Oct. 1 2010 12:00 AM

The misunderstood message movie


It must have seemed like a great
idea to all concerned back in 1981. Paramount Pictures wanted a “'Jaws’ with
paws” horror film; teen star Kristy McNichol was looking for a project that
would help her make the transition to adult roles; director Samuel Fuller (“Shock
Corridor,” “The Naked Kiss”) needed a big hit to continue his comeback. But
what they found was a movie that was ultimately too hot to handle.

The sad story behind “White Dog”
illustrates how a misunderstood message movie sparked a controversy that
derailed careers. Fuller’s still-startling film will be shown at 9 p.m. Friday
at NorthStar Center, 106 Lathrop Street.

It’s amazing something as
potentially incendiary as “White Dog” was even put into production by a major
studio, but, as with so many things, it was all in the timing. “Dog,” based on
a semi-autobiographical book by Romain Gary, had been on the back-burner at the
studio since the mid-1970s when it was supposed to be directed by Roman
Polanski. With potential strikes by the Writers’ Guild and the Directors’ Guild
on the horizon, Paramount executives were anxious to stockpile as many pictures
as possible and rushed “Dog” in front of the cameras.

Curtis Hanson (later to direct
“L.A. Confidential” and “8 Mile”) collaborated with Fuller on a screenplay
about a young actress, Julie Sawyer (McNichol), who saves an injured German
shepherd, only to discover she’s been caring for a “white dog,” an animal
trained by racists to kill African-Americans. Although Julie is advised to have
the dog destroyed, she insists on taking him to Keys (Paul Winfield), a black
trainer who thinks he can change the dog’s programming, using B.F.
Skinner-style behavior modification techniques.

Keys runs an animal refuge called
Noah’s Ark with his elderly partner, Carruthers (Burl Ives). “Can’t nobody
unlearn a dog,” Carruthers insists, but Keys is certain he can complete his
mission in five weeks. Winfield skillfully navigates the rivers of emotion
flowing through Keys, who is clearly no stranger to prejudice and persecution;
in Keys’ confrontations with the dog, editor Bernard Gribble cuts back and
forth between the frenzied eyes of the snarling animal and the glacial glare of
Keys, daring us to guess which one is ultimately more dangerous.

There are a few freakishly funny
moments in “White Dog,” including a bizarre, possibly ad-libbed line from a
police officer as he arrests a man who assaulted Julie (“Same damn rapist I
nailed last year!”) and some weird walks down Memory Lane from Carruthers, who
detests America’s obsession with technology and hurls syringes at an R2D2 dart
board. It’s also easy to chuckle at the fuzzy tops, pastel-colored pants and
Olivia Newton-John headbands in Julie’s oh-so-early-‘80s wardrobe.

But even when McNichol’s clothes
are comical, the sincerity in her performance demands she be taken
seriously. At the time “Dog” was filmed, McNichol was at the peak of her
career, having just wrapped up a four-season run in ABC’s acclaimed series
“Family” that brought her two best supporting actress Emmys. She’d had a
surprise box office hit with the summer camp comedy “Little Darlings” in 1980
and had just completed filming “Only When I Laugh” with Marsha Mason. Although
Julie may not be a complex or particularly fascinating character, McNichol
gives her an impressive balance of vulnerability and volatility. When Julie
finally erupts, it’s not a showy, “polish up that Oscar for me” tantrum: She
sputters and repeats herself and gets caught up in loops of anger, just like a
normal person in an emotionally charged situation. Honesty and
straightforwardness were always McNichol's trademarks, and they are very much in
evidence here.

Fuller was not a director given to
pulling punches, and he builds the intensity to an almost uncomfortable
level in some scenes. Far from being an enjoyably scary monster movie, this is
a chiller that truly shakes you up, its foreboding mood constantly accentuated
by Ennio Morricone’s gripping score (permeated with quietly churning pianos and
strings that sound like muted sirens) and the outstanding cinematography of
Bruce Surtee.

“White Dog” is ripe with unsettling images and offbeat
directorial choices. In one sequence, the dog attacks a victim in an empty
church. Although Fuller does not spare us from the anguished screams of the man
being mauled, the camera drifts away from the violence and settles on a stained
glass window depicting, of all people, St. Francis of Assisi. Similarly, when
Keys pulls a gun on the dog during a standoff,
the camera moves in not on the barrel of the revolver, but on
Keys’ finger caressing the trigger. It’s not the weapon that will possibly kill
this creature, Fuller is telling us, it’s the fury of the man who is wielding it.

For Fuller and company, the
trouble began even before the cameras rolled. After the NAACP voiced concerns
about the material, a representative was invited to supervise the filming;
apparently, that wasn’t enough to calm the organization. “When you train a
white dog to kill black folks, that gives the KKK and other white supremacist
organizations ideas,” said Willis Edwards, then-president of the NAACP’s
Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter.

But if Edwards had bothered to
wait until the film was completed, he might have seen that “White Dog” is an
indictment, not an endorsement, of such practices. The screenplay attacks the
sick minds responsible for turning the dog into what one character calls “a
four-legged time bomb”; instead of being intrigued by the situation, the
filmmakers are repulsed. One of the most terrifying moments occurs when Keys
explains to Julie how racists can teach a dog to “attack black skin,” as he
puts it: Hire an African-American wino or junkie to beat the dog regularly
until it learns its horrible lesson.

Rumblings about a possible NAACP
boycott led Paramount to nix a nationwide release of “Dog” in the spring of
1982. There are no signs the studio even bothered to make up marketing materials for it, such as posters or a trailer. Ultimately, the movie played a one-week test run in Detroit before being quietly
shuttled off to the late-night cable TV graveyard. The film cost $7 million to
produce and brought in less than $50,000 during its brief run.

The bad buzz around the film
tarnished McNichol’s reputation (and her subsequent appearance in the campy
Australian musical “The Pirate Movie” didn’t help a bit); a disgusted Fuller
left America altogether, spending his remaining years in France.

Neither of them had any reason to
be ashamed. "Dog" is a hard-hitting horror film with a staunchly
anti-racist theme, and it’s exceptionally well played by Winfield and McNichol.
Even without the controversy, it’s unlikely “White Dog” would ever have become
a box office hit. But it remains one of the most disturbing films of its day, a
movie that goes straight for the jugular — just like its namesake.

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