What do you get when you pair Tom Hardy with a dog called Rocco? Screen magic! Only cynophobics and Hardy haters will be able to resist the combination of Brando-esque shambling and puppy-nuzzling that takes centre-stage in The Drop, adapted by Dennis Lehane from his own story, Animal Rescue, and a creditable English language debut for Belgian director Michaël Roskam.
“The actor and the puppy had a very good rapport,” reports the American Humane Assocation, which oversees animal action on American movies. You can say that again. They might as well have renamed the film How Cute Was My Pitbull. Noomi Rapace is in there too, playing another of her damaged women with scar make-up, but she doesn’t stand a chance – it’s man and dog who forge the most memorable bond in this slow-burning study of criminal lowlife. But when it comes to bonding, dogs take precedence over women, every time. Especially when it’s a telepathic Bearded Collie in the film of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog.
Even outside the confines of major dog movies such as Lassie Come Home, Marley and Me or Beverly Hills Chihuahua, there is nothing like a pooch to add that “aaah” factor to a film. They provide a handy shortcut to make a taciturn character likeable – only sociopaths and the irredeemably allergic fail to have their cockles instantly warmed by proximity to a puppy. And sociopaths too have their dogs, even if, like Bill Sikes (played most memorably by Robert Newton in David Lean’s 1948 version of Oliver Twist, but also by Tom Hardy in the BBC’s 2007 serial), they treat them cruelly. In Lean’s film, it’s a toss-up as to whether Bullseye the Bull terrier tracks down Sikes because he loves his master – or because he’s deliberately leading an angry mob to Sikes’s doorstep.
Hardy’s Bob Saginowski isn’t the only movie hard man to have had his heart softened by velvety paws and nuzzleworthy fur. In the dystopian fantasy Equilibrium, Christian Bale is at his most po-faced as a totalitarian enforcer whose chemically suppressed emotions begin to bubble up when he accidentally skips a dose of “Prozium” and has his nose licked by an adorable Bernese Mountain Dog he rescues from routine extermination. And uptight FBI agent Val Kilmer taps into his nature-loving Native American heritage with the help of a three-legged canine sidekick in the interesting thriller Thunderheart.
Whereas a monologue might seem a little weird and unnatural, animal companions give human characters someone to talk to when they’re on their own in a scene, and also provide film-makers with opportunies for cute pet reaction shots and cutaways. When the action takes place within the home, this animal is usually a cat. But when the film is set in the great outdoors, or when the human protagonist is a nomadic drifter, the animal of choice is the dog – not least because a cat would probably just leave its human in the lurch and run off with the first interloper to offer it food.
Thus, even a loner like Mel Gibson has a canine sidekick in Mad Max 2, and there’s an entire subgenre of action-comedies in which cops are partnered by dogs. Tom Hanks (giving something of a masterclass in ad-libbing opposite an animal co-star) shares the screen with a slobbery Dogue de Bordeaux in Turner & Hooch, while James Belushi plays opposite a German Shepherd in K-9 and its sequels. Sometimes, a pooch has to be sacrificed to incite the loner to action, like Mark Wahlberg in Shooter, who emerges from self-imposed rural exile with the line, “You don’t understand how serious this is. They killed my dog.” And we’re not talking about any old dog – this was an especially clever dog which fetched him beer from the fridge.
Dog-lovers can sometimes find themselves on tenterhooks, caring more about the animal’s fate than that of the human characters. I had to be assured the golden-brown mixed breed emerged from the film unscathed before I would agree to go anywhere near Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (not that it mattered, because, thanks to Michelle Williams’ heartbreaking performance as a cash-strapped migrant worker, I ended up bawling my head off anyway). And for many years I refused point blank to watch Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D because I’d heard the pensioner protagonist’s Jack Russell died in the final scene. (Watch this clip at your peril – and not just because of spoilers. You’ll probably need a hanky.)
Small terriers, like Umberto’s D’s, have long been popular movie scene-stealers. Terry the Cairn Terrier, who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz, survived being stepped on by one of the Winkie guards, and earned more than most of the human actors on the film. A talented Wire-Haired Fox Terrier called Skippy played not just Asta in The Thin Man, but also the bone-stealing dog in Bringing Up Baby, and the object of a custody dispute between Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in The Awful Truth. If Lassie has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, then surely Toto and Asta deserve one too.
After the success of The Artist, Uggie the Jack Russell was invited to leave his paw prints in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but he was only the latest of a long line of clever terriers who performed clever tricks in films like Age of Consent, The Mask and Beginners. It’s a cheap way of getting our sympathy and holding our attention – but it almost always works.
Of course, while the animal is usually alone with its human companion on screen, what the audience never sees are the trainers controlling their dogs’ apparently spontaneous performances with hand signals, verbal commands and treats. We’re never aware of them, of course, since they’re standing out of frame and their voices are edited out in post-production. But a sneaky peek at what it actually takes to capture a great canine performance would make a great scene in a movie.
ETA: I think it was Independence Day (1996) or maybe Twister (1996) that kicked off a trend for dogs surviving disaster movie disasters (while a gazillion human beings died offscreen, but who cares about them). The trope reappeared in Volcano (1997), Dante’s Peak (1997), Armageddon (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2012). Here’s a supercut:
But it looks as though this cliché may have finally run its course. Back in 1988, dog lovers didn’t find it very funny when three Yorkshire Terriers were killed off in slapstick ways in A Fish Called Wanda, but it seems that filmmakers are once again killing off dogs for laughs. We’ll give John Wick (2014) a free pass, since Keanu Reeves slaughters everyone who had even a peripheral connection to the tragic death of Daisy, his Beagle puppy.
But in the Netflix movie Polar (2019), Mads Mikkelsen plays a hitman who acquires a cute puppy called Rusty, only to almost immediately shoot it dead while in the throes of a traumatic dog-related flashback. Another dog is killed onscreen in Calibre (2018), another Netflix film, but this is part of the general carnage and heavily sauced with moral dilemma. And a dog killer is on the loose in Under the Silver Lake (2018); it’s all part of the intricate jigsaw of David Robert Mitchell’s Los Angeles conspiracy paranoia panorama, but there are fan theories (aired on Reddit, foe example) that the film’s protagonist (Andrew Garfield) is himself the guilty party.
In Alita: Battle Angel (2019), a stray dog gets splatted right in front of the eponymous semi-robogirl (albeit just offscreen from our POV); she paints her face with its blood and immediately goes on the warpath after the culprit. The filmmakers issued an easter egg on YouTube and Twitter in which the dog survives, as a semi-robodog, though this would surely have been more effective as a post-credits stinger to the actual movie.
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in October, 2014, to tie in with the U.K. release of The Drop. It has since been edited and added to.