Umberto D

As this week’s Reader is all about pets, I’m devoting today’s Movie Tuesday post to some of the most beloved dogs in cinema history. Filmmakers have been inspiring sympathy with man’s best friend since the silent period, probably because dogs are relatively easy to train and thus mold into effective screen presences. (Charlie Chaplin proved an especially strong director of dogs in The Kid, his first feature.) The early sound era saw the advent of “Barkies,” short parodies of popular American movies starring trained dogs. The ascent of Walt Disney and his beloved brand of anthropomorphism brought more popular pooches, both real (Old Yeller) and animated (The Lady and the Tramp). And the 1930s saw the meteoric career of Skippy, the Wire Fox Terrier who played Asta in the Thin Man series, George in Bringing Up Baby, and Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth.

Dogs have not only added to the entertainment value of popular movies, there’s also a great number of art house films in which dogs make prominent appearances. The Russian cineaste Andrei Tarkovsky was a notable dog lover (his Stalker features a canine as something of a spiritual talisman), and Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki makes a point of including a dog in nearly all of his films. Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, one of the most intellectually challenging films of the past decade, even concludes with a meditation on dogs, with a memorable turn by the director’s pet Roxy. In that passage, the famously gruff Godard gives sincere voice to his love for dogs, asserting that they’re the only creature capable of loving others more than they love themselves. I will neither confirm nor deny this claim, though I will note that Roxy’s liberated behavior makes for a wonderfully direct foil to Godard’s heady narration.

Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies in which dogs play a crucial role.

<i>The Awful Truth</i>
The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth Leo McCarey’s largely improvised 1937 film is one of the funniest of the screwball comedies, and also one of the most serious at heart. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are a pair of world-weary socialites who decide to drop the pretense of their wide-open marriage, but fate and Ralph Bellamy draw them together again. The awful truth is that they need each other, and McCarey, with his profound faith in monogamy, leads them gradually and hilariously to that crucial discovery. The issues deepen in a subtle, natural way: the film begins as a trifle and ends as something beautiful and affirmative. A classic. —Dave Kehr

Umberto D Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini likely deserves as much credit as director Vittorio De Sica for such masterpieces of Italian neorealism as The Bicycle Thief (1947) and this 1952 feature about a retired civil servant (schoolteacher Carlo Battisti) who discovers that his meager pension won’t pay the rent for his room. He’s befriended by a maid in the same flat who’s pregnant but unsure of the father’s identity; apart from her the only creature he feels close to is his dog, and though he contemplates suicide, he has to find someone to care for it. This simple, almost Chaplinesque story of a man fighting to preserve his dignity is even more moving for its firm grasp of everyday activities. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

<i>Mon Oncle</i>
Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle  Jacques Tati’s 1958 film is a transitional work between the character-centered comedy of Jour de Fete and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and the global perspective of his most formally inventive film, Playtime. Hulot is still here, but he no longer occupies the foreground; set off to one side, as the eccentric uncle of a desperately modern family, he is more of a visiting sprite, suggesting a human alternative to the mechanical life forms that occupy the center of the story. Tati hasn’t quite solved the structural problem he posed for himself, but if the film isn’t wholly satisfying, it’s still a very witty and suggestive work from the modern cinema’s only answer to Chaplin and Keaton. —Dave Kehr

<i>White Dog</i>
White Dog

White Dog Samuel Fuller’s 1982 masterpiece about American racism—his last work shot in this country—focuses on the efforts of a Black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) to deprogram a dog that has been trained to attack Blacks. Very loosely adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a memoir by Romain Gary, and set in southern California on the fringes of the film industry, this heartbreakingly pessimistic yet tender story largely concentrates on tragic human fallibility from the vantage point of an animal; in this respect it’s like Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, and Fuller’s brilliantly eclectic direction gives it a nearly comparable intensity. Through a series of grotesque misunderstandings, this unambiguously antiracist movie was yanked from U.S. distribution partly because of charges of racism made by individuals and organizations who had never seen it. But it’s one of the key American films of the 80s. With Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, and, in cameo roles, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Christa Lang, and Fuller himself. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

<i>Animal Love</i>
Animal Love

Animal Love Ostensibly a documentary about pet owners in Vienna, this disturbing 1995 film by Ulrich Seidl looks at assorted lonely hearts who shower affection on their dogs and rabbits. Most of them live on the fringes of society—immaculate spinsters, a straitlaced male couple, two bums who live in a junkyard—and Seidl, whose deliberately provocative portraiture mixes fact and fiction, often films his subjects in grotesque poses suggestive of Diane Arbus. A good half of the film is riveting, as we’re introduced to the various menageries and listen in as the owners talk about the sense of alienation softened by their obliging pets. Yet Seidl can’t get a narrative rhythm going, cutting from one scene to the next without much logic and letting some shots linger too long (is the young couple going at it doggie style supposed to be a visual pun?). Ultimately his curiosity about these disenfranchised souls gives way to disdain, and that’s a perversity in itself. —Ted Shen   v