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White Dog: Sam Fuller’s gritty, uneasy thriller gets a much-deserved re-release

The 1982 film about racism and prejudice is back – and its grittiness and conscientiousness is still there.

The dog might be a metaphor, but it also has real teeth.
The dog might be a metaphor, but it also has real teeth.

Sam Fuller’s 1982 thriller White Dog made a big impression on me when I watched a scratchy VHS copy in the mid-1980s, so I approached with caution the new DVD/Blu-ray edition (in Eureka! Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series). No one wants their scuzzy childhood memories buffed up, their grimy nostalgia picked free of the lint of time. I needn’t have worried. The grittiness of White Dog is intact. And so too is the conscientiousness that I remember. The film is about a budding actress (Kristy McNichol) who is driving home one night in Los Angeles when her car hits something: a stray Alsatian, white as a Ku Klux Klan gown. The simile is not a flippant one. As she discovers only gradually when she adopts the animal, it has been trained to attack black people. Little Fido here is a walking, snarling, four-legged embodiment of racism. A metaphor it might be, an abstracted distillation of human ills rather than a creature of evil itself. But it bites. It kills.

The film has a TV-movie cheesiness overruled by Fuller’s expert deployment of the camera, brisk pacing and committed performances – particularly Paul Winfield as the African-American trainer who devotes himself to reversing the animal’s indoctrination. I recall a review around the time commending the film on tackling the subject of racism entirely through its ramifications, without recourse to any human bogeymen. It’s a nice idea, and one almost adhered to, but not fully correct – there is a shocking and brilliant scene late in the day when the person responsible for the dog’s behaviour wanders blithely into the action unannounced. That does nothing to diminish the picture’s single-minded pursuit of its central idea: how prejudice of any stripe is uncontainable, altering the shape of the entire world, but perhaps not irrevocable. (That’s a question that the movie leaves dangling.)

Fuller was already established as an abrasive cinematic pulp poet: his gnarly thrillers include Pickup on South Street (1953) and the brutal Shock Corridor (1963), set in a nightmarish mental hospital, though by the early 1980s he was bruised from having his cherished 1980 Second World War film The Big Red One butchered by an interfering studio. His co-writer on White Dog was Curtis Hanson, who had already written another superb thriller, The Silent Partner (1978), and would go on to write and direct The River Wild (1994), LA Confidential (1997) and the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile (2002). In White Dog, the two men combined pared-back B-movie nous with a moral centre of some reckoning. It’s a crime that the picture has been so under-distributed. This handsome new release, with an authoritative accompanying booklet, goes a long way toward correcting that miscarriage of cinematic justice.

White Dog is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 31 March.