Directed by Samuel Fuller
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 90 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: December 2, 2008
Review Date: November 22, 2008
Samuel Fuller’s study of racial hatred in America told through the eyes of a very unusual third party gets extra points for originality in White Dog. The film’s low budget, some occasionally hackneyed dialog, and the sometimes ragged nature of certain production elements prevent the film from scoring even more powerfully. Still, the message is clear and all too obvious as the director examines the poisonous nature of prejudice in its often seemingly docile forms.
A young actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) accidentally hits a dog on a dark mountain road one night but rushes it to the nearest vet and saves its life. After posting flyers around the neighborhood in an effort to locate its owner, Julie begins to bond closely with the dog, a gorgeous white German shepherd, especially when it saves her from a potential rape. When the dog comes home drenched in blood one day and then later attacks a fellow actress on the set of a commercial shoot, Julie fears the canine is actually an attack dog, so she takes it to Noah’s Ark, an animal training facility, in the hopes that the dog can be untaught its aggressive posture toward certain strangers. It’s there she learns that it’s a “white dog,” a dog specially trained to attack dark skinned people. The site’s dog whisperer Keys (Paul Winfield) sees this as the opportunity to help the dog unlearn its prejudice, but it’s a long, slow struggle as various events unfold to keep the dog a vicious killer.
Samuel Fuller and later-director Curtis Hanson collaborated on the script based on a novella by Fuller’s friend Romain Gary. They’ve included several attack sequences in the movie which carry a visceral impact thanks to Fuller’s in-your-face direction. And yet, the attacks aren’t exploitive of the violence: much less is shown as Fuller prefers to let sounds, shadows, and quick montages of hands, legs, eyes, and teeth tell the story. The small budget, unfortunately, causes him to rely on some stale camera tricks like slow motion as the dog runs toward its victims, breakaway props that look as cheap as they are, and certain characters that seem important and then disappear from the scene. These elements also sometimes give the film a TV-movie feel which undermines a bit the importance of the film’s central message. The indoctrination of prejudicial feelings toward others sometimes happens in families from a young age, no more shockingly illustrated than when the dog’s owners come looking for it: a benign grandfatherly type with two little girls in hand who boastfully comments on how proud he is of his accomplishments with his pet. Sometimes the most frightening things aren't the violence but the attitudes behind the violence.
Kristy McNichol gets top billing in the tale, and she’s unquestionably the focal point in the early going displaying an obvious rapport with the animal and showing genuine concern over its well being. From midway through the film, however, Paul Winfield’s role as the dog trainer (or untrainer in this case) takes center stage, and he delivers a controlled yet fiery performance as a man determined to end prejudice even in the baby steps of turning this dog around. Burl Ives as the co-owner of the training facility, Jameson Parker as Julie’s boy friend (who disappears midway through the movie), and Lynne Moody as Julie’s friend Molly who’s an early victim of an attack do their jobs straightforwardly but without much verve. Mention should be made of the five dogs who play the title character: Hans and Folsom are basically the dogs who do the close-up acting while Son, Buster, and Duke are the stunt dogs. It’s a credit to Fuller that we never suspect that one dog isn’t doing the various work required for such a demanding role.
The movie has been framed at 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. It’s a beautiful transfer with very good sharpness, accurate flesh tones, and solid color fidelity. There’s a bit of smearing occasionally, and there are a couple of shots which seem zoomed in and soft. Otherwise, it’s a clean, visually appealing transfer. The film has been divided into 11 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track displays its low budget origins with an overly bright presence and not much bass. Ennio Morricone’s excellent, evocative score gets the best of the bargain, however, as dialog sometimes has a hollow ring to it.
“Four-Legged Time Bomb” is an excellent 44 ½-minute set of interviews with three principal participants in the making of the movie: co-writer Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davison, and Fuller’s widow Christa (who also has a small role in the picture). They discuss their memories of the director both as a human being and as a thorough professional, his friendship with original book writer Romain Gary, the original casting choices (none of whom made it to the finished film), the work of the dog trainers on the picture, the studio’s reaction to the dailies, and the spotty history of the film upon completion. This feature is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
A step-through section featuring dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller’s textual reminiscences and behind-the-scenes photographs of him with various actors and his dogs is available.
Another step-through photo gallery of behind-the-scenes shots with the actors and the director at work is provided.
An enclosed 29-page booklet features movie stills and production photos, a celebratory essay on the movie by critic J. Hoberman, an essay on Samuel Fuller’s war against prejudice by film critic Armond White, and a tongue-in-cheek article written by Fuller in which he “interviews” the film’s title character.
White Dog is an interesting approach to the problem of racial prejudice. Criterion has presented an outstanding transfer of this unjustly neglected film, and even with a lighter set of extras than usual, the film is still very much worth seeing.