Day of the Doberman

dobermangang_1 Do you love dogs? Of course you do, and so do most moviegoers if Hollywood history is any indication. However, if you had to name the biggest decade for man’s best friend, which one would it be? The heyday of Rin-Tin-Tin in the ‘20s? The arrival of Lassie in 1943 or her TV reign in the ‘50s? Maybe, but for my money the winner hands down has to be the 1970s – and there’s one breed that personified the Me Decade more than any other. Just as the United States was plunging into the chaos of Watergate, the whole country seemed to go canine crazy in 1972 when the most famous comic strip pooch got a theatrical vehicle with Snoopy Come Home and the Newberry-winning novel Sounder became a multiple Oscar-nominated prestige release. However, that year was also ground zero for a decade-long infatuation with Doberman Pinschers thanks to the James Garner comic thriller They Only Kill Their Masters (which has turned up on TCM several times), not the most flattering portrayal of dogs that are inherently docile and loyal family pets unless trained otherwise, and the independent drive-in heist hit The Doberman Gang, which bred a whole litter of sequels including The Daring Dobermans (1973) and The Amazing Dobermans (1976). So successful were these family crime capers involving smart, trained Dobermans pulling off impossible robberies that actors like Fred Astaire, James Franciscus, and Barbara Eden were getting in on the action by the third film. The success of the first film didn’t go unnoticed on TV either, as viewers at home got their own spin when Dobermans were unleashed on James Brolin for an all-night department store hunt in the much-loved Trapped (1973).

dobermangang_2 amazing_dobermans Created late in the 1800s in Germany, Dobermans nearly went extinct after World War II despite their heroic status in combat including the legendary Cappy, figurehead of the World War II Dog Memorial. This longstanding affection went wild in the ‘70s as Dobermans suddenly became as hot as Evel Knievel, iron-on T-shirts, Viewmasters, and Trans Ams. That omnipresence may have had something to do with their ability to be easily trained and move as fast as lightning, which lends itself well to the camera. Devoid of any excess fur that might obscure its expressions, the Doberman could adapt to a director and screenwriter’s demands with its intelligence and persistence allowing it serve as either a hero or villain. You can sample two of the more sinister Doberman staples from the ‘70s on TCM this Saturday night with a double bill suitable for any drive-in, The Pack (1977) and Dracula’s Dog (1978), though it’s really the latter that puts the breed in the spotlight from start to finish. The Pack was part of the nature amuck craze that ran hand-in-hand with disaster movies in the ‘70s, typified by the likes of The Food of the Gods (1976) and the lovably absurd killer rabbit epic, Night of the Lepus (1972). Here we have Joe Don Baker (still sort of fresh off the success of Walking Tall in 1973) reuniting with Golden Needles director Robert Clouse (best known for 1973’s Enter the Dragon) and headlining a cast of small towners on an island where dogs abandoned by vacationing guests have formed a bloodthirsty wild pack roaming the premises. A Doberman does some pretty nasty work as one of the pack leaders, though it’s often overshadowed by Josh, a mixed-breed canine who pushed dog trainer Karl Miller to the limit on the set. Don’t worry, the realistic dog fights and attack scenes were all carefully supervised without any animals harmed along the way… but you might want to keep the family dog out of the room while this one’s on. the_pack_1 the_pack_2 Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first movie to hit theaters about a pack of domestic dogs gone rogue to hit theaters; in fact, less than a year earlier in 1976, the indie Dogs with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. star (and part-time crooner) David McCallum fending off a furry attack in Chula Vista, California mostly centered around a college campus. Of course, a Doberman figures prominently in the action here, too, running with the pack and occasionally breaking away from it. dogs Directed by Albert Band (dad of Full Moon Pictures founder Charles Band), Dracula’s Dog has had an uphill battle since its release due to the inherent absurdity of its title (and the one it’s had in Europe and most recently on home video, Zoltan, Hound of Dracula). However, if you take it as part of the wave of vampire films that invaded movie theaters all the way through 1979, it has some fun little wrinkles to add to the lore and features one of the most memorable Doberman performances in movie history (complete with glowing eyes and fangs when required). The plot involves the vampiric pet of Count Dracula (Michael Pataki, who also got his fangs on for Grave of the Vampire six years earlier and gets a dual role here) pulling the stake out of the body of the Count’s devoted master (Reggie Nalder from Salem’s Lot), unleashing a wave of terror that crosses the Atlantic to America. There are some lively, memorable scenes here, most notably the climax with Zoltan bathed in moonlight as he chews his way through a cabin roof, and Oscar winner gives it more gravitas than you’d expect as the main inspector on the case. On top of that it features the most adorable “shock” ending you’ll ever see in a monster movie; it’s totally spoiled in the trailer, but I’ll be more restrained here and leave you to discover this frightfully fuzzy punchline all by yourself. draculas_dog_2 draculas_dog_1 If you asked any ’70s kid to name a favorite Doberman movie scene, chances are fingers would point straight to either the Doberman Gang series or the live-action Walt Disney classic, Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), which cues us that scheming millionaire Ray Milland is up to something right away when he spirits away kiddie heroes Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards) to his Monterey lair where he keeps a whole kennel of Dobermans ready to do his bidding. Of course, our telepathic alien protagonists end up running from the dog pack when they try to escape and use their powers to turn the dogs against their human masters, all in G-rated fashion of course. Though their screen time is limited, the Dobermans are so memorable they became the primary visual motif of the film’s animated opening credits. witch_mountain_1 witch_mountain_2 However, my vote for the greatest Doberman scene of all time has to go to the climax of Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys from Brazil (1978), which lacquers thick Hollywood gloss over the exploitation cinema stories of renegade, escaped Nazis performing foul experiments in South America (The Frozen Dead, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Flesh Feast, etc.). The bizarre casting of Gregory Peck of refugee real-life monster Josef Mengele is still capable of inducing cognitive dissonance in many film fans, with Sir Laurence Olivier as the Nazi hunter unraveling a twisty plot concocted in a novel by one of the decade’s preeminent masters of the jigsaw story, Ira Levin (who penned this, his last novel for fifteen years, after The Stepford Wives and just before his smash play, Deathtrap). I won’t ruin the specifics of the story if you’re unfamiliar, but it’s fair to say that it all comes to a head when Peck and Olivier end up facing off in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania where the genetically unusual son of a Doberman breeder stands between them, the dogs at the ready to attack on command (using film production jargon, no less). It’s a moment everyone remembers from this film with Olivier and Peck generating acting sparks at last and the tightly-coiled dogs in the room adding a wordless layer of tension that ratchets up by the second. Where most thrillers would wrap up with an elaborate chase or a whiplash series of twists, this film goes against expectations with what amounts to a chamber room face-off, and it’s a gamble that pays off spectacularly. The Boys from Brazil So what is it that made these lithe, angular creatures such cinematic darlings for so many years? I’d say it’s because they’re dramatic tension in the flesh, as you can see in that scene above, with an inherent cleverness that can keep an audience guessing about their next move but often proving wrong. (Just check out the clever ending of The Doberman Gang, which takes this idea to an amusing extreme.) Though you can still spot them in films now and then ranging from a protracted chase scene in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) to the animated aerial fantasy of Pixar’s Up (2009), the days of Dobermans as headliners appear to have passed us by… but every dog has its day, and unlike many fellow breeds, they had a whole decade.

