“White Dog,” Sam Fuller’s last studio film and indeed his last American film, never got a real release in this country. Paramount gave the movie a test screening in Seattle and reportedly a run for less than a week in 1982 at a Detroit theater tucked away in a downtown office building.
Why this happened depends on how you look at it: Either the studio caved into boycott threats by the NAACP or used those threats as an excuse to shelf a film the studio had already deemed commercially problematic.
Recently Elvis Mitchell, programming curator at FILM Independent at the L.A. County Museum of Art, showed “White Dog” on the 30th anniversary of its non-release. This also happens to be Fuller’s centenary, having been born August 12, 1912, in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I’d like to say multitudes of Sam Fuller aficionados turned out for this rare event but instead — more about this later — only about 40 people came for the June 5th screening.
While aware of the controversy swirling around “White Dog,” I personally never had a chance to see it. (Yes, it has been available since 2008 on the Criterion Collection, which released it as a DVD, but I don’t think I’m alone in wishing to sample a film, at least for the first time, on the big screen.) While not the “lost masterpiece” one might hope for, “White Dog” nevertheless makes a fascinating and compelling metaphor for race relations in America that has not dated despite the fact an African-American occupies the White House.
The film is made in Fuller’s usual tabloid style with hysteria, sentimentality and violence jockeying for dominance with no side really winning. The film is unafraid to stage a key dog training session at night with lightning and thunder all around. If anyone else had done that it would have seemed cornball but somehow Fuller always got away with things like that.
The film’s performances are solid in the three key roles and Bruce Surtees’ camera work involving the various stunt dogs that play the title character is remarkable. The film speaks directly to the viewer about racism and doesn’t go all soft when it counts. Finally, the film leaves you, as Mitchell noted, with more questions than answers.
A struggling actress played by Kristy McNichol (who unaccountably appears to live off Mulholland Drive) accidentally hits with her car and then rescues a white German shepherd. Over time she learns that her now beloved new pet is a “white dog.” This is a dog trained by a white racist to attach black people.
The actress takes the canine to a Hollywood stunt dog trainer (Burl Ives). He refuses to try to retrain the animal — he insists it can’t be done — but his associate who happens to be black (Paul Winfield) takes on the challenge.
The film, written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson, was adapted from Romain Gary’s 1970 nonfiction novel. It was a personal story since Gary, then consul general of France, found himself the owner of a “white dog” when his wife, the famous actress Jean Seberg, brought home a stray German shepherd. In the book a Black Muslim retrains the dog to attack white people.
Fuller would have none of that and changed the storyline so the attempt was simply to recondition the dog — if possible.
A bit of background on the screenplay: Studio head Robert Evans bought rights to Gary’s novel and commissioned a script by Hanson who hoped to make his directing debut with the film. After Evans left the studio, it bounced around with Tony Scott and Roman Polanski attached as director at various times. The project was revived in 1981 when the threat of union strikes forced studios to rush projects into production, A new producer, Jon Davidson, turned to Fuller to make the film quickly, perhaps at Hanson’s suggestion.
Howard A. Rodman, the screenwriter and a professor of screenwriting at the UCS School of Cinematic Arts, who spoke with Mitchell following the LAMCA screening, said that Fuller was a mentor to Hanson so he knew that Fuller was looking for work. In his memoir, “A Third Face,’ Fuller writes that he and Hanson had ten days to deliver a finished script so they went to work “talking out each scene excitedly then banging out pages of action and dialogue, hardly stopping to sleep.”
This no doubt suited an old deadline newspaper reporter like Fuller but it’s a lousy way to write or even to rewrite a screenplay. Of course, we can’t be sure that a longer writing schedule would have yielded a better drama but “White Dog” does show signs of hasty writing and clunky dialogue.
Rodman also said Fuller wanted to cast the Ives role with actors along the lines of Burt Lancaster, Burt Reynolds or Lee Marvin. Just as well that didn’t happen as having such a star in the third role would have thrown off the dynamics among the trio of actors. As it is, McNichol is the story’s emotional heart — she doesn’t want to believe her dog can’t be “cured” — Ives is a sage bystander, not quite a Greek chorus but disbelieving in the retraining program, while Winfield becomes its point of obsession, a man who swears that if he fails he’ll find another white dog and another until he does succeed.
The easy-to-digest story behind the studio deep-sixing the film is that the NAACP caused a stir by protesting that the film would push a racist message in its depictions of the dog’s actions. While it’s true the NAACP expressed concerns, Rodman pointed out that the studio’s top brass, which in those days was Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, were expecting a different movie altogether.
“Eisner wanted ‘Jaws With Paws,'” said Rodman. “But he got weird, philosophical, wrenching digression on racism. In films such as ‘Steel Helmet’ and ‘Shock Corridor,’ it’s pretty clear where Fuller stands on the (race) issue. But in those (previous) films, the conflict is expressed in a punchy and tabloid way. This one you feel in the gut.”
So it’s unclear how much of an airing the studio ever meant to “White Dog.” There was an infamous failed test preview in Seattle. The latest version Rodman said he heard just recently was that the studio substituted the film for a comedy the audience had turned up for but told the crowd that people could get their money back if they didn’t like “White Dog.” Not the best way to test your movie!
One of the film’s strengths is how it films the dog especially the eyes. It’s as if the film wants to climb into the animal’s mind for its point of view. Tracking shots are from ground level and the film intercuts the shepherd’s eyes with those of the human actors.
“The studio really didn’t like the intercutting of the eyes animal and human,” Rodman noted. He added that for the dog’s leaps onto black people, Fuller and his animal trainer (Karl Miller) had the dog run up ramps to make them more frightening.
I would agree with Rodman’s assessment following the screening when he said this was a much stronger and more moving film than he remembered.
“There’s more tenderness and more audience emotional involvement,” he went on. “It’s what you hope someone would do after a long career in filmmaking – go to the places of the heart.”
The disgust over his treatment by Paramount was still raw in Fuller’s mind when he penned the memoir he never lived to see published. His verdict: “It was 1982. Reagan was president and the Republicans had the country’s morality by the balls. Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. … It was little consolation that the movie was released later in Europe to rave reviews. A prominent Swedish critic wrote that ‘no one has used the color white in such a dramatically symbolic way since Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick.'”
So Fuller, his wife and small daughter packed bags and flew back to France to begin a 13-year, self-imposed exile. That was a sad day for the American cinema but this June night was a glorious one for the LACMA film program.
Now about the low turnout for what can only be described as a major event for cineastes needing a break from comic-book heroics this summer. This is my first time at LACMA since FILM Independent took over programming duties at the Bing Theater. But for me, who can well remember turn-away crowds at the Bing, it was sad to see so few people at the Fuller event. So is the problem that the word about the programming is not yet out? With sponsorship from the New York Times and Ovation as well as the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you would think that can’t be the problem but perhaps it is. Or, more troubling really, are the cineastes all home watching films from their Criterion Collection?
Let me know if you’ve got an idea. Movies belong on all platforms. But nowhere do they live and breathe as they do on the big screen.