White Dog

December 17, 2008

White Dog(1982); Dir. Samuel Fuller. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1016791833/   White Dog Movie Trailer

There are films that gather a certain mystique around them because they have attracted so much controversy, were banned for one reason or another, or were so wildly popular that they become representative of the movies as a whole. Then there is Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. This film was tucked away by Paramount Pictures after it was completed because the studio worried that the subject matter would ignite racial tension across the country. It was criticized for being a racist film and for all practical purposes, ignored for many years. This Criterion release is the first home video release of the film and it was not shown in theatres at all.  White Dog, I believe, touched such a raw nerve  because it is the history that many people have lived through and the sense of shame that we have never quite come to terms with. Fuller himself said that the studio were essentially cowards for not backing the picture and those that have spent any time watching Samuel Fuller films, reading his autobiography “A Third Face” or any of the numerous writings on his work, know the difficulty he has encountered throughout his career in finding support for his films. Fuller not only had difficulty getting some of his movies made but also faced obstacles after his films were completed and with the exception of critics such as Manny Farber, his films were not always that well  received in the United States. There are still many of his movies such as Underworld U.S.A., Verboten!, Park Row, The Chrimson Kimono, China Gate, and The Run of The Arrow that are still not available on video; not to mention the dozens of writing credits that he was never given proper due  for.  One of the great American genre directors along with Don Siegal,  Howard Hawks, and William Keighley, Fuller’s films always championed the underdog and never shyed away from topics such as racism, communism, and an unglorified look at war when those were not such popular issues to be discussing in the manner  which Samuel Fuller chose to present them.

White Dog is the story of a dog that was conditioned to hate black people and viciously attacks them until an african american animal trainer steps in to try and recondition the dog. The dominant image in the film is that of the steel cage, referred to in the movie as the “arena,”  in which Paul Winfield’s character Keys fights against the white dog’s engrained racism. The “arena” not only occurs throughout the film as the center of the action but also as an allegory for the combat our society must engage in on a daily basis in order to fight racism in this country. The dog is not simply a symbol of racism in this country but also embodies the sickness and hatred that has been such a part of America’s history and it is in the “arena” that Keys seeks to recondition this white dog to treat blacks the same way he treats whites. While Keys untangles the white dog’s racist instincts, which were born out of learned fear and hatred, Kristy McNichol’s  character Julie Sawyer must come to grips with the reality that this dog has been twisted and contorted by men who hate and that the racism embodied in this dog is very alive in the United States. But Juile’s answer to the problem is to kill it right there. While she might not understand the racism that is in this dog, she wants it stamped out. Keys wants to “cure” racism by retraining the dog. With these two views, Fuller takes us in a direction that is very cynical and unforgiving, yet sadly realistic.

One of the most shocking scenes in the film is when Julie meets the owner of the dog, who has come with his two grandchildren and a box of chocolates to claim the dog. She lashes out at him for making the dog such a horrible monster but the owner is very proud of the dog being a “white dog” and threatens to go to the police if she does not give him back. It is this scene that really captures the themes of the movie best because it is an extension of the “arena” motif that encompasses all of society and how this racism is passed down from generation to generation. This also is important because it illustrates what Burl Ives character Carruthers says earlier in the scene where he is having a meal with Keys and Julie and a police officer stops in to ask for directions. This comes after the dog had murdered a black man in a church. Their guilt is palpable and this is the type of emotional scene that Fuller is best at.  After the officer leaves, Carruthers says that they can never tell anyone what they are doing because no one would understand. Society is guilty of promoting institutional racism and these beliefs are so deeply entrenched that for them to try and undo this would have great consequences.

Samuel Fuller does not flinch away from the difficulty of this subject matter or attempt to force a resolution to the problem. It is a problem that does not have a solution and though Keys and Julie make an effort to defeat the dog’s sickness, in the end it is not enough. If there is any fault in this picture, it is not the subject matter or how Fuller approaches it but in the hurried feeling of the first ten or fifteen minutes. Dialogue is dissapointingly out of synch in a scene where Julie is almost raped by an intruder in her home and collapses on the floor where she manages to call 911 and have the police come out without ever picking up the phone.  This is supposed to be a key scene where Julie’s relationship with the dog that she nursed back to health is firmly set and that makes what she discovers about the dog all that more horrifying. When you watch this movie it is very evident that this was not intended to be viewed as a horror film, even though the attempt was made to market it as such, but instead as a social commentary. It just happens that this particular social commentary comes from a director whose body of work is as rough and tumble as he was, and not the polished, “do you get it yet?” type of commentary one finds in a movie such as “Crash.” It is that rough and tumble feel that makes this film so endearing and tangible because that is often how life comes at us. It is exactly that which makes Samuel Fuller’s body of work so important to American cinema and White Dog such a powerful movie experience.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

