WC Fields is famous for having said, “never work with children or animals.” Today we meet an animal that certainly justifies Field’s statement in Samuel Fuller’s 1982 film “White Dog.” The film features a racist dog, trained to attack and kill black people. It’s a film that was considered so controversial at the time of its release that Paramount chose not to release it here in the United States.
The film focuses on a struggling actress named Julie (Kristy McNichol). One night, while driving in the Hollywood Hills, she hits a white german shepherd who runs into the road. She ends up taking the dog to a vet, who quickly mends the pooch. Since this is an older dog, the vet informs her that this dog stands little chance of being adopted and the pound and will most likely put him to sleep. That’s all it takes for Julie to decide to take the dog home.
Julie and the dog quickly start to connect, though her screenwriter boyfriend (Jameson Parker) warns her that having a dog can take over her life. She does try to find the owner of the dog, but when a rapist breaks into her home, only to be turned into a chew toy by the dog, she doesn’t put as much effort into finding the true owners.
A short time later, the dog gets lost after chasing a rabbit out of the yard. As it wanders the streets, it attacks the driver of a streetsweeper…a black man. Strangely, when the dog returns to Julie’s home covered in blood, she seems unfazed and calmly hoses him off in the tub. A short time later, she takes the dog with on acting gig (where the director is played by Paul Bartel, by the way). The actress sharing the scene with her is also black, and so the dog brutally attacks her, as well.
The actress doesn’t press charges, but now Julie’s boyfriend suspects that Julie’s new pet was trained as an attack dog. Unwilling to have the dog put down, Julie goes to a ranch where animals are trained for movies in hopes that they can cure the dog. The owner of the facility, Mr. Carruthers (Burl Ives), soon realizes that this is a “White Dog,” trained to kill blacks. He suggest that Julie have the dog killed. But one of the trainers, a black man named Keys (Paul Winfield), believes he can cure the dog. Soon, he begins the lengthy reconditioning…becoming quite obsessed in the process.
But this is a clever dog. Though the dog has been making progress, at night he has been tearing away at an unseen portion of his wire enclosure. One night, he manages to escape. While out and about, he chases a black man, cornering him inside a church building and killing him. Keys, captures the dog as he emerges from the church, stained in blood. This event causes Julie to insist the dog be put down, but the obsessed Keys will not allow it. They do not turn the dog in to the authorities as Keys determines to break the dog, or die trying.
I’m not usually one who reviews films with an eye for symbolism or metaphors, but there’s no denying that it’s there in “White Dog.” The whole question of whether a conditioned response, which is essentially what racism is, can be cured is an interesting premise for a film. Fuller is a skilled director and he handles the material well. He manages to create a strong feeling of danger for the audience. It’s very tense, with a constant feeling that something terrible could happen at any moment.
Still, as much as I enjoyed the film, there are also some definite flaws. It was a bit of a struggle for me to accept Julie’s attachment to the dog, and refusal to destroy it when it’s nasty side is revealed, when she never even gives it a name. The character of Julie’s boyfriend is also a stumbling block as he is pretty much eliminated from the story once the reconditioning of the dog begins. I kept thinking the filmmakers could’ve done so much had this character been black. I did also have a problem with the lack of police presence in film. When the dog kills the man in the church, Keys, Carruthers, and Julie only briefly wrestle with the guilt of not reporting the incident. Had there been police coming around asking questions, it would’ve just heightened the tension a bit more and added another interesting element to Keys’ character…a man more obsessed with curing the dog than doing the right thing.
Winfield’s performance as Keys is the highlight of the film. His is an interesting character. He seems to almost feel that if he can fix this racist dog, then there is hope that racism can be eliminated from our world. But again, I felt like there were some missed opportunities. I wanted to know his back-story a bit. Why is he so driven? What happened to him, to his family, that compels him to cure this “White Dog?” Remember, the scene in “Jaws” where Quint tells the story of when he was on the USS Indianapolis…sunken and surrounded by sharks. That helped explains Quint’s madness. Keys needed a scene like that.
But, I shouldn’t get too obsessed with what this film ISN’T. What this film IS is still very good. It is a shame that the film was suppressed in its day. Yet, it still provides a strong statement 30 years later.