Directed by Samuel Fuller. Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Lynn Moody, Marshall Thompson, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Parley Baer. (1982, PG, 89 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 10, 1992
Originally made in 1982, this long-suppressed film is finally seeing its initial theatrical release. With typically blunt, disturbing, combative, unconventional storytelling, Sam Fuller in White Dog tackled the disease of racism. Fuller makes movies without rule books, movies lacking naturalism and ordinary coherency but brimming with logic and recognizability, movies that depict the depths of human viciousness yet are surrounded by a tide of authentic humanism, movies that defy established laws of cinematography, editing, and dramatic believability but deliver a visceral gut-punch that's capable of astonishing, offending, exciting, and disrupting us – often all in the same blow. Fuller still maintains much of the same sensationalist operating mode he developed as a journalist and pulp writer in his years before becoming a filmmaker. The only thing you can be certain of in a Fuller movie is that as soon as you think you've got a handle on where the whole thing's coming from and where it's heading to, you'll be confounded by some thoroughly unexpected counterpunch from an unseen direction. White Dog begins as aspiring young California actress McNichol, in her first adult screen role, befriends an injured stray dog she finds abandoned on the highway. Soon she finds out that hers is no ordinary white dog, it's a white dog. This German shepherd has been trained by its previous owners to attack all black people. The discovery of this chilling truth is horrifying in its disturbing bluntness and its dog's-eye point of view. McNichol takes her dog to Noah's Ark, a training center for movie animals run by the equable Burl Ives. There, animal trainer Paul Winfield (who only grows more brilliant with each passing role) takes on the task of retraining the white dog by exposing a tiny bit more of his own black skin to the animal on repeated encounters. It's tedious, treacherous, exasperating work that truly puts Winfield's body on the front lines of the race wars. He'd just as soon shoot the dog but knows that tactic would only shift the battle line to someone else's backyard. He believes in scientific reprogramming, in possibility, in the capacity for change. But by the end of the movie, we're forced to wonder if the basic emotions of love and hate can ever really be altered. Perhaps they can only be redirected. During the filming of White Dog, the NAACP maintained observers on the set and after a few test screenings the studio decided against releasing the movie. Why Paramount has, in its infinite wisdom, decided that now is the proper time to release it is an honest bafflement. White Dog is not any more or less politically correct now than it was in 1982. But the movie does have the courage to stare down the gaping maw of mangled American emotions like love, hate, racism, and prejudice and live to tell its story.