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December 03, 2008

White Dog

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Samuel Fuller - 1982
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

I was not surprised when I first found out that Jon Davison was the producer of White Dog. During my first year at New York University, Davison briefly ran a semi-public cinematheque where I saw 16mm prints of Run of the Arrow, Hell and High Water and The Steel Helmet. Like Peter Bogdanovich before him, Davison attempted to revive Samuel Fuller's Hollywood career. Unlike The Big Red One which got a theatrical release following a severe edit, White Dog went straight to cable in the U.S. following rumors of racist content.

I might have seen Fuller's version of White Dog had the chief of Denver's short lived cinematheque not chickened out. Instead, Pick Up on South Street was presented. My souvenir from that evening is a signed copy of Fuller's novel 144 Picadilly. My other memory was the surprise in seeing how short Fuller was, barely breaking five feet, and his calling me "young boy", which I learned later was how he addressed a friend of mine who was also in his Thirties.

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The only time I had previously seen White Dog was on cable, in a version that was not quite what Fuller had intended. Seeing it again, what struck me were certain visual motifs and use of color in the film. Before we see the white dog we see nothing, a black screen with the sound of a car in an accident. The first image is of Kristy McNichol. The sweater she is wearing prefigures the image of the dog with the use of an irregularly patterned red against white. There is also the allusion to other animals with McNichol's car, a Mustang, while her boyfriend drives a "Beetle" which is also the same color red as in the sweater. This same unsubtle shade of red is used in the berets worn by McNichol and Lynne Moody in the scene they are filming, a film within the film that is a recreation of the gondola scene in The Naked Kiss.

Even though the story originated with Romain Gary's novel, the relationship between McNichol's character, Julie Sawyer, and the dog, thematically is a continuation of Fuller's other films. Several of Fuller's films are characterized by the relationship between a male character who acts independently of society's rules and a woman, who may be an outsider herself, who attempts to "save" the man. Julie's attempts to keep the dog from being destroyed and to have it re-trained are in essence not dissimilar to the relationships of Richard Widmark and Jean Peters in Pick Up on South Street or Peter Breck and Constance Towers in Shock Corridor.

In the DVD supplement, Davison describes Samuel Fuller as loquacious. If there was ever a filmmaker who should have recorded a DVD commentary track, it would have to have been Fuller. It would have been nice to know how deliberate a visual joke it was to have a truck crash into a dress shop named Oscar's. The filmed scene that recalls The Naked Kiss is directed by Marshall Thompson, dressed like Fuller with the omnipresent cigar. In the supporting cast are past Fuller cast members Neyle Morrow, Richard Monohan and Parley Baer, as well as Fuller's wife, Christa Lang, and daughter, Samantha.

More significantly, Fuller reshaped Gary's novel so that the conclusion is almost a canine version of Shock Corridor. This comparison is two-fold both with Hari Rhodes' black Klansman - modeled after James Meredith and surprisingly prescient in light of Meredith's disavowal of the civil rights movement and his association with Jesse Helms - and Peter Breck's breakdown at the moment he discovers the truth about the murder of a former patient. The ending of the White Dog is consistent with many of Fuller's films, a pessimistic view of America that stubbornly is as valid in 2008 as it was when Fuller made his film, or when Romain Gary wrote his novel.

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Posted by peter at December 3, 2008 12:00 AM

Comments

I've never seen White Dog, but I've wanted to for many years. I enjoyed your write-up and it's inspired me to make an effort to see the film soon.

Posted by: Kimberly at December 3, 2008 12:50 PM

I love this post. I have always been afraid of White Dog but when it's released I will definitely make an effort. Hmmm, does this qualify as the one good movie Kristy Macnichol ever made?

Posted by: Campaspe at December 4, 2008 09:10 PM

Kimberly and Campaspe: I hope you see White Dog and let me know what you think.

As far as this being Kristy McNichol's one good film, I guess that depends on how highly one rates Little Darlings. By the way, Fuller's first choice was Jodie Foster.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 4, 2008 11:18 PM