The American film White Dog was finished in 1981. It was released in Europe in 1982. It wasn’t released in America until 2008, when Criterion released the film on DVD. You can probably tell by this information that the movie had a bit of a fraught production. The film was based on a book of the same name, and was optioned around in Hollywood for a while. It was first offered to none other than Roman Polanski, who agreed to direct the film. This was 1975, and before production could begin properly Roman Polanski was charged with statutory rape and fled the country. Afterwards the film was handed around to various potential directors. Paramount began tinkering with the script during this time. They changed the career of the female lead, but more importantly they began hiding the film’s themes.
See White Dog was a book largely about racism. The studio decided to eschew this in favour of a Jaws style thriller (“Jaws with Paws”). The studio explicitly said, “Given the organic elements of this story, it is imperative that we never overtly address through attitude or statement the issue of racism per se.” White Dog hadn’t even been made yet and it was already making the studio edgy. In 1981, the novel’s writer and his wife committed suicide. The same year the writers’ guild strike loomed, and the studio selected White Dog as being far enough through production to fast track. They wanted to make sure they had films they could release during the strike.
Director Sam Fuller (who’d previously directed Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor) was suggested as the perfect candidate. He would certainly be able to finish the movie in such a limited time, and with such a limited budget. Fuller managed to get the product out on time. However he rewrote and explored the narrative from a new angle, and included a lot more racial concern. Two different Black Rights organizations were allowed to preview the movie. One saw nothing wrong with Fuller’s movie, while the other saw it as inflammatory. Both sent write ups to the studio. Fuller, who had long considered himself a progressive man, was furious at this turn of events. The studio held a series of limited run releases in various American cities designed to test the audience response to the film and subject matter portrayed.
The test results alternated between lukewarm and angry. Paramount decided the film simply wouldn’t inspire enough audience attendance to counteract the inevitable negative press and boycotts, and shelved the film indefinitely. Samuel Fuller was shaken deeply by this turn of events, and left America for good, moving to France. In Europe, the film was shown in various places to generally positive critical response, but the releases were small enough that they made the film little money. The film was also offered for purchase for cable TV distribution, however continued negative response led to the film being pulled off the air.
Even today, when watching the Criterion DVD of the film, it’s easy to see why the subject matter would have inspired such controversy. The film starts with a young actress driving along a hilly road at night. She hits a dog with her car, and takes the hound to the vet. The vet is initially hesitant to help the white German Shepherd. At least until the actress assures them she’ll pay for the bill. She would rather get the dog looked after and reunite it with its owners than let it die, or send it to the pound, where it would surely be put down.
So the actress takes the dog home. Her boyfriend suggests she keeps the dog. He worries about her living alone in such an isolated area and thinks the dog would offer a modicum of protection. She’s not convinced. That is, until an intruder breaks into her home and tries to rape her. The dog charges the man. He bites him, chases him through a glass window, and generally more than proves himself a savage man-killer (when the time comes). The police arrive and pick up the would-be-attacker, and the actress cleans up the dog, content now to keep him around.
However, the dog gets lost quickly after. He chases a rabbit down the hill and doesn’t return. The actress gets worried. She starts looking for her new canine friend at the pound, hoping he’ll turn up. What she doesn’t see is that the dog goes wandering through a nearby town. The dog stops by a truck, spotting the driver. The dog leaps into the cab of the truck and kills the driver. He comes home to the actress, covered in blood. She calmly bathes the dog, not realizing that she’s effectively covering up a murder.
She then takes the dog to work. She’s filming a small scene alongside a friend. They both play fairly bit parts, but it seems to be going well. Until the dog breaks free of his leash and mauls the actress’ friend. She drags the dog off set, luckily saving her friend’s life. She takes the dog home, where her boyfriend accosts her. As he sees it, the dog is clearly an attack dog, and should be put down before it kills again. The actress refuses to kill the dog and takes it to be retrained by some men who run an animal training organization that caters to film.
The owner trains lions and tigers for films. He talks about the big films he’s been involved in and throws tranquilizer darts angrily at a cardboard cut out of RT-D2. He refuses to train the dog. As he sees it, an attack dog can never be properly retrained. On their way out of the office the dog breaks free and tries to attack one of the nearby employees. They save the man in time, but the incident makes it clear to the trainer what’s really going on with this dog – it’s a white dog.
Sure, the dog is white in colour, but white dog refers to the way the dog has been trained. A white dog is a term for a dog that’s been trained to exclusively attack and kill black people. Sure enough everyone the dog attacked, everyone but the initial intruder, was black. The other chief trainer at this company is a black man, and he sees this as an opportunity. Despite the danger and the slim chance of success he takes it upon himself to retrain the dog. If there’s a surefire way to undo the conditioning of a white dog then people might stop making them.
What follows is a long and blunt metaphor for American racism. More specifically White Dog is concerned with whether or not a racist can be cured. The dog’s plight serves as a metaphor for those raised racist. It’s an unflinching question, the kind of thing that would make a lot of creatives balk. Especially given the dark twists and turns the film takes as it goes along, eventually leading to the cast of human characters covering up another killing in the hopes of training the dog.
The film is incredibly expressive and well made. The narrative is interesting, in that, from a structural standpoint, the main character is the unnamed dog. This makes the dog a sort of tragic main character, and leaves the humans as the supporting cast. This is an unusual choice for a serious movie, and it serves the story well. The movie is about the dog, so it seems fitting the hound isn’t just a monster or MacGuffin. This also means that Samuel Fuller has to use a lot of expressive filmmaking techniques to put you inside the mind of the dog. It’s a tough task, one the director handles well. In the end, between the filmmaking and the “performance”, the dog feels like a real character. There’s also a lot communicated by camera angles and editing, or even sound design. Like the attempted rape scene, which is entirely scored by diegetic sound emanating from war-footage on a TV. This floods the scene with the thunderous sounds of cannons and explosions, a harrowing sound track for a harrowing scene. The dog’s penultimate test, too, is a breathtaking scene, with a lovely tracking shot around a circular cage and pristine geography maintained between the three tense figures. This is one of the moments in the film simply alive with powerful control of the medium.
It’s this undeniable quality that helps further elevate an already interesting central concept and metaphor. It’s easy to imagine a version of the film that feels more like a visual essay. White Dog may revolve around a body controversial concept and story, but it doesn’t rely on it. All the other aspects of the film are equal to the creative challenge put forth by the concept. It’s the skilled filmmaking and insanely expressive central “performance” by five white German Sheperds that makes this film a gripping and entertaining watch.