White Dog is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
Nearly forty years after it was made, Samuel Fuller's White Dog is timelier and more sobering than ever—an outraged depiction of how white supremacy pervades a society, rotting it away from the inside. That such an indictment takes the guise of a visceral, pulpy thriller only adds to its intensity, though it's probably also (in part) what led to accusations that the movie was racist upon its release. (Calling this movie racist is like calling Fox News progressive; it's antithetical to their very reasons for existing.) The movie's central metaphor is overt but no less profound: it bears witness to the destruction of an innocent creature for the sake of domestic terrorism.
America's ongoing plague of white supremacy takes the form of the titular dog, both a victim and perpetrator of racial violence. He is run over by a privileged white actress, Julie (Kristy McNichol), on the winding roads of the Hollywood Hills. She takes him to an all-night vet and pays for his recovery, running her hand through his thick white fur as he lies on the examination table, his deep, black eyes fluttering open. She is advised to bring him to the pound or put up flyers offering to return the dog to his owner (for a reward), but when nobody claims him, it's no surprise that Julie decides to keep him herself: the vivid close-ups of shared looks between them emphasize the bond they already share.
The first of many stylish, provocatively symbolic shots takes place during this scene: as Julie and a veterinary assistant speak in a separate room, the frame is split in half by a wall between the camera and the action, with Julie clearly visible on the left and the vet tech obscured by a black window on the right. Black and white are, of course, constant motifs in the movie, which asks what constitutes whiteness or blackness on a deeper level, beneath the surface. In this early scene, Julie is explicitly separated from the black space, and the neat bifurcation of the frame (one white half, one black) poses the question of whether such visual juxtapositions are as discrete when it comes to morality or identity.
Shortly after Julie saves the dog's life, he saves hers: as a war movie blares on television, a (white) rapist enters her luxurious mansion and attacks her in her bedroom. Initially unaware due to the sound of gunfire on TV, the dog discovers her in danger, mauls the rapist, and leaps through a plate-glass window to continue attacking the intruder when he tries to escape. This is a bravura, elaborate scene, filmed in several long, handheld shots, with incredible stuntwork by the animal performers (four dogs in fact played the "white dog"). It foreshadows more troubling acts of violence later on but also clearly develops the intimacy between Julie and her dog, the sense of companionship and protection they share.
That closeness is tested when it becomes clear that Julie's new pet is in fact a "white dog": a predator trained by racists to attack people of color on sight. As one character briefly outlines in the movie, this is a real phenomenon: dogs were trained by slaveowners in the Antebellum and Reconstruction-era South to track down African Americans, as well as more recently in the Jim Crow era and beyond, by the police and other forces, to terrorize and intimidate black communities. In White Dog, Julie at first refuses to believe that this is true, even after her dog mauls a black coworker on set (and kills a city worker driving at night, unbeknownst to Julie). Her refusal to believe that her beloved pet is capable of such atrocity is understandable, but also an indication of her privilege as a white American, her luxury in refusing that systemic (and in this case brutally violent) racism exists and she's complicit in it.
The person she enlists to eradicate this strain of vicious racism from the dog is an animal trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield), a black man who works for a compound that trains wild animals and provides them to movie productions in Hollywood. Fuller, never one to shy away from a cinematic in-joke, can't resist ribbing the special effects departments that skyrocketed in popularity after the success of Star Wars; animatronics could never compare, Fuller insists, to the personality and soulfulness of animal performers. To hammer home this point, White Dog features a benevolent, grandfatherly character named Carruthers, played with treacly charm by Burl Ives. (Supposedly, Fuller originally wanted Lee Marvin for the role, which would have completely transformed the movie—for the better, I think.) The impulse to include some comic relief is understandable, but the coexistence of Carruthers' goofiness with Keys' deeply affecting personal and social quest is discomfiting. That said, it ensures that White Dog is never close to boring, and provides a surprisingly sincere celebration of the film production departments that don't get as much love as they should: namely, the animal trainers and animals themselves, who are responsible for much of White Dog's excitement and emotional impact.
As far as human performances go, Winfield is the standout, playing a conflicted character who can't really answer the question of why they don't put the dog down as soon as possible (especially when it becomes clear that it's murdered several human beings). We never learn much of Keys' backstory, if there is a specific tragic event in his past that compels his overriding determination to "cure" this white dog. I think that's to the movie's benefit. It's up to the audience to ponder whether there is a motivating biographical factor or if, as a black man whose cultural identity has made him too familiar with pervasive racism in the United States, it is something more innate and imperative. Really, the film is trying to ask whether it's possible to cure racism—if the processes by which people are turned into violent bigots can be erased and reversed. Keys is determined to answer that question, and he may find out too late that it's probably unanswerable.
