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No stranger to controversy, Sam Fuller was investigated by the FBI in late 1950, when The Steel Helmet—a priori sensational as the first Korean War film—was attacked as unpatriotic by the Hearst press (and as criminal by the Daily Worker). His file grew a bit fatter three years later, after FBI director J. Edgar Hoover voiced displeasure with Fuller’s representation of the bureau in the atomic espionage thriller Pickup on South Street. In part because of their lurid, highly politicized treatment of mental illness and child molestation, respectively, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) both received savage reviews—“Shock Corridor should never have been made” is how one began. But Fuller never had a film deemed so dangerous that it was shelved until White Dog (1982)—his last Hollywood feature and one of his strongest.
Was it the bark or the bite? A genuine cause célèbre, adapted from Romain Gary’s 1970 nonfiction novel, a section of which provided a Life magazine cover story, White Dog is an unusually blunt and suggestively metaphoric account of American racism. In the novel, Gary and his then wife, actress Jean Seberg, find a stray German shepherd that, they soon discover, has been raised to attack black people on sight. Although told that the dog is too old to be deconditioned, they turn him over to an animal trainer who turns out to be a Black Muslim and vengefully reprograms the creature to maul whites—including, at the book’s climax, Gary himself. (Some of the vengeance in this “found” allegory belongs to the author: Gary disapproved of his wife’s public support of the Black Panther Party, a political stance that put her under FBI investigation.)
Robert Evans bought the story for Paramount in the mid-1970s; after he left the studio, White Dog went through a number of scripts, with Roman Polanski, Arthur Penn, and Tony Scott variously named to direct, before falling into limbo. In 1981, shortly after Seberg’s mysterious death and Gary’s subsequent suicide, and with the threat of possible strikes by the writers and directors guilds, the project was revived. White Dog was seen as a movie that might be quickly made. Producer Jon Davison brought back Curtis Hanson, who had worked on an early version of the screenplay, and Hanson recommended Fuller, fresh from his comeback triumph The Big Red One, to direct.
Fuller was familiar with both the novel and the premise, having learned of “white dogs” as a young reporter in the late 1930s, when he was sent south by the New York Evening Graphic to cover the Ku Klux Klan. Davison would maintain that he recruited Fuller because Fuller was the only man in Hollywood who could rewrite a script and be ready to start shooting in ten days. It’s also possible that Fuller was the only American filmmaker who could successfully short-circuit Gary’s “civilized” irony and present White Dog head-on, treating the yarn with the sort of absurdist humor and unabashed didacticism the material warranted. Indeed, intuiting his potential audience, Fuller reconceptualized the movie to put the conflict inside the dog’s brain: “You’re going to see a dog slowly go insane and then come back to sanity in front of you,” he promised Variety.
White Dog was shot in forty-four days on a then middling budget of seven million dollars. Because of the sensitive subject matter, Paramount brought in two consultants, the station manager of the local PBS affiliate and the president of the Beverly Hills–Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. Fuller deeply resented this; from his point of view, he had already solved the project's problematic aspects.
Fuller altered Gary’s ending, making it more pessimistic and irrational. He modified the character of the black trainer (Paul Winfield) and changed the protagonist from an activist movie star to an aspiring actress (childlike TV star Kristy McNichol, in her first “adult” role), whom the dog initially saves from a white rapist. In Fuller’s world, unlike Gary’s, racial paranoia doesn’t drop from the sky but is associated from the onset with the paternal protection of the Law. That, in homage to Seberg and Gary, Fuller maintained the initials JS for McNichol’s character and RG for her writer boyfriend is suggestive of his film’s boldly abstract tabloid stylistics.
Filmed in headlines, framed as allegory, a movie of constant hyperbole and borderline absurdity, White Dog combines hard-boiled sentimentality and hysterical violence, sometimes in the same take. Fuller was exiled from Hollywood in the mid-sixties, at the moment when American public reality was beginning to rival Shock Corridor, and among other things, White Dog demonstrates that, as a director and newshound, he had lost very little since his early sixties masterpieces. Despite a few moments of awkward cuteness, White Dog is a return to the frenzy of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. The opening sequence is a violent, near abstract nocturne in which the dog erupts out of the darkness to collide with McNichol’s car; the ending is a sensationally irrational (and beautifully choreographed) nod to the three-way shoot-out that climaxes The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
There’s another spaghetti western touch: White Dog’s iconic visuals and cartoon dialogue (“Your dog is a four-legged time bomb!”) are given unexpected dignity by the somber piano doodling and tense, moody strings of Ennio Morricone’s brilliant score. Still, this really is an animal film—replete with dog-level tracking shots and frequent close-ups of the dog’s eyes, none more compelling than when the animal returns to consciousness on a gurney in the vet’s office and focuses, for the first time, on McNichol. That the dog’s performance was largely created by Fuller in the editing room—five canine actors are credited—in no way mitigates the viewer’s sense of the creature as an actor.
