Forgotten Film Friday: White Dog

By Michael McNulty

You’re in the mood for something like Turner and Hooch or maybe K-9. But it’s Forgotten Film Friday so let’s flip the switch and unearth a film that’s wholly different, here’s this Friday’s film.

White Dog initially found life in 1968 as a story in Life magazine, written by Romain Gary. Gary developed it into a novel which was published in 1970. It was later adapted for the screen with Roman Polanski attached to direct, before Samuel Fuller was brought on board.

Upon completion paramount found White Dog to be too controversial and withheld its release, selling it to NBC who deemed the film inappropriate and shelved it. Fuller’s response: “Inappropriate is going to your mother’s funeral in a jockstrap.”

Recognized for his “grab you by the balls” approach to filmmaking Fuller’s films are emotional vehicles that combine realism with sensationalism resulting in informative, entertaining pieces that pack a hefty emotional punch. White Dog engages race and the indoctrination of hate in just such a manner.

Julie (Kristy McNichol), an aspiring young actress, hits a dog on a winding California road. She adopts the dog and a bond begins to form, a bond that’s solidified when late one night she is assaulted and very nearly raped, only to be saved by the white Alsatian. Julie soon discovers that the animal has been trained to attack and kill black people and after being told that it is too old to be reconditioned, she employs the help of Keys (Paul Winfield), a black man, and animal trainer who vows to reprogram the dog.

Fuller’s film is a metaphor for American racism and bigotry. The dog functioning symbolically as a consequence of taught hate. The underlying message of the film being that nobody is born prejudice, that it is taught, and that if the problem were addressed appropriately and dealt with directly it could be stamped out entirely.

What sets White Dog apart is its simplicity. The film is stripped back and raw. The extreme close ups of the four legged pup make him frighteningly sinister. There is life in the animal’s eyes that make his actions seem both calculated and evil, but misguided and deeply sad, heightening the truth behind the fact, the dog itself is a victim of scourge of indoctrinated racism.

As much as this is a film about race, it’s also a film about obsession and its ability to consume people whole. All the characters are blinded by their fixations to the point of ruin. Key’s and Julie are both willing to ignore the murderous impulses of the dog at the expense of human life in order to re- programme its mind. Granddaddy, the original owner, ignores the impact and weight of teaching hate at the expense of his granddaughter’s – and thereby people’s – innocence and open mindedness.

Complementing the film beautifully is Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack. Its classical style provides a haunting backdrop to the film. It rises and falls with the action, is simple and sombre and gives the film added dimension.

Settle in because White Dog is a film that has both bark and bite.

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