Tuesday, 3 July 2012

White Dog (1982) Samuel Fuller

One night driving home Julie knocks over a dog, a white German Shepherd. She takes it to the vet and then home. Over the coming weeks Julie learns that not only has the dog been trained to attack people but to attack black people, any time and any where, without discrimination.

Black men were paid to hit it, you see, and hurt it until no reason to hate became every reason.

The dog does not represent racist people (they represent themselves) but racism in pure form passed on and cultivated by individuals. That which was invisible behind the trainer's benign smile and gently proffered rattling tin of sweets reveals its terror in blood-stained fur and borne fangs.

It is emotion and rage unfiltered by common decency or social constraints. 

If one were to take White Dog, both film and protagonist, as a comprehensive allegory/metaphor then it would prove incomplete and inadequate. White Dog is a picture about the evil of and seemingly intractable struggle against racism and in that regard it concentrates on nurture, the influence that others can have on us and, though not explicitly, how difficult it is to diverge from those paths we have started down.

Teaching, brainwashing, indoctrination, whatever name it wears. 

The absence here of a dramatised 'discussion' of innate racism (nature) suggests that it is either being rejected out of hand (a hopeful thought implying that there is a cycle that can be broken), something that positive nurture can unpick, or merely too thorny an issue to broach.

White Dog emerges relatively unscathed from the minefield of traps that come with territory of this kind : manipulation, sensationalism, one-eyedness, or the potential for a (hypocritical) black people v white people dynamic.

Although the film is of course (apart from being fiction, albeit fiction that reaches out and touches real nerves) about white people's attitudes to black people abstracted through a dog, no additional race-based conflict is intentionally set up by the film. Images such as the one above may have been problematic and/or provocative (leaving aside that provocation is a tango for two willing partners) if the sometime fevered emotional pitch of the film had come to cloud its cool, measured and fundamentally good disposition.

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Julie takes the dog to an animal training centre and is told that the dog must be put down. An attack dog we are led to believe can not be saved. One man at Noah's Ark, though, a maverick trainer called Keys, a black man, takes on the task on Julie's behalf. His belief that a racist dog can be untaught has come to obsess him, a mix of professional pride, personal suffering, passion and compassion. He has failed with other dogs. He wants to tear out that racist hate once and for all, and alter man's vicious ways through the dog's salvation, from effect back up to cause.

White Dog, its gnashing despair, its espoir éclaté, its gritted tension of sharp teeth and soft meat has the power of a raging current so powerful that only rarely can the declamatory and essayistic underpinnings, the laudably apparent conviction poured into the work, come bobbing gauchely to the surface of the narrative:

"That dog is sick!"

"Then he should be cured!"

"Darling, the people that made him sick made him permanently sick!"

"Then they should be put to sleep, not the dog!"

This argument between Julie and her boyfriend is, thankfully, an exception, though its stridency can be forgiven in part by Julie's earlier visit to the dog pound and its awful death chamber.

Regardless, it is not enough to have ideas but to give them life. Here is life. Here is life that we can care about, the girl's pains, the trainer's sorrow, the dog's hair-trigger psychosis. In the end it feels as if the dog's fate is mankind's - can it resist hate in the loving embrace of its owner? At Noah's Ark, in an earth-like cage complete with lines of longitude and latitude, can we be saved, will all the sin be washed away in the great flood?

Here is a microcosm:

Microcosm : Fighting for Earth

After all his training, Keys gives the dog a final test. Black skin exposed, dog unchained, the battle against racism is won. Julie hugs her panting, smiling dog. The camera begins to circle them triumphantly, spinning across Julie's face, around the back of her head, until we return to the dog, no longer Jekyll but Hyde (as the trainers learn to call him), a snarling red-eyed beast. The battle against hate is lost, against the pain of abuse. Julie's loving embrace lets slip the dog of war and he runs at the Ark's white owner, a picture of the man who first infected him with loathing.

The sight of the dog in full flight, accompanied by Ennio Morricone's plaintive, terrifying music, is nothing less than tragic. The man is mauled.

