By Scott Ross
I find it almost impossible to write about this one without gibbering like a fool.
That any movie as fiercely unremitting in its opposition to virulent racism could itself be accused of the very same thing, and subsequently withheld from release, utterly beggars belief. Hollywood is often characterized in language evoking Kafka, but in the case of White Dog it is as if studio practice — in this case, at the Katzenberg/Eisner Paramount — was translated into Orwellian iconography: Down is up. Peace is war. Black (if I may be so direct) is white. Anti-bigotry is racism.
In an example of ignorant and unwarranted gossip, maddeningly bone-headed institutional misinterpretation (the NAACP, in this case… ponder that) and appalling collective cowardice stunning even for the movie business, a $7 million movie by one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic writer/directors in the history of Hollywood was deemed un-releasable, and summarily shelved, effectively ending the man’s career as a filmmaker and sending him into literal exile.
The story, which began as a fictionalized 1970 memoir by Romain Gary about a found dog that, to Gary’s horror, turns out to have been trained to attack black people, was picked up by Paramount and given to Curtis Hanson for adaptation. Over the years, various names (including that of Roman Polanski) were attached to the project, which the studio had hopes for as an inexpensive, pre-Cujo horror thriller. Hanson suggested Samuel Fuller, leading to their collaboration on a screenplay that eschewed much of Gary’s novel, notably the cynical twist of the Black Muslim animal handler re-training the titular canine to attack Caucasians. (This has been seen as a veiled critique by Gary of his then-wife, Jean Seberg, and her involvement with the Black Panthers.) Fuller, who knew Gary, rejected the ploy as itself racist; what interested, and motivated, him was the question of whether learned bigotry could ever be wholly eradicated. In his vision of White Dog, the answer is a despairing “no.”
The scenarists also altered Seberg, re-making her as a young, aspiring Hollywood actress, for which role Fuller hoped to cast either Jodie Foster or Kathleen Quinlan (he had to settle for Kristy McNichol.) Far more crucial to Fuller’s re-imagining of White Dog was his casting of the perennially underrated Paul Winfield as the (now religiously unaligned) black trainer. Fuller and Hansen envisioned the character, called Keys in the movie, as a kind of questing anthropologist, obsessively determined successfully to perform, as he calls it, a knife-less lobotomy. The movie becomes Keys’ story far more than the girl’s, although McNichol got top billing.
As the Criterion release of White Dog makes clear — and as anyone with even a cursory familiarity with his life and career would know — Samuel Fuller’s C.V. is rife with vivid examples of his loathing for racism: The integrated battalion of Steel Helmet; the interracial romance crucial to The Crimson Kimono; the young black student in Shock Corridor driven so mad by white bigotry that he imagines himself a Klansman. And although there are no black characters in Pickup on South Street, one is immediately struck by how uniquely integrated Fuller’s Manhattan is. To accuse this man of crafting a deliberately racist movie (how would he even hope to get away with that, even if he’d wanted to, on Paramount’s dime?) is a switch so staggering in its dramatic irony not even Sam Fuller himself could have made it up.
About White Dog itself, one could nit-pick that a few of Fuller’s and Hansen’s lines of dialogue are crudely overstated, that the stained-glass image of St. Francis in the church where one of the dog’s victims seeks refuge is a bit too on-the-nose, and that McNichol is out of her depth. She isn’t bad, but you can’t help wishing Fuller had gotten Foster.
Winfield, however, could scarcely be better. However unrefined his dialogue, the actor brings everything he has to the role, and to the movie: Dignity, eloquence, honor, shock, fury, guilt, intelligence and a quiet determination that, finally, proves heartbreakingly ill advised. Why this handsome, gifted man did not become a star after his deeply moving performance in Sounder has always been a mystery to me. (But then, Cecily Tyson was equally stunning in that, and what, aside from Miss Jane Pittman, were her great subsequent roles?) Was it perhaps just the “wrong” moment for a black actor? (“I was given a lot of prestige as a distinguished black actor,” Winfield once said, “but very little power. They give prestige out by the buckets, but they give power by the teaspoon, just enough to stroke your ego.”) Did his un-closeted sexuality contribute to Hollywood’s indifference to him? Whatever the reasons, the neglect of an actor this effective is little short of criminal.
Bruce Surtees’ sharp color photography is a great asset, as is Brian Eatwell’s wittily apt design of a training space that resembles a gladiatorial staging arena. Ennio Morricone’s score is plangent, with its dark running figures and elegiac tone that hint at despair, although it’s puzzling that he saddles a dialogue-laden love scene between McNichol and Jameson Parker with ominous underscoring. Fuller, 70 when the movie was made, is in full, vigorous command of his craft throughout, despite those occasionally over-direct scraps of dialogue. (Which, based on his filmography, I suspect are Hansen’s anyway. And they call Fuller “blunt”!)
What Keys’ ultimately achieves is at best a Pyrrhic victory; the process essentially drives the poor animal insane. There is no “cure,” as the trainer has hoped, for inculcated racism. It’s a heartrendingly logical conclusion to a movie that fully deserves, without recourse to sickening its audience with closely observed violence and gore, the once noble, now emasculatingly over-used term “powerful.”
But power of this kind can be a double-edged sword. Fuller once pointed to the fact that he was attacked by both the Hard-Right and the Hard-Left as proof that he was doing something right. With White Dog, he proved that being right, like being what used to be called a “premature anti-Fascist,” can itself be a curse.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross