In an alternate history of American cinema, Samuel Fuller would stand shoulder to shoulder with John Ford and Howard Hawks. If the latter pair constitute the heart and the soul, then Fuller would be its insatiable id. He’s a director almost overcome with ideas, yet manages to channel them through lean, genre-defying works that excel in their blazing energy and passionate devotion to the art form. White Dog (1982) is an odd work, even for Fuller. Ostensibly an allegory about racism in America, it’s a work that layers disparate ideas onto the B-movie form, ending up as an ambitious cross-breed; a biting social satire and Hollywood elegy.
White Dog follows a struggling actress (Kirsty McNichol) who finds a vicious alsatian that has been conditioned by a racist owner to attack any black person it sees. She enlists the help of animal trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) to deprogramme the animal’s behaviour. It’s a lean, pared-down narrative that allows Fuller to create rich thematic textures whereby incidental miscellanea sit comfortably with his grander sociological ruminations. The pointed satire is blunt but executed with the level of clear-eyed intelligence we have come to expect from a Samuel Fuller film; prodding and aggressive but never overbearing. The central question is that of culpability – where is the individual responsible for the dog’s vile behaviour?
Fuller positions the violent and uncontrollable force of racism as a chilling reminder of two centuries of American barbarism. He sharply acknowledges the desire of the establishment to simply kill the beast, combating the immediate problem but ignoring the conditions that led to it. It shifts the emphasis from one beast to another; rage is a kinetic energy that can be diverted by powerful political and sociological drives but, critically, it eludes eradication and is thus impossible to ignore. What’s more, Fuller is one of the very few directors who can move the camera with flair and exuberance without drawing too much attention to himself.
The many swoops and pans in White Dog transform the potentially drab mise-en-scene into a treasure trove of cinephile ephemera. With the high-concept cinematic monoliths of the eighties just around the corner, Fuller takes stock of an industry in flux. We hear of animals being replaced by robots in films; life is ultimately disposable in the mechanised cinematic future. Fuller has always understood that cinema is a delicate balance between magic and artifice; and his genius was in maintaining that through westerns, film noirs and even racial allegories.
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