When Los Angeles actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) was driving home one night, she ran over a dog that raced out across the road in front of her car, and finding it still alive, she picked it up and took it to the nearest vet's surgery to see if it could be saved. As it turned out, it had just taken a bad knock and Julie opted to bring the animal home with her, reasoning she could put posters up around the local area to attract the attention of the actual owner. But as the days go by and no answer to those advertisements is forthcoming, she grows closer and closer to the dog, a white German Shepherd, so when her house in the hills where she lives alone is broken into, she discovers something alarming about it...
Which is that this beast is an "attack dog" trained to maim and even kill as part of a security team - or is there a more sinister reason for its bloodlust? Why, yes there was, and that reason was the source of so much controversy at the time it was supposed to be released that Paramount suffered cold feet and White Dog was left on the shelf in its native United States, mostly being seen in a limited European distribution where its director Samuel Fuller was still very well regarded. The problem? The whole premise of the movie was judged to be racist, and there are still those who believe to this day that its entire concept was reprehensible, as if Fuller was somehow endorsing prejudice he had spent his career railing against.
Fuller and director-to-be Curtis Hanson wrote the script, basing it on Roman Gary's novel which in turn had been based on an account of a real life incident where he and his then wife, Jean Seberg, had come into possession of a hound that had been trained to attack black people, which the film carried over into its drama. Naturally, the sensible thing to do would be to have the animal humanely destroyed, but it would be a pretty short film if they did that, so trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) is brought in to teach the dog a lesson, seeing this as a big opportunity to rewire the beast's corrupted circuits and rehabilitate it. Unfortunately for Fuller, all the naysayers heard was the first bit: a white dog kills black people.
You can divide most movie pooches into two categories: the devil dog, your Cujos or Zoltans for example, or the resourceful man's best friends, your Lassies and Benjis, yet the subject here is curious in that he falls between two stools. Certainly he is a danger to the public, and a specific area of the public at that, but Julie remembers how he saved her from that rapist and feels responsible for his wellbeing, so if there's a chance he can be cured then so much the better for her guilt and society in general. The film poses the question: can an ingrained attitude such as racism be un-learned? The dog, explains Keys, only knows black people as a threat therefore lashes out to get in the first strike, so he sets about showing him he has nothing to fear from his race.
The answer to all this is ultimately a pessimistic one; the hatred must be channelled somewhere and finally, though Keys may have succeeded in one way, the dog essentially turns against what it sees as the type of person who made it the killer it was. And it is a killer, escaping at least a couple of times throughout the running time and ends up slaughtering some hapless African-Americans who don't stand a chance from its slavering jaws, which is the closest Fuller, who cameoed as Julie's agent, ever came to directing a horror film. All the way through you wonder when the bigots who taught the dog will turn up, which leads to a surprise near the end. Does McNichol's character ever lock her door? And more importantly, do the police ever investigate the dog's crimes?! This was well-meaning in theory, but in practice it did look naive and artificial, as racism doesn't exactly exist in dogs the way it does in humanity. Watch for animal trainer Burl Ives using R2-D2 as a dartboard, a spot of editorialising from Fuller, who stung by his experience left Hollywood for good. Ennio Morricone wrote the edgy score.
Pioneering independent director, best known for his tough 60s thrillers. Fuller began his career in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, and after a spell in the army and many frustrated years as a writer, directed his first film in 1949, the Western I Shot Jesse James. Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, was the first movie to deal with the Korean war and was a huge success. Other films Fuller made in the 50s include Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Run of the Arrow.
The 1960s saw Fuller deliver dark, ground-breaking thrillers like Underworld USA, Shock Corridor and the infamous The Naked Kiss, which divided critics with their mix of melodrama and brutal realism. Fuller subsequently found it hard to find employment in Hollywood and largely worked as an actor throughout the 70s. The 1980 war movie The Big Red One was something of a comeback, but his next film, the anti-racist White Dog caused yet more controversy, and it has rarely been seen in its intended form. Fuller's final feature was the 1989 crime drama Street of No Return, although he worked in TV until the mid-90s. Died in 1997 aged 86.