For better or worse,White Dog’s reputation precedes it. The film was inexplicably accompanied by charges of racism at the time of its international release, though it’s difficult to see how anyone could have perceived it as a stirring endorsement of bigotry, given co-writer-director Sam Fuller’s long history of socially conscious filmmaking. In fact, it’s a scathing indictment of the social conditioning that passes racial hatred from one generation to another like a hereditary disease. Though the film never received a proper theatrical release in the United States, it was heralded overseas as Fuller’s last masterpiece and the product of a late-period renaissance that also produced The Big Red One.
Criterion has delivered an early Christmas present to cinephiles and Fuller cultists with a lovingly restored DVD release of the 1982 drama. White Dog casts Kristy McNichol as a would-be Hollywood starlet who finds a beautiful white German shepherd and learns the dog has been trained to attack, maim, and ultimately even kill black people. McNichol takes the dog to an animal reserve run by kindly old Burl Ives, where hard-nosed animal trainer Paul Winfield embarks on a passionate crusade to break the dog of its hateful conditioning.
White Dog cannily exploits the way animals can turn from kindly pets to fearsome predators in the time it takes a smile to curl into a snarl. A consummate visual filmmaker, Fuller crafts an allegory of blunt primal force using largely nonverbal elements. Much of the film’s best acting lies in its reaction shots, whether from its supremely gifted canine thespians or McNichol’s slowly dawning realization that the animal she loves unconditionally has been bred to hate. In the film’s most haunting scene, the title character’s murder of a black man in a church is conveyed entirely through Winfield’s response to seeing the mangled body; the corpse is never seen, yet the effect remains devastating. Aided by Ennio Morricone’s powerful score, White Dog is a potent, timeless tale about our struggles with the savagery of nature and our own darkest recesses.
Key features: A fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary with co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davison (who oozes delight when discussing the irascible Fuller), and Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang-Fuller.