by Barry Meyer
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Blatancy is the new subtlety, it seems, in Hollywood movies. Take a subject like racism. Back 20 or 30 years ago, a movie wouldn’t flinch at depicting the everyday ignorance of everyday people (and likewise, the audience would accept the reflection of themselves, sometimes humbly, sometimes not so). Nowadays you have these extraordinarily unimaginative and cliched depictions of racism flying about in movies such as in the obscenely overrated Crash. Every character in that film utters the most deliberately bigoted statements imaginable, making it impossible to even relate to anyone in that movie at all. I don’t know one person in my life that speaks or acts like any of the characters in that film. But, in the killer canine flick White Dog—a movie made on the cusp of exploitation—there were plenty of reflective characteristics for me to grasp on to.
Kristy McNichol (TVs Family) stars in one of her first adult roles as Julie Sawyer, a struggling young actor trying to make it in LA. Driving home from a gig one night she accidentally hits a German Shepard, and she brings it home to nurse it back to health. It’s perfect timing for her, because that very night a burglar decides to break into Julie’s apartment. The large white dog mauls the criminal, coating its fur in red, and thus claws its way into the young actress’s heart. Little does Julie suspect that her heroic hound is something much more than your average guard dog. She learns this from Carruthers (the legendary Burl Ives), a kindly old Hollywood animal handler whom she goes to for help after her dog attacks one of her black friends. Carruthers duly informs the naïve girl that she has on her hands what is known as a “white dog,” a dog that is trained to attack specifically black people. And although the young lady has fallen in love with the vicious dog, the trainer warns her that there is virtually no hope of un-training a dog of that kind of habit. Jameson Parker (TVs Simon & Simon) plays Julie’s boyfriend—even though he’s almost twice her age—who tries to convince his girl that the dog should be put down. The dog has already killed, so before Julie even thinks of getting rid of her new best friend, she turns to her one last hope—and that would be Keys (Paul Winfield) a black animal trainer skilled in training the most ferocious of animals.
Budding writer (and future Oscar winning writer/director) Curtis Hanson teamed with The Big Red One director Samuel Fuller to fashion this taut metaphorical thriller that explores what it means to be a racist in America. One doesn’t have to be an Archie Bunker like ignoramus to be a member of a tribe of bigots. One need not even utter a racial slur, for that matter. Hanson and Fuller’s shrewd yet restrained script demonstrates that someone as fair-minded and as untarnished as Julie Sawyer is—a young woman who intends harm to no one—can still cause just as much harm with her ignorance as a vicious dog can with his razor sharp incisors. It was this biting social commentary that garnered some mild controversy for White Dog, so much so that the studio only gave it a limited release in hopes that it would just go away. They succeeded. Years later, though, this banishment only helped to fuel its reputation amongst fans of obscure cinema, who seek the thrill of good old fashioned exploitative violence, but who also recognize the underlying ethical questions being posed. Killer canine cinema… with a bite.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in Jersey, but that’s his fault.
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