White Dog is a 1982 American drama film directed by Samuel Fuller using a screenplay written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson loosely based on Romain Gary's 1970 novel of the same title. The film depicts the struggle of a dog trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield), who is black, trying to retrain a stray dog found by a young actress (Kristy McNichol), that is a "white dog"—a dog trained to viciously attack any black person. Fuller uses the film as a platform to deliver an anti-racist message as it examines the question of whether racism is a treatable problem or an incurable condition. The film's theatrical release was suppressed in the United States by Paramount Pictures out of concern of negative press after rumors began circulating that the film was racist. It was released internationally in France and the United Kingdom in 1982, and broadcast on various American cable television channels. Its first official American release came in December 2008 when The Criterion Collection released the original uncut film to DVD.
In the granite-headed world of Sam Fuller, hysteria reigns supreme and sentimentality is an emotion as rare as uranium. As Fuller famously posited, ‘Film is a battleground’ with characters banging their heads into one another like enraged rams, with the ‘victor’ succeeding into oblivion or madness.
Racism has always been a red-hot button obsession of Fuller’s ever-present like a festering ooze in his films from Run of the Arrow to The Crimson Kimono to China Gate to the rabid Shock Corridor. But in no other Fuller film has racism been depicted in a such a raw-boned and festering way as in Fuller’s final Hollywood film, White Dog, barely released by Paramount in 1982 amid false charges of racism against Fuller by the NAACP.
Adapted from a Romain Gary novel, White Dog is a mucky morality tale from the abyss concerning a ‘white dog’ — a dog that has been trained to attack blacks. Perky idiot actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) rescues a mysterious white dog from a highway accident, drives the dog to the vet and helps the canine regain his health. The dog and Julie bond and she takes it back to her Hollywood home, where the dog proves his mettle by saving Julie from a white rapist who breaks into her home.
But soon enough Julie discovers the dog’s hidden ‘talent’ when the dog begins to viciously attack black people — first a mailman and then a black actress on the set of a corny commercial Julie is appearing in. The woman ends up maimed and in the hospital and warns Julie, ‘Your dog is a four-legged time bomb!’ Julie takes the dog to an animal training menagerie headed by crusty old B.S. artist Carruthers (Burl Ives) who recognizes the danger immediately and suggests Julie put the mutt to sleep. But in steps Keys (Paul Winfield), Carruthers’ assistant and a black man. He takes on the challenger to deprogram the dog (‘To me this is like a laboratory that Darwin himself would go ape over’). In the end it is blind racial hatred versus accommodation, with Keys either breaking the dog or the dog breaking Keys (‘How I want to put a bullet in that son of a bitch, but you can’t experiment on a dead dog’).
As if anticipating the ruin of his Hollywood career, Fuller pulls out all the stops in White Dog. The film unfolds like a horror film — only with no emotional distance or filtering between the scenes of delirium as the dog attacks his poor victims and Fuller twists the knife deeper. A dog attack on a delivery man driving a truck is not only unprovoked, but Fuller adds the extra dimension of a slow motion crash as the truck barrels through a row of Rodeo Drive boutiques. Another victim is chased into a South Central L.A. church where he is mauled underneath a stained glass window depicting a saint. An attack on a black child is cut off when the dog turns his head just at the moment when the child appears, and when the dog turns back the child has gone around the corner.
Fuller is walking a fine line in White Dog and Fuller’s unpretentious, in-your-face style makes watching the film a very uncomfortable experience… as a film about racism should make you feel. Unlike a Stanley Kramer feel-good liberal track that draws neat and self-satisfied conclusions, Fuller turns up the heat and doesn’t allow a comfortable place to escape.
And only Fuller could re-imagine the final shootout of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as an ultimate circus ring confrontation between Keys, Carruthers, and a rabid dog on the verge of going insane. White Dog is one film that will never make it into the Animal Planet lineup.
The Criterion Collection DVD includes a scant few extras, including new interviews with producer Jon Davison and Fuller’s widow, and an interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller.