The story of an attack dog re-trained by a black man, White Dog combines the sincerity of the animal picture, the heart of the "message" movie, and the rudimentary dynamism of the exploitation film into one powerful little package. Perhaps it was that last element, here understood as a genre niche rather than a marketing device, which unnerved the NAACP. In 1981 the organization cast doubt upon the film's potential influence (they seemed to believe it would result in an upsurge of the very phenomenon it seeks to discourage) and got Paramount Pictures to shelve the film, breaking writer/director Sam Fuller's heart. Indeed, a scene in which a truck crashes into a storefront does lean a bit too heavily on action-movie tropes, and a grisly killing (offscreen, but no less upsetting for it) makes the viewer temporarily question its necessity. But by the end of the film it's clear that Fuller is dead serious; however entertaining and inventive the finished product, White Dog is fundamentally earnest in its desire to investigate racism (in a mode more visceral than didactic). Perhaps the film's undoing was actually due to that very earnestness, an inability to treat race is a mere excuse for action sequences and iconic posturing.
Beginning with a mysterious accident in the Hollywood Hills, White Dog endears us to its titular canine before we have reason for fear and doubt. The bloodied beast is taken by the driver, Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) to a veterinarian and when she's told the animal will probably be euthanized at the dog pound, she decides to take it in herself. Sawyer is an aspiring actress, but we wonder if such a good-hearted person can really make it in this cutthroat industry; McNichol is perfectly cast as the soulful-eyed tomboy - her guileless ingenue seems a young, feminine manifestation of the old man behind the camera. Yet good-hearted as he may be, no one's ever accused Sam Fuller of being "soft" and soon the movie takes a violent turn. The newfound pet saves his owner from a rape attempt and heartened as we are, the dog's viciousness may give us pause. Later, the dog, having tasted blood again, will rove the urban jungle and kill a black driver - though his bloody return to Julie's house after a runaway is never connected to the brutal death.
Only when the usually calm dog hurls himself at a black actress on a movie set does Julie becomes concerned. So she pays a visit to the animal trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), a lovable eccentric who uses syringes as missiles hurled at a giant dartboard festooned with R2-D2s ("in 20 years, they'll be no more animals in movies!" he growls). He also proudly shows Julie the hand that "won Duke the Oscar" by reaching into a snake pit for a True Grit close-up. Yet brave as he may be when faced with rattlers, Carruthers sours on the notion of re-training Julie's attack dog - he sees no hope in the prospect, having lost a friend to one of the vicious beasts many years before. When the dog savagely attacks an African-American employee, Carruthers connects the bloody dots and tells Julie she has not just an attack dog, but a "white dog" on her hands: this animal was trained by a racist to seek out and kill black people. Enter Paul Winfield as Keys, a brilliant trainer excited by the challenge and moved by the possibility of eradicating one stubborn form of racism. He volunteers to cure Julie's dog and so begins the great project of breaking and then rehabilitating the white dog.
Throughout the film, the dog's "prejudice" is never explicitly connected to white racism (except inasmuch as the latter installed the former). The metaphor is bold but works on its own terms as well, so it never seems too obvious. By reducing racism to an almost elemental level, Fuller is able to maintain his urgency while streamlining the delivery, and his point about the deep-rooted and irrational nature of prejudice becomes all the more powerful for being embedded in the figure of a confused four-legged creature. The story eschews sociology for psychology (the book on which it's based makes the trainer a Black Muslim and explores bigotry in all its forms), and at the risk of trivializing the complexity of the issue, White Dog succeeds in amplifying the resonance of its symbols. We may not come out of the film "knowing" more about racism, its causes, and manifestations but we will feel, deeply, the turmoil of irrational hatred and fear - and this is the gift of Fuller's straight-ahead simplicity and raw intensity.
Often called an "American primitive," Sam Fuller was a smart guy, who knew filmmaking inside out, yet there was something almost willfully naive about his movies. He knew what he was doing, but he didn't overthink it - and if he was often years ahead of time in the issues he tackled and particularly the unapologetically hard-boiled fashion in which he tackled them (like Mr. Hyde to Stanley Kramer's Dr. Jekyll), there was still not a whiff of the preciously ironic or self-consciously phony about his work. Many have attributed this quality to Fuller's roots as a 1920s newspaperman, and there is something to this notion, even if he doesn't really display the cynicism usually associated with a wisecracking, pulpy reporter. Fuller's writing has an exoskeletal quality to it, meaning that you can see it at work; as in a quickly-drafted article its bare bones glisten and its craftsmanship shows, but not in a way that distracts from the flow of the information or the sensory details of the experience.
One example will suffice for now: after the dog's escape results in tragedy, we find ourselves disconcerted with the protagonists' response and also the logic of the storytelling (there seems to be no legal repurcussion for the characters' actions). Then, as the three main characters sit down at the dinnertable, jovially joking around, a cop shows up at the door. They all freeze, but the friendly officer is just lost and looking for directions. Still, dinner is ruined and the characters look guiltily at one another until Keys addresses their quiet concerns openly, articulating the case for continuing the dog's re-education. The scene closes as Carruthers makes a wisecrack about Keys' cooking and the characters chuckle, relieved but far less sure of themselves than they were minutes earlier. The scene achieves multiple purposes: taking care of real-world logic, stating the film's moral, allowing the characters a "natural" outlet for their feelings, showing their camaradarie.
Most well-written screenplays function like this, of course, but something about Fuller's direction (the straightforwardness of the delivery, the cleanness of the setup and execution) draws our attention to what he's doing in a way most movies, with their sleight-of-hand illusionism, don't. To me, at least, this increases the charm of the work, because conscious as we are of what's going on and why, it still works as drama; meanwhile, Fuller's sincerity radiates from the screen and wins us over. At the risk of sounding pretentious - a sin Fuller certainly never fell prey to - there's something almost Brechtian about the way he directs actors and writes dialogue, but he's devoid of cynicism and bile, and there's a kind of sweetness to his gusto. At film's end, we're still not sure what will happen and I won't spoil it here. Suffice to say that Fuller skates perilously close to absurdity in his climactic stylization, but then manages to leave us all the more moved for his daring flamboyance. As White Dog fades to black, we're left with a powerful conclusion to an excellent movie: sincerity, heart, and dynamism wound together in a feral, punchy piece of cinema.