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

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.


Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Poldark is the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers insist it is.

So Poldark has become the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene to spice things up. We’ve sat through them in outrage-courting Game of Thrones, in cosy Sunday night drama Downton Abbey, and even at the opera. Now, they’ve come to BBC period adaptations, too.

This is how the scene plays out (a detailed description of the events leading up to the rape follow):

Poldark (Aidan Tuner) turns up at his friend Elizabeth’s bedroom door in the middle of the night, in a rage. She suggests he come back tomorrow morning. He refuses. She suggests they relocate downstairs. He refuses. She suggests he should not be in her bedroom. He refuses to leave, and shuts the door behind him.

They argue about Elizabeth’s plan to marry an enemy of Poldark’s, a decision that disgusts him. She asks him to leave, again. “I’m sorry you feel like this, but I cannot help it,” she tells him. “Oh, you’ve never been able to help anything, have you?” he says, mockingly, adding, “well, perhaps you can’t help this either,” kissing her forcefully before she pushes him off her.

Poldark threatens her, approaching her again as he insists, “I oppose this marriage, Elizabeth. I’d be glad of your assurance that you will not go through with it.” She says again that she will be married. Poldark kisses her again against her will. She tells him she hates him. “You would not dare,” she pleads, looking at the bed. “I would, and so would you,” he says. He pushes her onto the bed. You can guess the rest.

Of course, this is a rape scene. Some say it isn’t – because Elizabeth shows signs of enjoying the sex, and she’s nice to Poldark the next morning, because she has (or has had) feelings for him. None of these things are relevant. Poldark verbally pressured and physically forced a woman who was refusing to have sex with him. That’s rape.

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers and cast insist it is. Andrew Graham, the son of Poldark novelist Winston Graham, who was a consultant on the BBC's current screen adaptation, said:

“There is no ‘shock rape’ storyline. The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole. Doing so it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth's immediate reactions and later mixed emotions, that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing. It was, as Aidan Turner has put it, ‘unfinished business emotionally’.”

His opinion was supported by Poldark screenwriter Debbie Horsfield as well as Turner – who said the scene “seems consensual”.

This is not how consent works. Consent is not something you can assume based on “earlier scenes”. And it’s certainly not something you can retrospectively achieve based on the “immediate reactions” or “later mixed emotions” of someone you forced to have sex with you. That’s just you attempting to justify the fact that you raped someone.

The idea that Poldark knows Elizabeth so well that he knows what she truly wants (sex with me, the man of her dreams, duh!!) might seem romantic. But no love is so great that it imbues the lover with the ability to read minds. Implying that Poldark knew best peddles the dangerous myth that when women say no, they mean yes. Beliefs like this create rapists. The only way to know what someone wants is to ask them, and to listen to what they say. Elizabeth said no.

Adapting period material can be tricky – not least in its presentation of women, gender dynamics, and sex. The Poldark books are from the Fourties, and set in the eighteenth century. It’s a miserable state of affairs when the understanding of consent presented on primetime television, in 2016, is as dated.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.