comes late in the film when Julie is approached by the dog’s previous owner. A sweet old man and his two granddaughters appear at her gate. She confronts him, and tells him they cured his dog. And beseeches his grandchildren to not listen to a word he says. The film is quite blunt and does have the feel of an exploitation film, but the question it asks at its core is important: Can a racist be cured, or is racism just an outlet of a deeper need to hate?
Keys’ experiment does not go well. In the end, he cures the dog from attacking black people, but he turns on Burl Ives’s character- who looks a lot like the dog’s previous owner. The pendulum has swung too far. The hate is what has to be cured, and the target is often one of convenience. The film does have a low budget TV feel, but I wouldn’t call it an After School Special. It’s much too dark and cynical for that. Fuller’s last stand is a bit of a relic, but its one I’m glad resurfaced. White Dog is a movie with a bad reputation that came out during a bad time- the Atlanta child murders. According to Wikipedia, the NAACP protested it before filming even began. It turned out that many of the murders were not a product of racism, but a serial killer. So once again hate was misdirected, and the killer escaped justice for a long time, because he was assumed to be white.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? no fucking way
Quotability Rating: nil
Cheese Factor: You gotta love Kristy’s outfit in the first scene
High Points: Paul Winfield and Burl Ives
Low Point: The dog takes out a garbage truck. Damn that’s a mean dog.
Gratuitous Boobies: Kristy McNipples through her tank top