With the surplus violence of the white dog’s savage, not always predictable attacks—in locations ranging from McNichol’s living room (war movie blasting on TV) and Rodeo Drive (dog effectively driving a car through a posh boutique window) to a movie set (process shot of Venice flickering in the background) and a South Central church (stained-glass image of Saint Francis of Assisi looking on)—combined with Fuller’s emphasis on the animal’s alien intelligence, White Dog seems to be infusing a politically conscious variant of Jaws with intimations of Robert Bresson’s sublime Au hasard Balthazar, topped by the filmmaker’s own unclassifiable nuttiness.
Where else but in a Fuller film would a purveyor of trained animals (Burl Ives, hamming like crazy) hurl syringe darts at a poster of R2-D2 (“That’s the enemy!”) or, after claiming he doubled for John Wayne in True Grit where Wayne reaches into a nest of rattlesnakes, proffer his paw with the invitation to shake “the hand that helped Duke win the Oscar”? Of course, the choice contradictions are reserved for Fuller’s hero, the black man who sets out to cure the white dog. “To me, this is like a laboratory that Darwin himself would go ape over!” Winfield exclaims of the animal farm where he works. Then, later: “How I wanted to put a bullet in that son of a bitch!” he says, describing his response on discovering the white dog trotting away from his latest victim. “But you can’t experiment on a dead dog!” McNichol’s persistence—if not her mad devotion to the dog—is trumped by Winfield’s. By the time he swears that if he fails to cure this animal, he’ll find another and another until he does, he has come to seem like a black Captain Ahab.
White Dog was completed in late 1981 and previewed in Seattle early the next year. Then the studio sat on it. A Variety critic saw the movie on the Paramount lot (on Juneteenth, no less) and, calling it “a ‘problem pic’ with punch,” wrote a generally positive review. The only release that followed was in France. In mid-November, Paramount “tested” White Dog by opening it for one week in five Detroit theaters. There was little response, and apart from a few, little-seen cable TV showings, the movie was shelved in the United States until New York’s Film Forum opened it during the summer of 1991.
It’s understandable that the NAACP would have taken an interest in White Dog’s production; it’s unfortunate that, in warning Paramount that the film could encourage the production of (more) actual white dogs, the NAACP provided the studio—and later NBC—with an excuse to suppress one of the most unflinching statements on American racism ever to come out of Hollywood, something like Rin Tin Tin Joins the Klan.
Fuller—who addressed the effect of racial prejudice in a number of his fifties action flicks (and made it the subject of The Crimson Kimono)—was responsible for some of the toughest social-problem films ever made in the United States. For him, White Dog’s fate marked the end of something else. “It was 1982. Reagan was president, and the Republicans had the country’s morality by the balls,” the filmmaker would recall in his memoirs. “Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever . . . Moving to France for a while would alleviate some of the pain and doubt that I had to live with because of White Dog.”
Rather than giving racists ideas, Fuller was analyzing something that already existed. White Dog “naturalizes” racism in a strikingly unnatural way. While the movie’s white characters are invariably amazed by the whole idea of the “white dog,” most of the black characters treat his existence as a brute fact of life. Unlike in Gary’s novel, the dog here doesn’t seem to have a name—he’s referred to once as Mr. Hyde, leaving us to consider just who Dr. Jekyll might be. (Late in the day, we discover that his creator is a kindly old codger with two little granddaughters and a box of candy for the lady who sheltered his pet.) What’s stunning about Fuller’s two-fisted allegory is how White Dog gives race hatred both a human and subhuman face. This terrific movie is even more remarkable than the travails it suffered on the road to recognition.
J. Hoberman recently marked his thirtieth year as a film critic for the Village Voice, where he listed White Dog first on his 1991 top ten list.