White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)
There a number of directors who have become canonical over the years whose films I have simply never gotten. Woody Allen. Mario Bava. Sam Fuller. Every time I dig into a Fuller movie I try and see what it is that sets him apart, and every time I fail. My most recent attempt was with the 1982 racism melodrama White Dog, and I think that perhaps I’ve figured out what the canon sees in him. I still didn’t get to the “all that and a bag of racists” point with this one, but it’s starting to make sense. The thing about Sam Fuller’s strain of melodrama, if I’m right in my hypothesizing, is that in movies like Shock Corridor and Pickup on South Street, both of which left me kind of cold, Fuller was doing that gig first; Douglas Sirk and Grace Metalious and Russ Meyer and all that lot would come after and hone the genre, so that when Fuller returned to the fold in the eighties, he not only had his own base to work from, he had everyone else’s, too. And I think that, more than anything, may be what impressed me about White Dog: Fuller wasn’t afraid to build on the work of others, rather than focusing obsessively upon his own corpus.
Plot: Julie Sawyer (Little Darlings‘ Kristy McNichol) finds what she believes to be a stray dog. Very attractive beast, if a little scraggly, so she takes him home, shows him a little TLC, and everything seems great—until all the sudden he attacks someone out of nowhere while she’s walking him. Eventually, a pattern of behavior is established, and she comes to realize that he’s not called a “white dog” because of the color of his coat—this is a dog who has been trained to attack black people. Believing that this behavior can be unlearned, she enlists the help of Hollywood animal trainer Keys (Terminator‘s late, great Paul Winfield) in retraining him. Keys, upon finding out (firsthand) the dog’s conditioning, is reluctant to accept the job, but eventually becomes as obsessed as Julie with the idea that racism can be cured.
These days, in hindsight, when we think of Kristy McNichol, we think about her memoir and the horrible things that happened to her and, tangentially at best, Empty Nest. She didn’t make a huge number of features over the course of her career, and Two Moon Junction was a horrible choice for everyone involved, but if you go back farther than that, McNichol was very good at what she did. Pair her with a guy like Winfield, who could take a dead guy on a table and give a compelling performance, and you’ve got some bones to hang a movie on. A maudlin movie to be sure, nakedly manipulative and full of the kinds of characters who have all the depth of a Phoenix snowstorm, but every once in a while there are good guys, there are bad guys, and we’re not supposed to disagree. Fuller’s got himself a ready-made villain—I mean, who trains a dog to attack black people?—and from there, your hero being a black dog trainer is obvious. That their characters have all the shade of a Joshua tree is kind of irrelevant.
Not a bad little movie at all; my favorite of the Fullers I’ve seen by a pretty wide margin. Expect something closer to a disease-of-the-week TV movie than Kurosawa and you’ll have a grand time with it. *** ½