A parable condemning racism’s vicious bite as being much worse (though no less immoral) than its bark. Director Sam Fuller’s mauling narrative begins with a neutral gray screen haunted by simple black and white text. Suddenly off-screen, tires screech on rough blacktop and we hear the painful whimpering of an injured animal.
Kristy McNichol plays Julie, an aspiring actress, whose compassion in rescuing the injured animal soon saves her own life…and eventually takes another’s. As she begins to understand the complexities of this beautiful dog, she seeks the help of a professional animal trainer names Keys, wonderfully portrayed by Paul Winfield. Fuller’s metaphor is as subtle as the Holocaust, showing the killing ovens of the local animal shelter, the possible fate for this German Shepard; a fate that Julie will do anything to avoid, her heart bursting with empathy for this animal whom she believes is victim, trained to be something that is inherently against its nature. Fuller often cuts to extreme close-up of all three characters: Keys, Julie, and the dog, as they share such intelligent and profound deep brown eyes, a two-way mirror to their souls. The violence is brutal and unflinching as the dog’s white fur becomes matted with bright red gore, its menacing snarl exposing the sharp incisors that cut and tear like cruel weapons. When a black man is killed by the dog (in a Church under the watchful avatar of Saint Frances of Assisi, no less!), Keys, Julie, and Carruthers (another dog trainer), become accomplices to this savage death even though their goal is to cure the dog. It’s a moral dilemma that the characters continue to struggle with throughout the film and Fuller doesn’t offer any tepid answer.
Through ferocious trial and error, Keys risks his own life to break the dog of its racist upbringing by showing it love and kindness. And here I believe the film is misunderstood: as the dog is finally freed of its inhumane bondage, it escapes Julie’s heartfelt embrace and attacks Carruthers, bulbously acted by Burl Ives. But Fuller introduces us to the original master of the dog a few minutes earlier: an overweight middle-aged man with two freckled daughters, and he looks very much like Carruthers. Does the dog now attack any white man, its training irrevocably reversed, or was it seeking revenge by mistakenly identifying Carruthers as its original racist mentor? Depending on your interpretation, the whole mood of the film is altered. And herein lays the power of Art, to examine these subterranean deep-rooted issues, as we should seek to come together as the human race and obliterate racism and bigotry.
Final Grade: (A)