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The Day of the Dolphin

The Day of the Dolphin
Home Vision Entertainment
1973 / b&w / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 104 min. / Street Date July 29, 2003 / 29.95
Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver, Jon Korkes, Edward Herrmann, John Dehner, Severn Darden, Elizabeth Wilson
Cinematography William A. Fraker
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Art Direction Angelo P. Graham
Film Editor Sam O'Steen
Original Music Georges Delerue
Written by Buck Henry from a novel by Robert Merle
Produced by Joseph E. Levine, Robert E. Relyea
Directed by Mike Nichols

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In 1973, high-toned theatrical talents Buck Henry and Mike Nichols scaled their ambitions down to thriller melodrama and came up with a tale of interspecies communication that not only overcomes its pulpy assassination plot, but wholly transcends itself. We walk away from The Day of the Dolphin with a new respect for other life forms.


Intense researcher Jake Terrell (George C. Scott) and his fellow marine biologists have taught rudimentary human speech to two dolphins, Fa and Bee. Their secret project is violated by outside interests - spy agencies represented by slippery intelligence agent Curtis Mahoney (Paul Sorvino), and an odd group of men unconcerned with science, but 'associated' with the foundation that funds Terrell's project. Away for a pre-emptive press conference, Terrell leaves his aquarium compound in the hands of his first assistant David (Jon Korkes), not knowing there's a complicated conspiracy afoot.

After a decade of being insulted by Ivan Tors TV shows, that taught us that all animals were funny creatures that knew how to share a joke with canned laughter, the ecological eye-opener The Day of the Dolphin received a warm welcome from audiences, at least in Sierra Club-friendly Los Angeles. In his interview on the disc, writer Buck Henry makes light of his scripting effort, but the fact is his story plays like a charm, making novel use of the gimmicks of at least three subgenres.

The dolphins are the real subject here. They're aesthetic-friendly in the extreme, with slippery smooth bodies and permanent smiles. A few minutes' observation and we see the flex joints between head, torso and tail. In two speeches, George C. Scott covers what is known about them, and what's been theorized. Their entire world is tactile and sensual. Their 'language' may be much more sophisticated than we know.

Anthropomorphism is the bane of animal pictures. Long before Disney animated a rodent, filmmakers made animals entertaining by giving them human characteristics, and thus helped keep our general awareness of them at a nursery-school level. Lassie, Flipper, Gentle Ben and the majority of their brethren may physically behave like animals, but their filmmakers endowed all of them with human emotions, moral wisdom, and sometimes clairvoyance.

The Day of the Dolphin jumps into fantasy material by mixing up dolphins with Koko the Talking Gorilla. The source story had its cetaceans learning English and conversing fluently. Buck Henry's script keeps their banter down to a dozen or so one-syllable words (including some phonetic sounds, like 'sh' that it's hard to picture a dolphin making). Fa and Bee are 'anthropomorphosed' to the extent that they dearly love Jake Terrell and are capable of loyalty and obedience. Their playfulness is equated with that of intelligent puppies. Their purity and devotion is almost divine - they're capable of unlimited trust. More to Henry's main theme is that they're God's creatures, like us, but unspoiled by human Sin. The Day of the Dolphin was the biggest sci-fi heartstring movie until 1977's Close Encounters.

The first part of the film is pure wonderment. We see the live birth of a baby dolphin, a fully-developed creature immediately ready to swim and follow its mother. Fa's speech is built up gradually, so we strain to hear what he has to say, instead of giggling at his baby-doll words. The speech is so believable, I'm sure The Day of the Dolphin inadvertently convinced thousands that English-speaking porpoises were a reality.

For those enchanted by the sleek, even sexy, animals, the 2nd-act introduction of the conspiracy plot is unwelcome. George C. Scott has already isolated the two lover-dolphins Fa and Bee to force them to continue speaking English, which was cruel enough. After the caring and enlightened attitudes of Terrel's crew, the insensitive businessmen who come to glare at Fa and Bee seem intolerably arrogant.

1974 is the official year of the 'Watergate' conspiracy film, but 1973 brought us the first examples of the subgenre: the Kennedy conspiracy film Executive action and this science fiction thriller. The miracle dolphins Fa and Bee are kidnapped not for their linguistic achievement, but for their ability to follow orders in a fairly credible assassination plot.


Henry's script does a good job with this development, cleverly misleading the audience (an annoying spy turns out to be an ally) and injecting the story with credible action and feel-good thrills. It's basic, 'Lassie, go warn the sheriff!' stuff, but I have to admit that when Scott dispatches Fa to rescue Bee ("Fa - go - NOW!") and Georges Delerue's deceptively emotional music underscores the dolphin taking off like a shot to perform his mission, 1973 audiences went nuts with approval.