The character of Julie, too, is more fascinating than she initially seems. The first few times I watched White Dog, she seemed like one of its weaker aspects; now, in 2019, it's rich and troubling to question what she represents. How can this mostly unemployed single actress afford a luxurious mansion in the Hollywood Hills? Not to be too glib, but the simple answer is because she's white. She is a symbol for unparalleled ease and privilege, who has the luxury of not knowing that tactics for systematic terrorism against black people persist in the United States. She is not a bad person; indeed, she would pride herself on her open-mindedness, and she can mostly see through the fabricated bullshit of Hollywood. (The pampered dogs that belong to famous actresses, she insists, are stand-ins provided for photo ops, making pet ownership yet another illusion that her industry can create.) But her cultural position makes her oblivious to the violence that festers beneath the surface of American life, at least until she can't avoid it anymore. Among the many things that White Dog is, it is the story of one woman's racial awakening, her transformation from ignorance to allyship; McNichol deserves a lot of credit for imbuing this seemingly shallow character with unforeseen depths.
Case in point: the scene late in the film in which the dog's former owner, an old, racist white man from the South, shows up at Julie's door asking for his animal back. He has his two young granddaughters in tow and bears a box of chocolates to offer as a "reward." He had painstakingly trained the animal its entire life, he boasts. "To be a white dog?" Julie asks. There's an uncomfortable silence, then a sick, psychopathic grin that grows across his face. "And the best of the lot." He assumes that, because of her whiteness, she will share in his brutal racism and endorse his worldview of killing and terrorizing black people. Obviously, she doesn't, screaming at him, beating him with her purse, and asking if his two granddaughters, smiling demonically, are more sick puppies for him to brainwash. This scene comes off as over-the-top and simplistic in some ways; there's some lazy classism in the old man's offhand remark that they live in a trailer park. But there's also a bluntly powerful understanding of the perceived likemindedness of people of the same race, and a disturbing encapsulation of the film's main theme: the ways in which animals (human or otherwise) are programmed to hate and oppress others. This is the scene in which Julie's disgust at the sins committed by the worst of her culture explodes dramatically; she no longer has the privilege of being oblivious.
It's no surprise, coming from the master of Hollywood B-movie thrills, that White Dog is awash in glorious cinematic style. Like the crazy opening scene of The Naked Kiss (1964) or the quietly intense thrills of Pickup on South Street (1953), White Dog is electrified by Fuller's mastery over film style, his precise interplay of zooms, handheld cinematography, extreme long shot and close-up, offscreen space, and sound design. Oddly, the sheer excitement of White Dog's formal construction might be what made it controversial: message movies about racism are supposed to be preachy and didactic, aren't they? So a scene in which the dog kills a black man in a church—a scene that culminates not in onscreen carnage, but in the nauseated face of Keys discovering the victim, bathed in the red glow cast by a stained-glass window—can be viewed as questionable although it's disturbing precisely because of its restraint, its precise cinematic construction. The troubled release of the film (facing accusations of racism, Paramount barely distributed it in the U.S., so it wasn't widely shown until eight years after it was made) seems partially the result of Fuller's stylistic audacity: according to interviews on the Criterion release, executive producers hated the copious use of extreme close-ups and slow-motion, turning them against Fuller (who ignored their suggestions) and his movie from the beginning.
This may be an unfortunate footnote in the history of White Dog (and yet another piece of evidence that most Hollywood executives are brainless hacks), but the movie we're left with is a masterpiece that tears its fangs into racial tension in the United States and won't release its grip until the audience takes notice. For much of its running time, this is a thrilling and captivating story of how pervasive and insidious racial violence is in this country, centering around human characters that come from wildly different backgrounds and the victimized animal symbolizing the animosity between them. But it isn't until the movie ends that its massive emotional power becomes apparent. What we're left with isn't the tragedy undergone by the human characters, but a single, powerless animal on which the delusions, hatreds, absurdities, and idiocies of humanity have been heaped, with disastrous results. The best musical score of Ennio Morricone's career (which is saying something) floats from the soundtrack, mournful and ominous. The closing credits play over an image that turns into a processed negative, white turning to black and vice versa: a clear and outraged depiction of how the divide between white and black is a human construction, a product of our own demented weakness. Given the controversy of the movie when it was first released, this was a lot to handle in 1982. But it's more devastating than ever in 2019, when the racial horrors perpetrated by this country have been given free reign by a white supremacist president, and the virulent divides between races in the country show no signs of abating.
US Theatrical Release: November 12, 1982
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Director: Samuel Fuller
Producer: Jon Davison
Writers: Samuel Fuller, Curtis Hanson, Romain Gary (based on the novel by)
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Editor: Bernard Gribble
Cast: Kristy McNichol, Christa Lang, Jameson Parker, Marshall Thompson, Paul Bartel, Lynne Moody, Paul Winfield, Martine Dawson, Burl Ives, Bob Minor, Dick Miller, Alex A. Brown, Sam Laws, Parley Baer