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The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967); Dir. Roman Polanski; Warner Home Video(2004)

A movie with the subtitle Pardon me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck would suggest to the viewer that they are about to watch something that is in the same vein(I just couldn’t resist) as Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It or the more accomplished Young Frankenstein. The trailer for the release of The Fearless Vampire Killers sets up the film as a parody of vampire movies by adding slapstick sound effects and there is a short special feature included on the disc entitled Vampires 101 which plays as a farce of how to protect oneself from and kill vampires in the form of a lecture given by a very serious and scholarly professor in a creepy castle. Having watched both of these before the actual film, I was almost expecting a film that was absurd, as well as very blatant and intentional about its efforts to parody classic vampire films.

Parody and satire, over the last several years, have gotten a very bad rap because of such movies as Disaster Movie, Scary Movie, Epic Movie, and the countless drone of films that attempt to lampoon everything in sight that could be classified as “pop culture sacred cows.” These movies show very little production value and operate on the lowest levels of humor by finding actors and actresses that can look or sound like the person they are parodying enough to get a few cheap laughs. I bring these movies up not to set them up as straw men in an easy argument for the merits of Polanski’s film but rather to point out that parody is a very delicate thing often taken for cheap entertainment.

What stands out immediately in The Fearless Vampire Killers is the sets and landscape of the film. The castle where a good deal of the action in the film takes place feels Medieval and haunted. The cobwebs, creaky doors, and other aspects that are so often used as cliches and convenient set pieces really feel like they belong there and add an ominous quality to the atmosphere as Prof. Abronsius and Alfred travel through the castle in search of answers.  The inn where Abronsius and Alfred first arrive at, as well as its inhabitants, seem strange and foreboding in their daily routines. You know from the start that things are not quite right when you see the rooms lined with garlic and crucifixes hanging on every wall. But everyone goes about their business and the innkeeper, Shagal, played with great attention to eccentricity and a great sense of comedic timing by Alfie Bass, is unwilling to disclose what it is all about. The inn and the castle are the only interior sets in the film and the rest relies on the beautiful snowy exteriors filmed by the great Douglas Slocombe(cinematographer on the first three Indiana Jones movies among many others).

This attention to detail and moody atmosphere perfectly compliments the performances given by the actors throughout the film. The characters are played with a seriousness that makes the satire work even more effectively, even when they are unrestrained and bumbling as in the case of Polanski’s Alfred or unabashadly sinister as in the case of Ferdy Mayne’s Count von Krolock. There is the homoerotic son of Count von Krolock, played by lain Quarrier and the wonderful hunchback servant to Count von Krolock, Terry Downes who chases after Prof. Abronsius and Alfred in a coffin used as a sled and refuses to let the undead Shagal sleep in the coffin room with his masters, pushing the coffin outside to Shagal’s neurotic complaints. The comic turns these actors give in the film range from the genuinely creepy to the inept attempts of Abronsius and Alfred to stop the vampires once they have discovered them. The darker undertones of the film seem to play out through these characters as they try to reckon with Count von Krolock and his undead forces while unwittingly doing more harm then good in the end.

There are many times when it is refreshing not to know what to expect from a movie, and this is certainly one of those times. What is unexpected about this film does not come from any scary surprises or plot twists that are supposed to shock us but through the landscape that Polanski creates and the attention to detail that he consistently uses throughout the film. He directs The Fearless Vampire Killers the same way that he would have with any of his more serious films and this gives the movie a charm that draws you in and engages you all the way through. Polanski demonstrates a sense of freedom in directing with a deft touch that emphasizes the satirical aspects of the movie while exploring the possibilities of the story material and this makes it more than just an odd curiosity in Roman Polanski’s long film career.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series gets a tasty but deadly treat with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff.

Charles Jacob

vanheck123@hotmail.com, please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or general thoughts that you would like to share.