One of cinema's most intense, compelling examinations of racism that you've never seen has finally come to DVD. Samuel Fuller's great 1982 film White Dog, withheld from release in the U.S. due to ignorant misunderstanding about its subject matter, has gotten the full Criterion Collection treatment, and it's a smart addition to their catalog. It's also a movie that you need to see.
In her only adult film role, Kristy McNichol plays Julie Sawyer, an actress who accidentally hits a white German Shepherd with her car. She brings the dog home to care for it, and starts to become attached, particularly after the dog protects her during a break-in. But after a savage attack on a close friend (Lynne Moody), it becomes apparent that the dog has been trained to attack, so Julie seeks to have the dog rehabilitated in the hopes that he won't be put to sleep.
At a facility that trains wild animals for use in movies, it's discovered that the dog has been trained to attack black people -- he's a "white dog," and the facility's owner (Burl Ives) insists that the dog be put down. But one trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), is convinced that he can deprogram the dog, and begins the long, dangerous, and laborious project of exposing his own black skin to the dog, a little at a time, in the hopes of rehabilitating the animal.
Originally intended as an exploitation film, White Dog became something altogether different under Fuller's direction, and with a script co-written by Curtis Hanson. Fuller has been rightly celebrated for his tough-as-nails noir thrillers of the '60s such as The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, and for his 1980 war classic, The Big Red One. A master at molding studio material into something more hard-hitting, he wastes no time setting up his actress-finds-attack-dog premise and then moving on to the meat of the picture -- the relationship between black man and white dog, and the faith that Keys has that hate is learned, not ingrained, and that the dog can be cured.
Sadly, on its release the film was still marketed as an exploitation film (the ads trumpeted, "When man's best friend becomes his fiercest enemy!"), and after a statement of condemnation by the NAACP, Paramount decided to shelf the film rather than defend it. Unsurprisingly, it was warmly received in Europe, where audiences understood that this was more than just a violent movie about a dog that attacks black people. Still, the film has gone unreleased on home video for years, available only on the rare occasion that it was broadcast on cable.
It's hardly a perfect movie, with a sloppy first act in which Hanson and Fuller introduce characters willy-nilly (some, like the boyfriend played by Jameson Parker, disappear without comment later), and stretches of dialogue that are almost painfully overwrought. In the interview featurette included on Criterion's DVD release, Hanson takes the heat for most of the script's problems, but the picture's flaws are small compared to its successes. One part monster movie, two parts social drama, White Dog also boasts a lovely, haunting soundtrack by Ennio Morricone that underscores the emotional foundation of the story. It's Fuller's last American film, and one that's been tragically underseen until now -- perhaps its release on DVD will remedy that.
The new DVD from the Criterion Collection (official page, Armond White essay) offers up an excellent transfer from a fully restored hi-def digital master -- other than the original theatrical prints, the film has never looked this good. The Dolby Digital monaural audio (English, with optional English subtitles) is equally good, balancing dialogue and Morricone's score nicely.
Extras include 45 minutes of interviews with producer Jon Davison, Curtis Hanson and Fuller's widow, Christa Lang-Fuller, focusing on the production of the film and Fuller's career, plus a text interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis-Miller and a photo gallery. The enclosed booklet offers excellent essays by critics J. Hoberman and Armond White, and a 1982 "interview" with the dog, conducted by Fuller.
Dawn Taylor wonders how anyone could have misunderstood the point of this film so completely.