Mean Dog Blues gets off to a decent start. After the AIP logo (always a promising sign), Fred Karlin’s smooth lounge-rock score accompanies credits that include these heartening words: “Scatman Crothers as Mudcat.” Shortly afterward, shaggy-haired protagonist Paul (Gregg Henry) abandons his useless car on the side of a desert road near a stand of Joshua trees by saying, “Goodbye, Old Paint,” then wanders off to his next adventure carrying only his guitar and a suitcase. By this point, viewers have learned that the cast includes George Kennedy, Kay Lenz, Tina Louise, and William Windom. As the saying goes, you had me at hello. Although it’s not exactly downhill from there, Mean Dog Blues never builds the desired head of steam. Nonetheless, it’s enjoyable in a disposable sort of a way. (Sadly, it's also homophobic, par for the course in B-movies of this vintage.)
After dumping his car, Paul hitches a ride with Victor (Windom) and his wife, Donna (Louise). Things get tricky a few hours later, when Donna hits on Paul while Victor gets drunk at a roadside diner. Imprudently, Paul remains in their car afterward, so he’s a witness when Victor hits a 10-year-old kid. Politically connected and wealthy, Victor claims Paul was behind the wheel at the time of the accident, so Paul gets slapped with a one-to-five stretch at a prison work farm. Predictably, the commandant, Captain Omar Kinsman (Kennedy), is a sadistic redneck who cares more about the welfare of his favorite bloodthirsty Doberman, Rattler, than he does about the health of the convicts under his supervision. Paul decides the best way to survive his prison term is to take a dangerous job as a “dog nigger” (seriously, that’s the phrase used through the movie), so his work involves running through wilderness while guard dogs chase him for training exercises. Meanwhile, Paul’s wife, Linda (Lenz), agitates for his release.
So much of the picture comprises scenes of Paul getting chased by the dogs that everything else gets pushed to the sidelines. Lenz, for instance, is barely in the movie except for a sequence during which a creepy guard bedevils her during a prison visit. The great Crothers has even less screen time. Of the film’s many underused supporting players, Louise probably comes off best because one doesn’t usually expect an adequate performance from the Artist Forever Known as Ginger. Kennedy is Kennedy, growling and stomping his way through scenes, while Henry, later a strong character actor, makes an ineffectual lead.
Mean Dog Blues: FUNKY