The Film:  White Dog (1982)

The Principals: Samuel Fuller (director), Curtis Hanson (cowriter), Ennio Morricone (music), Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, Paul Winfield

The Premise: Aspiring actress Julie Sawyer (McNichol) is driving home one dark night, and hits a white German Shepherd.  Horrified, she rushes him to a vet and pays his bill.  She doesn’t want to keep him, but she’s reluctant to take him to the pound where he’s doomed to be put down.  She puts up some posters and a notice with the ASPCA and takes him home.   Her boyfriend urges her to keep the dog for protection, but Julie dismisses the idea.

As silly script twist would have it, a rapist breaks into Julie’s house that very night.  The dog proves himself a worthy companion by ripping the attacker to shreds. (This scene provides one of the best lines of the film from Officer DoRight: “Haaay! It’s that rapist I caught last month!”) Julie decides to keep him.  Being a dummy, she doesn’t bother to put up a fence or give him tags, so he runs away.  (Possibly because she’s only feeding him bagels.) While roaming the streets, he sees a black man operating a street cleaner (you know, the actual heavy vehicle) and leaps into his passenger window to maul him.   He returns home, blood splattered and panting, and Julie shrugs it off. You know, because dogs do that. They go out roaming, and come home covered in viscera.

But eventually Julie discovers his horrifying secret.  This is no ordinary German Shepherd, and not your average guard dog. He’s a White Dog, an attack dog specially trained to attack, maim, and kill any African-American he sees.  Julie is determined to save his life, and seeks help from Hollywood animal trainer Keyes (Winfield). Together, they seek to cure the dog of his racism before it’s too late.

Is It Good: It’s a Criterion, but it’s not especially good. White Dog never rises above a B-movie, and it verges on grindhouse due to the subject matter. Unfortunately, it takes itself way too seriously to truly be enjoyable, and its somber tone is really at odds with many of its campy moments.  It’s hard to buy this as a serious examination of racism when Trainer Keyes says “He attacked the man … in the church!” , and the camera rushes in on McNichols’ horrified face.  Oh my God! You mean he didn’t understand religious sanctuary?  What a monster!

Still, it tries.  Morricone’s score actually elevates the tension and tragedy, and he
manages to make a snarling, pacing dog into something poetic. (I had nearly talked myself out of watching this until Morricone’s name popped up. His strings can always pin me to my seat.) The combination of Morricone, the camera angles, and a deliberate set piece even makes the ending sweetly reminiscent of Sergio Leone.  If you ever wondered what the final face-off in A Few Dollars More might look like if Col. Mortimer was played by a white German Shepherd, look no further.

The human performances are pretty good (with the exception of McNichols’ surfer boyfriend) and manage to sell even the most awkward of lines .  The dog attack scenes are well staged.  They’re often off camera and rely heavily on sound, making them classier and ickier to sit through.  One really stands out and gives Cujo a run for its foamy money as its lit entirely by a flickering movie screen. Never have bloody fur, white teeth, and pink gums looked so pretty.

It’s definitely clunky though, and starts to drag after the first half hour. The vicious dog scenes become repetitive, and you may beg for a training montage.  So much idle screen time led me to obsessively wonder why the hell Julie didn’t own a pair of jeans or tennis shoes. Her persistence in wearing heels and polyester to a filthy zoo really became laughable.  For a starving actress, she’s awfully careless with her nice things.

Is It Worth A Look: Despite my criticisms, yes.  It’s worth watching just for the conceit of a world where there’s an epidemic of White Dogs. That’s right, our titular hound isn’t the only prejudiced beast.  At least one character in the film has been maimed by one, and Keyes has hungered to cure a White Dog for years.  There’s even hints they are the subject of extensive studies, as animal trainers the world over are trying to figure out how to deprogram them.  So far, all have failed unless they lobotomize the dogs.  That’s right — this is also a world where a dog’s brain has been studied to the point where you know where the lobe for racism is.

There’s also the massive Song of the South level of controversy that’s dogged (pun not intended) the film for 25 years. The NAACP immediately blasted the film as racist, and Paramount buried White Dog, letting it out occasionally for festivals, art house screenings, and cable television.  I imagine the first time you heard of it was in a whisper. “There’s this crazy ’80s film — White Dog — about a dog that attacks black people!”  As is the case, its scarcity only made it more notorious.

But White Dog isn’t racist! It’s remarkable that the film’s intent was so willfully misconstrued for so long.   Of course the attack scenes only feature African-Americans.  That’s the point of the story! No one cheers the dog on. Instead, every other scene is a character stressing how important it is to cure the dog because of the hatred he represents.  The answer isn’t to kill him, it’s to try and undo the cruelty and abuse he’s suffered. He’s as innocent as the people he attacks.  You can call it hamfisted (and it most certainly is with lines like “You don’t understand. Dogs live … in a black and white world.” ), but you can’t call it racist. 

You may disagree, however, and that’s why you should see the movie. (It’s on Netflix Instant right now!) It’s worth noting the original script featured Keyes re-training the dog to attack white people. If that plotline had stood, what would the reaction be? Given the NAACP stance on blaxploitation, I suspect it might have been boycotted just as quickly.

Be warned though! It’s not an easy watch for animal lovers (is any dog movie?), and a lengthy scene at the dog pound is sure to have you reaching for the Kleenex.  On the cheerier side, it does have Burl Ives using a poster of R2D2 as a dartboard, and ranting about the popularity of robots. (This feels like an awkward place to mention that, but it had to go somewhere.)

Random Anecdotes: Though there was never an epidemic of racist dogs, White Dog is based on a true story about a dog owned by Jean Seberg and her husband.  From IMDB: “The film is based on a true story. While she was living in Hollywood with her husband, writer Romain Gary, actress Jean Seberg brought home a large white dog she had found on the street that seemed friendly and playful. However, when the animal saw her black gardener, it attacked him viciously, injuring him. Afterward, the couple kept it in the back yard, but one day, it got out and attacked another black man on the street but no one else. After this happened a third time, they realized that someone had trained the dog to attack and injure only black people. Gary wrote a magazine piece about it, which eventually became a full-length book, and Samuel Fuller read it and made it into this movie.”