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.

Picture: Stavros Damos
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Mark Strong Q&A: “I suspected playing a barrister was more fun than being one”

The actor talks David Bowie, studying law, and his favourite Simpsons episode.

What is your earliest memory?

Sitting in a pram in the sunshine in Myddelton Square, north London, waving at passers-by. My mum used to put me out in the street to keep me occupied, and she and various neighbours would lean on the windowsill and keep an eye on me.

Which politician, past or present, do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela stands head and shoulders above the crowd for his tolerance in the face of extreme suffering and his ability to unite a nation against all the odds.

Who was your childhood hero? And who is your adult hero?

David Bowie. His music and style were unique and he was the first to make me think about individuality and creativity. As an adult, Muhammad Ali, for the same reason – to thine own self be true.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

My theatre knowledge is pretty good, and I particularly love the plays of Arthur Miller – but I suspect it would probably be Arsenal Football Club.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

When Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson were writing and performing their plays and the “Vagabond Act” of 1572 viewed travelling Elizabethan actors as such a threat that regulations were imposed. Sounds like a fun time.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Simpsons. A favourite episode has Homer at the annual Springfield Chilli Cook-Off, where he eats super-spicy chilli made with a dangerous Guatemalan pepper grown by mental patients. The pepper has a powerful hallucinogenic effect and Homer wanders off into the strangest regions of his mind to find his soulmate, accompanied by a spirit guide voiced by Johnny Cash.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lucian Freud for the warts-and-all harsh reality, or Caravaggio for the dark beauty and intensity of his style.

What’s your theme tune?

For sheer drama and danger, Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Put it on your headphones and walk down the street and you’ll see what I mean.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

A very special man named Sydney Stolerman once told me not to become an actor, as it was unlikely it would work out. He jokes to this day that it’s a good job I didn’t follow his advice.

What’s currently bugging you?

Injustice, greed, envy and intolerance. So-called leaders interested only in themselves. People unwilling to observe the social contract.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not being able to be contacted instantly anywhere in the world through modern technology.

When were you happiest?

I was pretty content at university. I had few responsibilities and was learning something I loved and partying with people I still love. But most of all at the birth of my children. An unbeatable feeling.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?

I studied law so perhaps I might have made it to the Bar, though I gave up that idea when I suspected playing a barrister was probably much more fun than being one.

Are we all doomed?

Unless everyone gets serious about climate change and we stop electing world leaders who behave like paranoid teenagers, then undoubtedly. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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