White Dog (1982; Un-released)

Standard

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—and, since we’re talking about Sam Fuller, pussyfooting ist nicht) 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.

51j5o-QKt9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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 unaligned) black trainer. Fuller and Hansen envisioned the character, called Keys in the movie, as a kind of questing anthropologist, obsessively determined to successfully 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—Sam 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 driven so mad by white bigotry that he imagines himself a Klansman in Shock Corridor. 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.

Fuller White Dog img_current_1082_103

Samuel Fuller with one of the five German Sheperds portraying his titular character.

About White Dog itself, one could nit-pick that a few of Fuller’s and Hansen’s lines of dialogue are crudely blunt, 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 Quinlan.

White Dog

Face-off: Paul Winfield’s Keys meets his nemesis and brainwashing experiment.

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-hidden sexuality contribute to Hollywood’s neglect of 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.

white-dog-41

The most terrifying moment in “White Dog” does not go any further than this: The moment the dog moves into the street, the child’s mother simultaneously moves the boy off it. Hair-raising.

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 heartrendigly 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.

whitedog9

The benign face of virulent racism: Parley Baer as the grandfatherly old bigot who created the white dog. One of his grandchildren is Samantha Fuller, Sam’s daughter.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “White Dog (1982; Un-released)

  1. I bet the sharp dialogue about race between Rod Steiger and Brian Keith in RUN OF THE ARROW is also mistaken as Fuller espousing racism. He put those words into the mouths of characters in the 1860s to comment on what was happening in 1957. I mean, holy jeebus, it’s OBVIOUS. Just as the anti-racism in White Dog is RIGHT THERE TO SEE, GODDAMN IT! I think I channeled Fuller for a moment… A cigar just appeared in my mouth…
    I am way to angry to discuss this. I linked this post of yours to Facebook for others to see what you have to say, in place of my sputtering raging babble. Thanks for doing this! Seriously. Deep thanks!!

    • Thank you for that, Eliot. And for promoting this. It took me two days to write that entry. As with you, the whole thing makes me so angry I become inarticulate with rage.

      One of things that tickles me about Fuller is that so many people who get interviewed about him lapse into an imitation. It’s easy to do. Watch and listen to Fuller talking for five minutes and you suddenly start “doing” him. And, yes, the cigar just materializes.

  2. Also, casting Parley Baer was brilliant in that he always played the kind, avuncular old fella down the road and would have been known for it. What the NAACP did to Fuller was criminal. Had to chime in with that…

  3. Sorry to go on and on, but I just had another thought: Fuller loathed Elia Kazan. We all know why. Burl Ives also notoriously named names before HUAC. Yet Ives is in this film. Fuller must have known the history. Could that casting have been a hidden message from Fuller about redemption being possible? Hmmmmm…

  4. Fuller wanted… someone else in the Ives role. I forget who. But he got stuck with Ives. That may not have been negotiable, I don’t know. I actually wanted to mention Ives’ singing to HUAC in the review but it got in the way of the flow, so I appreciate your observation. Maybe having Ives in the picture, whether it was Fuller’s choice or not, did make a point.

  5. I try to keep an artist’s personal life out of the mix, as it would severely limit my viewing, reading, and listening choices. Still, it’s been some time since I’ve watched White Dog, but as I recall, Ives was the one character out of the three who didn’t believe in putting himself at risk — on the line — for either love or an ideal. So in that way it works.

    • That’s a noble impulse, and I applaud it. I’m just not able to uphold it. I know too much, about too many artists, and I can’t un-know those things. They can color one’s perceptions, most certainly. But I’m not at all sure they’re incidental. An artist, of whatever sort, stands on his or her work. If that writer, or filmmaker, or actor, or musician, presents a distorted oeuvre that bears no real relationship to the sort of person he or she really is, or was, are we unreasonable to suspect that, perhaps, that artist’s work is a lie? I’m not talking about disagreeable personal quirks. Most of us have those. I mean what the person stands for. A man who ruins the lives of others for a mess of pottage, or even under duress, is not one to be wholly trusted. Ives helped make Pete Seeger’s life miserable, and for many years, while he was racking up hit records, movie roles and even an Academy Award. So I think I may be forgiven for my queasiness about him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s