Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sam Fuller's 'White Dog' (1982)

'White Dog' was Sam Fuller's final film and it was terribly misunderstood at the time of its release. It wasn't given an adequate reception here in the U.S., although the film did quite well in Europe, especially in France. Groups like the NAACP mistook its very anti-racism meaning for something aligned with racism itself. That's most unfortunate, since Sam Fuller was known for being a great champion of civil rights. Imagine how difficult that must have been for Fuller––for his last (and arguably greatest) film to be so profoundly misinterpreted. 
After the wonderful Criterion Collection gave 'White Dog' a proper DVD release, niche audiences were finally able to embrace Fuller's captivating movie that deals with racism in a very touching way –– through the eyes of a dog trained to hate black people. 
So 'White Dog' went into my Netflix queue and I anticipated seeing this unusual movie. 

Oddly, and very sadly, I happened to be watching 'White Dog' on May 27th when I got word that one of my personal heroes Gil Scott Heron had passed away that afternoon. It was strange to absorb the terrible news in the midst of this film. Unlike many who discovered the greatness of Gil Scott Heron that day, I had been a passionate devotee (along with my husband) of Gil Scott Heron and his music for the past decade. Incidentally, I first started hearing his music frequently on French radio years before when I worked for a fashion design label in New York, so it's strange that France would have to introduce me to this incredibly gifted American performer. My husband and I saw Gil Scott Heron perform live twice in the past couple of years, once for my birthday. I even had a chance to talk to him, thank him for his music and shake his hand. I told him how much I admired him. For me, Gil Scott Heron's sudden absence from this world was deeply sad. I felt like I'd lost a troubled hero and friend. But at least I had appreciated him––his incredible mind, his wit and his musical style, great JAZZ artist that he was––as fervently as I had while he lived among us. I will cherish the pictures and a video I have of one of his final performances.
The character of Keys attempts to cure the dog
But back to 'White Dog'. There are a great many reviews and blog posts now dedicated to this touching movie. What I can add is that this movie is still probably not for everyone. It has a distinctively early 80's feel, which I love about it, and the direction in some ways reminded me of the great DePalma films of the 70's. 

'White Dog' is very filmic and beautiful. The story is immensely moving because there is a certain urgency to it. You hope beyond hope that this dog can be cured of his terrible, human-imposed affliction. But you know that this will probably end badly for the poor, innocent creature. 

Anyone who loves animals, as these characters also do, will feel tremendous sadness and empathy for the dog. And if they ever handed out awards for movie animal trainers, the ones behind this film are most deserving... I honestly never saw a performance by a dog (there were several white dogs acting in the role) that was this intense and realistic. The dog's performance here is truly astounding.
This dog gives a powerful performance
Another fascinating insight to 'White Dog' is that it is based on Romain Gary's novel, 'Chien Blanc', originally published as a short story in 1970. 
Romain Gary with his wife, Jean Seberg
Incredibly, the story was inspired by real-life events. Romain Gary was married to the beautiful Jean Seberg at one time (both tragically committed suicide years later; Gary, within a year of Seberg.) 
Jean Seberg, Romain Gary
Jean Seberg, Romain Gary
He and Seberg actually found and adopted a 'white dog', not realizing at the time that the dog had been trained to attack black people. They were shocked and dismayed at the terrible discovery. And from there the story was born. 
Romain Gary was friends with Sam Fuller and when the story was to be adapted to film, Sam Fuller and Curtis Hanson wrote the screenplay together. 'White Dog' was indeed a collaboration of the highest order and still is. 'White Dog''s lavish and sadly delayed acclaim would have made all of those involved (Sam Fuller, in particular) glad for their well-intentioned efforts.  
Kristy McNichol as the actress who finds and hopes to save the dog
Here are two clips from the movie... The first is a touching moment between the dog and his newfound adopter. 
The second clip features a wonderfully earnest performance by Kristy McNichol when she encounters the abominable racist responsible for training her ill-fated white dog, (but what follows the clip is a fan video which incorporates an oddly upbeat song.)


  1. Thank you for your fine review. I believe White Dog tackles a difficult issue with finesse and's conclusion is honest with viewers; people are capable of extraordinary cruelty to each other, let alone a helpless animal...which is shown as a vessel for their hate in this thought provoking film. Ironically, if only ignorance hadn't blocked it's original theatrical release...people need to be confronted sometimes to enable positive change in their own lives. Finally, a poignant score by maestro Morricone only adds to the depth of this seldom known about masterpiece.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I do wish more people had seen this film when it was released -- it's a shame how misunderstood it turned out to be, despite all of the great intentions of those involved. I don't think people were ready for it then, and even today it might stir up feelings some people would rather avoid... But it is a beautiful film, and I agree -- it's a masterpiece.

  2. I love this vintage movie. I will watch it once again now.