Buck Henry disdains his achievement, but The Day of the Dolphin maintains a deeper level of maturity that expresses a compelling, slightly pessimistic philosophy. All along, Jake Terrell has been hinting at the superiority of dolphins over humans, and the end gives us an eerie insight. (spoiler) Jake and Maggie Terrell's dreams are in ruins, with government spies or maybe even assassins closing in on them. Their helpers scatter into the palm groves, while they cut their ties with Fa and Pa and send them out to the open sea, 'away from the things of man'. Like Frankenstein (or some conceptions of God), Terrell disowns and denies his creations, telling them he is no more. The bleak final image isn't empty nihilism, but the most powerful scene in ecologically-oriented filmmaking. Jake and Maggie sit apart, like Adam and Eve cast from the Garden of Eden - in this case, the sea. The scene stresses their legs, while the Earthlings still 'in a state of grace', the finned dolphins, cry out their names in the distance.

The Day of the Dolphin has an apocalyptic theme. Instead of struggling to survive some atomic disaster, the mankind pictured here has developed into an Earth-killing infestation of technology and greed. The film offers the sobering thought that the cosmos and its natural splendor might be better off if Man just made himself extinct.

My memories of The Day of the Dolphin from when it was new, was that it seemed a mish-mosh of audience-pleasing tricks combined with half-baked sci-fi and unwelcome conspiracy plotting. Maybe it's the passage of time, or a more mature outlook on my part, but it now plays as one of Mike Nichols' finest. The direction is elegant and unfussy. The dolphins are often incorporated into complicated one-shot scenes, instead of always being dealt with in Ivan Tors-style cutaways. This is one 'mad scientist' picture where the techno hardware is credible and unobtrusive. Richard Sylbert's designs as photographed by Bill Fraker are a pleasure to watch. The time of day is sensitively registered and even the changing texture of the water is felt.

Cantankerous George C. Scott aquits himself well and doesn't over-project. Wife Trish Van Devere is an appropriately concerned companion, and Paul Sorvino an ambivalent CIA spook. All are sublimated to Nichols' careful direction, so that actors like Edward Herrmann, Fritz Weaver and Severn Darden (all frequently associated with liberal films) make maximum impact with a minimum of screen time. John Dehner (a creep in a lot of Westerns, and just written up for Scaramouche) minimizes the rough edges of the jerk-villain-conspirator. Jon Korkes is excellent in a thankless role ... he played the waist-gunner with his guts hanging out in the dream sequences of Nichols' Catch-22.

Needing special mention is Elizabeth Wilson, whose brief bit as an executive secretary expresses the conspiratorial tone better than three hours of Oliver Stone movies. She has that intimidating kind of corporate face that pretends engaging interest, while really projecting sphinxlike hostility. Anybody who's ever gone through the humiliation of a human resources interview knows the type. Mike Nichols is able to stop his probe of the conspiracy with her - we never see any higher, nor do we have to. An organization with a public rep like this, could be into Evil of any degree.

Matte whiz Albert Whitlock is listed for special effects. They must be good as I've never detected any obvious optical jiggery. Creature From the Black Lagoon alumnus Jordan Klein shot the underwater material, which is utterly fantastic.  1

HVe's DVD of The Day of the Dolphin is a stunner. The film looks brand new, with only an occasional speck of dust on its beautifully designed images. There's a Dolby 3.0 track of sparkling clarity.

The extras are a bit disappointing. Nathan Rabin's liner notes (from The Onion) are a condescending joke, that extends to the 'Dolphin bio' text extra, where Fa and Pa are said to have worked with disadvantaged children after filming ended. Ha ha. Perhaps this was all prompted by Buck Henry's self-deprecating interview. He should see the movie again, as it has aged better than much of his other work - The Graduate being a still-important movie that's dated terribly. Actress Leslie Charleson's interview is mostly about trivial anecdotes. Edward Herrmann's talking points are more movie related, and he does relate the idea that by being able to talk to God's unspoiled creations, Jake Terrell might be talking to God. But where's Nichols or producer Robert Relyea to talk to the core of the production?

A final text extra is the World's Most Amazing Dolphin Trivia Gallery. The disc's menu design cleverly incorporates Fa's dolphin speech with an ocilloscope pattern. I fear that the attractive cover, which doesn't even show a dolphin, might not grab buyer attention on shelves, but it's a damn sight better than the original poster artwork included as an insert. On it, George C. Scott is presented as a two-fisted frogman ready to take on snipers, exploding yachts and sexy babes. It looks like the illustration for Live and Let Die. On second thought, the poster's hype probably filled theaters in 1973, and great filmmaking did the rest.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Day of the Dolphin rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interviews with screenwriter Buck Henry and co-stars Leslie Charleson and Edward Herrmann, World's Most Amazing Dolphin Trivia Gallery, Dolphin Bios, Essay by film critic Nathan Rabin
Packaging: nicely-chosen lime-green Keep case
Reviewed: July 22, 2003


1. The underwater photography here is some of the best. There's one pan in a water tank from a funnel whirlpool, over to a seated researcher in an underwater port, that's so clear you'd swear there's no water being used. Other shots of the dolphins are effortless-looking. I know because I was the poor editor in the early 80s who had to roll through thousands of feet of Sea World dolphin & whale footage, looking for a decent jumping shot to help sell Shamu and Namu. Watching through a camera from above water, the animals never appear where you think they will. Countless slowmotion shots held on still water, only for the dolphin to leap up off-camera, every time.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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