Monday, December 29, 2008

Film Review #185: White Dog
Director: Sam Fuller
Cast: Paul Winfield, Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives

Early in last fall’s Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s much under-rated homage to the all-Black 92nd Infantry’s role in the Allied Italian campaign of 1944, a group of Black US troops wades across a freezing Tuscan river at dawn while the Fascists on the other side broadcast a personalized message over loudspeakers. Through the fog, a woman’s heavily inflected voice taunts them about their choice to risk privation and death for a nation that still allowed segregation and worse, and urges their defection.

Lee’s long-standing feud with Clint Eastwood about screen portrayals of race issues generally and Black participation in past US wars in particular notwithstanding – I await the next volley since Gran Torino opens here in Syracuse next week – a strikingly similar but smaller-scale scene occurred decades earlier in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951).

The first US movie set in the Korean War, shot and rushed into theaters well before that conflict ended, The Steel Helmet was hardly your usual war-time propaganda flick. Instead, a captured North Korean Communist officer first taunts the Black American medic Thompson (James Edwards), in perfect English, about riding in the back of the bus back home, then moves on to remind Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) about World War II-era West Coast internment camps for Japanese-Americans. These conversations occur beneath the inscrutable gaze of a giant gold Buddha in the temple where the US troops have taken refuge, a statue behind which they literally take cover when the shooting starts.

For Fuller, who earned a Purple Heart for infantry service during World War II, the Korean War was pivotal for portraying US race relations because it could dramatize the shift from segregated units to an integrated US Army, especially for “re-treads” like The Steel Helmet’s Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans’ first screen role) – World War II vets who went back for another hitch and then grappled painfully with changed comrade demographics.

A dozen years later and into the New Frontier, Fuller set Shock Corridor (1963) in a locked mental ward populated with casualties of mid-century American life. A Korean War vet, now believing he’s Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, confides in a lucid moment that his Southern upbringing derailed him more than combat (“My parents fed me bigotry for breakfast – it was a cancer they put in me.”) But Shock Corridor’s real bravura performance belongs to Hari Rhodes as Trent, the delusional Black man who proclaims he founded the Ku Klux Klan and, pillowcase-clad, provokes a violent attack on the ward’s elderly Black janitor “before he marries my daughter.”

Among the juiciest of B-movie-makers, Fuller began as a tabloid crime reporter and pulp fiction novelist. He wrote and directed 29 movies of his own between 1949-89, as the studio system waned and its loosening allowed for the first indie projects. Fuller made full and bracing use of film noir’s lurid, sensational, free-wheeling style to portray social ills in confrontational ways. He took on war, crime, prostitution and, repeatedly, racism.

None of Fuller’s films was more controversial than the 1983 feature White Dog, in which the kindly old grandfather of two golden-ringletted little girls with ice cream cones trains man’s best friend to attack Black people and is terrifically proud of it – all to the melodramatic, spaghetti-Western-like strains of an Ennio Morricone score.

Here, former child star Kristy McNichol plays the itinerant actress Julie, whose car hits the white German shepherd late one night on a mountain road above L.A., takes him to a vet, and bonds with him after the dog intercepts an intruder. Paul Winfield is the trainer Keys, who attempts to de-program the animal (now named Mr. Hyde) at a down-at-the-heels animal park run by a crotchety Burl Ives. Mr. Hyde escapes, strays into a Black neighborhood and gruesomely kills a nattily-dressed man who seeks refuge inside a church against a backdrop that echoes The Steel Helmet’s Buddha, a stained-glass depiction of St. Francis and the beasts. Keys and Julie take the dog in one more time anyway, for a cliff-hanging final training session that evokes Shock Corridor’s lesson that racism – not just a matter of opinion and anything but natural – provokes madness.

Fuller’s script adapted French diplomat-novelist Romain Gary’s memoir White Dog, about his wife’s related experience. Curiously, the project made some Hollywoood rounds before landing with Fuller, who had discussed the Southern custom of training dogs to chase and attack runaway slaves – and its surviving modern permutations – with his old friend Gary when the writer was first at work on the story.

After many advance rumors, Criterion released White Dog on DVD in December, when it made NPR’s list of ten best DVDs of 2008. White Dog resurfaces again years after its brief, belated State-side premiere in 1991, when the still-jittery Paramount Pictures continued to cave to bizarre pressure that the film promoted racism. In any case, Fuller moved to France after Paramount locked up White Dog in 1983, never again making a movie here. Young French filmmakers – who saw White Dog and his other films in Europe – embraced him.

If Sam Fuller isn’t a cinematic taste you’ve acquired, dip in this year.

This review appears in the January 1, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular column reviewing films in current release plus DVDs both new and enduring. Find White Dog on DVD at Netflix, which has a decent selection of Sam Fuller’s other films. Fuller’s 2002 autobiography, A Third Face, is still in print and available at, as is Lisa Dombrowski’s 2008 study of Fuller’s films. And you'll be able to catch Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna on DVD on February 10.