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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SRSLY #86: Beauty and the Beast / Missing Richard Simmons / The Night Of

On the pop culture podcast this week: Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the ethically dubious podcast Missing Richard Simmons and HBO crime drama The Night Of.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below.

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Beauty and the Beast

The trailer.

Anna’s pieces on the gay storyline and what’s changed from the animated version.

Missing Richard Simmons

The podcast.

Is it ethical?

The Night Of

The trailer.

For next time:

Caroline is playing the mobile game Prune.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

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Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #85, check it out here.