The dog is shot and lies in the sand, its face still contorted in a rending grimace. No solutions, no easy fix, no end in sight. All that is left is the mask, the mask that has become the face.

Violence deafens us to violence and its acts. Earlier, in Julie's clifftop flat, the dog could not hear an intruder attempt to rape her because of explosions detonating on the television.

Nurture can be that which we absorb unconsciously at a time when we have no choice in acquiescing or that which appeals to us instinctively and we take on as our own with some manner of agency.

Keys tells us that he didn't want to work in Anthropology, as his parents do, yet his life's work is remarkably similar - dusting for human fingerprints left on fur. We see, when Julie pays a visit to a black friend attacked by the dog, that she is clutching Francois Truffaut's book on Alfred Hitchcock (click on below image for a closer look). Truffaut had long professed his admiration of Hitchcock's work and acknowledged its impact on his own style.

These influences, these impacts, these marks : can they be ironed out like freshly raked sand, or do the wounds remain forever, to be salved but never to be healed.Try or give up, redeem or wipe out? Who is on the Ark and who is off?

*                          *                             *

As I said before, White Dog should not be taken as a comprehensive manifesto on racism but a purposely narrow and squeezed cry of anguish, an appeal and yes, a rollicking story.

I have written out (or will be about to write out) below some letters written in response to LIFE magazine's review of the book by Romain Gary on which Fuller's film was based. They provide a glimpse of  real-life wrestles and a flavour of the complex and troublesome knot at the heart of racism and its depiction:

...Gary doggedly keeps trying to induce guilt...it's a phony, LIFE, and like so much of the racist garbage printed these days, it's completely negative, with neither constructive thought nor inspiration
                                                                      Colin G Male

Most of your readers will be surprised and shocked to read about the cruel misuse and tortured training of attack and guard dogs. The sad fact is that we and many animal shelters see daily evidence of White Dog and Black Dog - poor abused creatures ruined by man and so demented with fear and nervousness that our greatest service to them is prompt euthanasia

                                                                       Mrs Paul Kiernan, President,           Washington Animal Rescue League

Some months ago I translated from Polish Echoes of Treblinka, a short story of Stefan Korbonski, a wartime underground leader in German occupied Poland. This story tells of a dog trained to kill inmates of a Nazi concentration camp. The dog, pride and joy of his master, SS Haupststurmfuehrer Hans Bauer, is retrained by a Jewish veterinarian (a camp inmate) during Bauer's absence and kills his master on his return. 

We are capable of producing White Dogs in any circumstances. Whether it's "Alle Juden Raus!" or "Get them niggers!", the obscenity is the same

                                                                       Marta Erdman

Julie approaches the dog pound's death chamber


  1. Stephen really nice work here. I saw this film on a big screen in Chicago about 8 years ago, prior to it being available on DVD. At that time I had never heard of it and was in the midst of viewing a Samuel Fuller revival over a few weeks time. I was rather blown away by several films of his, including this late masterwork by him. I think he is one of the great American directors and I'm always surprised by the depth of his filmmaking both in form and content. He's one of my favorites.

  2. Thanks very much Jon.

    I hadn't heard of White Dog either until very recently. I have seen precious few of his films so I can't judge where his career work stands but I thought that his Western, Forty Guns, was also very good.

  3. Truly excellent piece here Stephen, one that probes well beneath the surface to take a penetrating look at how racism is taught, rather than ingrained. I know when the film was released, many were angry with what they saw as a pro-racist agenda, when in fact the film is quite the opposite. Paul Winfield's entrance elevates the film, which truth be said isn't perfect- at times it's focus is rather heavy-handed. Fuller employs the camera quite stylistically, and the dogs are as compelling as the donkey in Bresson's AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. This is an allegorical film of building emotional power, and one uses a more subtle approach to convey its unmistakable message. Beautiful piece, coming from a number of angles.

  4. Many thanks Sam.

    "I know when the film was released, many were angry with what they saw as a pro-racist agenda, when in fact the film is quite the opposite."

    It's often the way that a film that broaches a subject, or merely shows questionable behaviour, will be seen as adding to the problem or endorsing it in some way.

    Thanks again!