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The Criterion Collection presents
White Dog (1982)

"Can't nobody unlearn a dog. Nobody."
- Carruthers (Burl Ives)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: January 05, 2009

Stars: Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives
Director: Samuel Fuller

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:30m:00s
Release Date: December 02, 2008
UPC: 715515033923
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The aura around this movie has for years given it the air of mystery and of menace—this was the Samuel Fuller film too dangerous for us to see! Well, here it is, and the high seriousness of the fuss around it seems really silly once you've seen the movie, which deals glancingly with important issues, but really is an exercise in cinematic absurdity. The deadpan style makes it of a piece with Fuller's most lunatic films, like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor—so much of it is preposterous, and Fuller is kind of brilliant about keeping you unsure as to whether or not he is in on the joke. All of this doesn't make the movie very good, though, which is a disappointment.

1970s television icon Kristy McNichol plays Julie, a struggling actress with an inordinately spacious home in the Hollywood Hills—one night she hits a dog with her car, and carts the poor thing to the local vet. She has to foot the bill, and soon develops an affection for the pet, which is repaid many times over when the dog foils the attack of an attempted rapist one dark and stormy night. But the movie-of-the-week premise about a girl and her dog soon goes awry when we discover that the little pooch is a white dog—that is, not one with white fur (though he is that), but rather a dog trained to attack and kill black people. Once the thing lunges at Julie's African-American co-star on a shoot, you'd think someone here would have the good sense to put the dog down—but then, good sense is often lacking in the mad world of Samuel Fuller movies.

Instead Julie embarks on a quest to reprogram the beast, and lands at an animal training facility just outside of Los Angeles—it's a great little pocket of Movieland, the place where elephants and monkeys and tigers are kept and trained for their roles in films, and presiding over it is Burl Ives as Carruthers, all pissed off that sci-fi movies are going to put him out of business. (In a great visual flourish, he's got an R2D2 poster he uses as a dartboard, viciously sending tranquilizer darts into Artoo at any opportunity.) The man rising to the challenge is Keys, played by Paul Winfield, an African American who has long wanted to undo what some insane puppy trainer has wrought, and the rest of the movie, more or less, is about him as the white dog whisperer.

We're frequently asked to read the movie metaphorically: if racism can be expunged from a dog, maybe it can be purged from society as well, no? Well, no. The clumsy racial politics of the piece just kind of point up the stupidity, giving a cloying air of what would later be called political correctness to a tale of dogs gone wild. (Truly, the animal at the center of this film is remarkable—he's been given help by an abundance of growls on the soundtrack, but with his fangs bared and spittle and blood all over his front, he makes Cujo look like Benji.) Subtlety was never Fuller's strong suit, and he doesn't even attempt any here—the performances and the dialogue are so direct and unadorned that they can make you cringe, and they don't help to sell the premise. A lot of the time you're wondering if every single person on screen isn't simply a moron, or if they're all just out of their minds; and then you realize that you're sitting there watching them all, so maybe the joke isn't on them, after all.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Lots of the footage shot in the San Fernando Valley looks bleached out, and much of the film looks overlit; but the transfer is a pretty clean one.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Ennio Morricone's simpering score can be off-the-charts loud at times, though that seems to be by design; the mono track is limited but clear.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 11 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. photo gallery
  2. text interview (see below)
  3. accompanying booklet
  4. color bars
Extras Review: Four-Legged Time Bomb (44m:36s) features new interview footage with co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson (who moved on to greater glory with L.A. Confidential, among other pictures), co-producer Jon Davison (surrounded by props and set elements from the movie), and the director's widow, Christa, in a salute to the cult of personality to the man they refer to as "Sammy." It's actually an informative look not only at the man, but at the history and evolution of the project. The text of an interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller is on the disc as well, with frames alternating between the text of his remarks and stills from the set; a more extensive collection of snapshots is available in the DVD's photo gallery. The accompanying booklet features an essay by J. Hoberman on the history of the project, another by Armond White on its racial politics, and an "interview" "conducted" by Fuller with the performer who plays the title character, identified here only as DOG.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A deeply strange movie that couldn't possibly live up to the hype of years' worth of suppression. Still, it's kind of a riot and you've got to respect its commitment to its own lunacy, even if, despite its professed intentions, it will do absolutely nothing to advance a discussion of anything in America.


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