Posted by: jamesodinwade | January 31, 2009

Review: White Dog (1982)

whitedog1

Director: Samuel Fuller

Writers: Romain Gary (Short Story), Samuel Fuller and Curtis Hanson (Screenplay)

Starring: Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives

Rating: 

I thought with all the “dog” pandemonium on the site lately I’d hop on the bandwagon. The history surrounding the release of this film was more than enough to get me interested. Paramount suppressed the release of this movie due to allegations it was racist and it only got a release in France and the UK and was never released on video…until now! A few weeks ago film juggernaught Criterion released their full treatment of this forgotten gem for all to see!

And wait until you here the premise! Kristy McNichol stars as a young actress named Julie, who accidentally hits a stray white german shepard one night while driving. After a brief visit to the vet, she takes him home while she tries locate his real owner. But this loveable companion turns out to be much more when one night a man breaks in and tries to rape Julie. Her new dog hears her cry for help and the dog WRECKS HIS SHIT, even going so far as to leap through a glass window to stop the fleeing rapist. Noticing more and more violent tendencies in the dog she visits an animal sanctuary run by Burl Ives (just before his appearance in Caravan Of Courage: Ewok Adventure)! There she meets an African-American animal tamer named Keys who informs her she has a “White Dog”, a dog who has been systematically trained to attack black people. Can Keys, Julie and Burl Ives separate the racism from the dog Julie has grown to love?

This movie sits uneasy at first because the actors dialogue is consistently melodramatic and cliche-ridden, but when the true conflict of the story starts this approach proves effective to put the real problem infront of the viewer instead of worrying about the emotional nuances of the characters. And there are some major characterization issues here. But after all, this is not a realistic drama but an in-depth questioning of hate. Whether it is a learned behavior and can it be unlearned? What’s for sure is that it gets worse before it gets better. When the dog escapes, mauls an unsuspecting man and is re-captured the trainers have difficult moral questions to ask themselves about the nature of what they are trying to do.

The directing here is simple, flexible and enjoys many of the conventions that make this a distinctly American film. The actors are given room to pontificate at their leisure and the camera moves quickly and with fluidity helping to move the story along at a quick and increasingly urgent pace. All the actors seem like they’re having a good deal of fun telling this story, Fuller and Hanson’s script calling for a considerable dose of camp from everyone involved. It is this tone that perhaps makes White Dog’s brutal attack scenes that much more jarring and engrossing. The best performance is by far the dog’s. Hans, Folsom, Son, Buster, Duke (as the credits suggest) all played the title role at different times. There are subtleties to the dog’s emotions that I rarely see from their human counterparts. They are adept at slowly turning a snarling beast into a friendly creature and back again easily, without doing these things too suddenly. The feats they perform are also pretty great. Jumping through glass? Tearing open a mesh roof piece by piece? I won’t spoil the final trick, but Kevin Spacey doesn’t do it half as well in Hanson’s later screenplay L.A. Confidential.

While not the most engaging drama, draws incredible strength from the conviction of its metaphors and depiction of snarling hatred and abiding love within one animal. The film offers no easy answers about the questions it asks, but it will certainly leave you thinking about them.

-James

Great Moment: In an unexpected moment, Julie momentarily comes face to face with the dog’s original owner.

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