Film School: White Dog

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Film School: White Dog

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In 1975, Paramount Pictures bought White Dog from French author Romain Gary. The bestselling novel told the story of a dog trained by a racist to kill Black people, and a Black trainer’s efforts to reprogram it. Complex and incendiary, the project rattled through numerous directors and producers on its way towards fruition. Years passed. 

By the time 1981 rolled around, talk of a looming writer’s strike was making Paramount nervous. They needed projects that were developed enough to be made quickly, and the languishing White Dog was pushed to the top of the pile. Curtis Hanson, who’d been attached to the project for years, suggested Sam Fuller as a potential director; he had a track record for efficiency, and for dealing with racial issues, and the success of The Big Red One had made him a name again, after many years. Fuller rapidly signed up, and he and Hanson got to work on their screenplay.

Driving home one night, struggling actress Julie (Kristy McNichol) accidentally runs over a dog. She takes it to the vet and pays for its medical treatment, then decides to keep it at her L.A. home while she tries to find its owner. After the dog saves her from an intruder, gratitude leads her to form a profound bond with the creature that has fallen into her life. 

But then, entirely unprovoked, the dog attacks a Black actress friend of Julie’s, causing her serious harm. After another unprovoked attack, it becomes apparent that the dog’s previous owner was a racist who trained it to kill Black people. Hoping to avoid putting it down if at all possible, Julie takes the dog to Keys (Paul Winfield), an animal trainer—and a Black man—in the hopes he can reprogram it. Keys and Julie are all too aware that, if he fails, there are many more lives on the line than just the dog’s. 

Though Fuller spanned multiple genres over the course of his filmmaking career, White Dog was the closest he came to an out-and-out horror movie. The dog, a white German Shepherd, is given both a mythic air and a disconcerting interiority by Fuller’s typically robust camera—and of course, blood looks disturbingly striking against the dog’s bright white coat. While the genre was new ground for him, the sensational nature of the narrative certainly suited Fuller’s balls-to-the-wall style to a tee.

And yet his message is inescapably bleak. The final scene sees Keys succeed in his mission to deprogram the dog. But just as he, Julie and Keys’ colleague Carruthers (Burl Ives) are celebrating, the dog turns tail and mauls Carruthers—who is white—to death. 

It’s important to note the way Fuller and Hanson’s screenplay diverged from the source novel. Whereas Gary’s book had the trainer intentionally reprogram the dog to kill white people instead, in the screen adaptation, Keys is desperately trying to cure him altogether. The shock mauling of Carruthers is the movie’s final moment, the death of the man standing in for the complete death of hope.

Hate is taught, not innate, says Fuller’s White Dog, but once the seed is planted, it can’t be reclaimed; only redirected. Fuller takes pains to elucidate how the dog is not the villain, but the grandfatherly man who shows up at Julie’s house with his two little girls (one of whom was Fuller’s daughter, Samantha) to recover him. As Julie tells him that she knows who he is and what he has done, his Father Christmas veneer dissolves, and he shows himself for the spitting, seething racist he is—that transformation is almost as frightening to watch as the dog attacks. In typical Fuller style, it’s not a subtle sequence (Julie screams at him, gesturing to the girls, “Are you going to teach them to be as sick as you are?”), but it’s a mighty effective one. 

Sadly, frustratingly, White Dog was the end point to Sam Fuller’s long career in Hollywood. Thanks to the nature of the story, an advocate from the NAACP was present on the set. Fuller, who had already taken pains to change the both-sides bent of the source novel into a more strongly anti-racist text, and was proud of his reputation as a social progressive, was furious (“Why hadn’t an organization as prestigious as the NAACP done their homework and checked out my record before sending a man to spy on my work?”). He asked that they leave. Soon after, the film was shelved indefinitely.

In his autobiography, A Third Face, Fuller theorizes that the annoyed NAACP representative started rumors that White Dog was racist, and that those rumors led to its shelving. Officially, the organization had expressed concerns that the release would lead to the training of more “white dogs.” Whatever the reason, Paramount was spooked, and other than a brief test week in Michigan, the film would not hit screens in the U.S. for nearly a decade (though it would receive rave reviews from its release across Europe). 

Time has been kind to White Dog, with the bleak, brutal strength of Fuller’s anti-racist message having only gained power over the ensuing decades of racial turmoil. Although he didn’t want it to be his last film in America, it was a fitting coda to his decades of Hollywood work, full of the punchy, provocative power that had driven all of his best movies. 

Still, after White Dog’s original shelving in 1982, Fuller became thoroughly disillusioned with Hollywood. He decided to up sticks with his family to Paris, and remained there for the rest of his working life (after a debilitating stroke in 1994, they returned to Los Angeles, where he died in 1997). Despite the sad circumstances of his self-imposed exile, these last years were something of a victory lap for him, during which he cameoed in movies by younger admirers like Wim Wenders and Aki Kaurismäki, and was the subject of several documentaries. After a long career full of fighting and struggle, he got to live out his Parisian years bathed in the twilight glow befitting a beloved elder statesman, and a truly one-of-a-kind talent.

Next week, we’ll begin a series on character actors of classic Hollywood with a legendary performer whom Fuller directed to her fourth of six Oscar nominations: Thelma Ritter.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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