11 Responses Day of the Doberman
Posted By robbushblog : September 14, 2016 2:18 pm

I was wondering recently why Dobermans aren’t as common as they used to be. I think it’s because pit bulls have stolen their thunder as the feared breed du jour. And maybe Zeus and Apollo had something to do with Dobermans losing their scariness.

THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL are both terrible entertaining movies. I’ve seen THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL multiple times, and would watch THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS again in a heartbeat, due to garner and the great stars from yesteryear who filled out the cast. I’ve never seen THE DOBERMAN GANG or THE PACK, but now I wanna.

Another Doberman I remember was in the Harry Dean Stanton caper film THE BLACK MARBLE. In fact, the only thing I remember about it was that there was a Doberman in it. It’s been well over 30 years since I saw it.

Posted By Nathaniel Thompson : September 14, 2016 4:30 pm

Ah yes, THE BLACK MARBLE — I miss the days when Dobermans would randomly pop up in ’70s crime films. THE LONG GOODBYE is another one; you could almost write a book on this topic!

Posted By Leesa : September 14, 2016 6:01 pm

I love Zolton! When VHS was just starting in the 80′s I started my search for Zolton Hound of Dracula. It was one of the last drive-in movies that I saw. After many years of searching I finally found it in a 6 pack of horror movies. My favorite campy movie! If you watch it make sure that you watch to the very end. The last shot of the movie is the best!

Posted By Doug : September 14, 2016 9:13 pm

Image is everything- Dobes are sleek and sinister, Poodles are clown dogs, a St. Bernard is the canine equivalent of John Candy who…go ahead…say it…made us love Barf.

Posted By robbushblog : September 15, 2016 2:37 am

“Not in HERE, mister!”

“No, that’s my name. Barf. I’m a mog – half-man/half-dog. I’m my own best friend.”

Posted By arm : September 16, 2016 4:58 pm

Montgomery Burns on the “Simpsons” tv show has a pack of killer Dobermans for guard dogs

Posted By Jenni Giesey : September 16, 2016 6:16 pm

Watched an old Columbo last week, and British actor Nicol Williamson played a psychologist who skillfully trained his two dobermans, Laurel and Hardy(yeah, Williamson’s character was also a classic film fan)to kill the man who had had an affair with Williamson’s wife.

Posted By Doug : September 16, 2016 11:28 pm

Just today I saw a friend walking with his mini Pinscher-very cool!

Posted By EricJ : September 17, 2016 5:07 am

And what about the unusually intelligent Dobermans that wouldn’t stop chasing Fred Ward through the defense plant in “Remo Williams: the Adventure Begins”?

Posted By swac44 : September 19, 2016 4:40 pm

We had a next door neighbour with a Doberman, that dog terrified me as a child. Seeing ads for movies like this (and, of course, Escape to Witch Mountain) didn’t help their standing with me any.

Posted By Annie : September 19, 2016 5:49 pm

I remember They Only Kill Their Masters. I loved that movie back in the day. Try making that movie with Golden Retrievers.

I don’t recall seeing any movies where Dobies were the good guys. I’ve known a few Dobermans over the years and they are never as fearsome as they look.

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