(1982) dir. Samuel Fuller
Some people watch White Christmas (1954) as holiday mood inspiration, me, apparently I watch White Dog, Samuel Fuller’s film about a racist, killer canine. Doesn’t that just set the mood?
Actually, I’d seen White Dog back more than ten years ago on a bootleg video from Le Video, San Francisco’s one awesome video store. I’d taken an interest in Fuller when I’d been living in England, seeing The Naked Kiss (1964) and then later Shock Corridor (1963), two of his most radical and outrageous films. I’ve actually been catching up on Fuller on my own since then, seeing The Big Red One (1980), Pickup on South Street (1953), and I Shot Jesse James (1949). Also, back in the day, I’d seen an interesting documentary about Fuller called Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994) directed by Mika Kaurismäki and also featuring Jim Jarmusch in a journey with Fuller back to the Amazon recalling a film that failed to complete. So, I’ve done my Fuller research relatively speaking.
But I didn’t like White Dog when I’d rented it before. It stars Kristy McNichol as a young actress living in the Los Angeles hills who hits a white German shepherd with her car and takes it in to care for it. The dog turns out to be a “white dog”, a dog trained by racist owners through abuse and brainwashing to attack black people on sight. She takes it to an animal care shelter where Paul Winfield and Burl Ives work, treating abused animals. Winfield makes it his personal goal to break the dog of its racism.
While the idea is quite charged and interesting, the film itself is kind of a hack job. The reason that I rented it just now was that it just got a re-release on DVD on the Criterion Collection, which is usually a pretty good sign for a film. The film was never theatrically released in the states, partially because of marketing concerns and potential misunderstanding that the film itself was racist. The film is a strong critique of racism, how it is not natural, that it is taught, and that even a beautiful, innocent animal, “man’s best friend”, can be polluted and corrupted by it.
McNichol is a very drab lead. She was such an “It girl” of her time, and I remember thinking she was cute myself, but she’s not much of a presence and she gets to wear some really horrible 1980’s outfits. Beyond her, the film is sloppy, lacking cinematic power. I know that the film actually got good reviews from a lot of significant publications, but I just don’t concur. The film is interesting, very much so, but it’s not a good film, in my opinion. Co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a story by Romain Gary, it’s not even really the script that is bad. It’s the film that is shoddy.
I remember years ago, I went with some friends to see Samuel Fuller’s final feature film at the Roxie cinema in the Mission. It was Street of No Return (1989), an adaptation of a great David Goodis novel. It seemed like a great match, Fuller and Goodis, but that film was beyond awful. My friend who had invited me walked out on it. I suffered through. Even great filmmakers make rotten films. And White Dog is no Street of No Return; it’s not awful. It’s just not good. Even though it is interesting, has a fascinating concept, and yearns to offer a meaningful message. It’s just not all that good.